The Poor Professor



Here is a portrait of the poor professor—and by implication, the good professor--as seen by students, at least as noted on some 100+ professors as rated by students on RateMyProfessor. My method was simple: I examined the comments on some 100+ professors at random. I simply plugged in a school—some colleges and some universities, some public institutions and some private or religious--and selected names, some male and some female—at random. Nothing terribly scientific but reasonably fair, it seems. I then grouped the comments into general categories, though, as you’ll see, there is considerable over-lapping.

The portrait of the professor who is not well liked that emerges is amazingly clear. Students regularly note similar traits and behaviors that they consider “poor teaching.” Here are ten characteristics that seem to be identified over and over again. These also suggest—to my mind at least--that students’ expectations for professors are realistic, reasonable, and achievable.

These ten items seem to identify—at least in part—the professor who students do not like and to whom they give poor ratings. These are not necessarily the same items that we’d discover if this were a list of “ineffective” professors. For example, one of the things that students resent is the professor who gives directions that are vague and ambiguous; students dislike the professor who doesn’t make directions explicit. But, it can be argued that in some situations ambiguous directions might be preferred because they encourage creativity more than would explicit instruction. So, being liked and being effective are not the same. Yet, they don’t seem totally different either.


1.      Unrealistic or unexplained expectations. This disliked professor is one who sets unattainable or only vaguely articulated expectations. This is the professor who assigns a term paper but doesn’t really explain what is expected and what might constitute a great (A) paper. A variant of this is the professor who doesn’t follow the syllabus or the textbook to the point where the direction of the class is not clear to the students. Students prefer the professor who establishes reachable, achievable expectations. And they prefer it when these expectations are made clear at the beginning of the course.

2.      Little learning. Students are concerned with wasting their time and not learning something from the course and they criticize the professor who uses videos to the extreme, has guest lecturers do the teaching, or has students give reports rather than lecture. It also includes the professor who rambles or tells stories instead of sticking to the subject of the course and the material on which the students will be tested.

3.      Difficult to understand. This general category includes the professor who speaks on too advanced a level or who doesn’t relate the frequent details to the general principle. It also includes the professor who is difficult to listen to because he or she is simply boring (a designation found repeatedly in student comments). Often students feel that the professor is talking to graduate students or colleagues rather than to undergraduates. Students want a professor who communicates clearly and simply.

4.      Rudeness. This was a very common thread and includes, for example, the professor who intimidates students or is sarcastic or is disrespectful or dismissive. Students seem quite concerned with politeness, more so than popular media presentations might have one think.

5.      Unfair, overly difficult, or unexplained testing. Students want to do well on tests and resent the professor who makes this difficult or impossible. Tricky tests or tests on items no one would expect are universally resented. Related to this are the professors who don’t explain the grading procedure as well as those whose grading is overly harsh. Professors who are praised, on the other hand, are noted as being fair and being clear in what they expect you to do on a test, essay, or speech.

6.      Self-absorption. Students resented professors who bragged or talked too much about their own accomplishments. Students find this intimating and insulting—as if to say, “I’m better than you are and here are some of the many reasons….” Also, included here would be the professor who talks about personal issues and problems in class and, in effect, wastes class/student time. Vacations, family, travels, and personal accomplishments seem among the items most often mentioned and generally resented. Students want professors who stick closely to the topic at hand and who explain the relevance of any personal asides.

7.      Unfairness. Professors who are politically or culturally biased, for example, are resented. Another type of unfairness that was noted with particular frequently were professors who were perceived to grade on the basis of whether or not they liked the student. Students want a level playing field.

8.      Inappropriate focus. The professor who focuses on incidentals as in frequent lecture detours that have little to do with the topic as well as those who focus on spelling and grammar seem universally disliked. Often the case for the importance of the details and of spelling and grammar has not been made—at least not as students see it.

9.      Unfriendly, unapproachable. Students dislike professors who are aloof, arrogant, and intimidating. The well-liked professor, on the other hand, was described with such terms as approachable, accommodating, helpful, and cares about students.

10.  Doesn’t listen. This category includes professors who ignore student comments, suggestions, and complaints as well as professors who dismiss arguments against their own expressed opinions. It also includes professors who miss or arrive late for appointments with students or who don’t respond to emails (within some reasonable timeframe), indicating, again, a kind of disconfirmation. Students have a great need to be heard and appreciate the professor who gives them time and attention.


Julie Vickey said...

Really helpful post, thanks...
I personally think that it is always wonderful to be direct, simple, clear and complete.
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Polly Molton said...

We don’t worry about the professor’s work too much until we need to write our dissertation. We just think that he is not the person who influences all our life and it is Ok if he has some drawbacks. Bur when you need to accomplish your thesis, you understand that this work demands lots of knowledge, skills and experience. That’s why the consultations with professor are vital. Otherwise, you need Dissertation Writing Laboratory Support to create a well-structured paper, meeting all requests. That’s why, if you see that you have a poor professor it is better to apply earlier.

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