The Universal Student Ratings of Instruction on Infonet has not lived up to its potential. Don't get me wrong, it certainly gives me a sense of immense satisfaction to see awful profs score some very low points. The frustrating part is, of course, seeing instructors scoring undeserved good marks. What's worse is that the information on display can easily mislead students into sitting through painful lectures or missing out on some really great learning experiences.
I'll be the first to admit the USRI plays a role in my course selections even though it's not perfect. Several categories divide the instructor rating scoreboard, these include "enough detail on course outline", "support materials helpful", "student questions responded to", etc. Okay, first of all, the only relevant categories here seem to be "communicated with enthusiasm" and "evaluation methods fair". Second, as far as stuff like "I learned a lot in this course," I just don't give a damn.
Some students use the rating system only to dodge bad instructors. Take one look at all the categories and you will notice that any instructor's unfavourable characteristics can only be hinted by a short horizontal teal bar. If an instructor scored low on "students treated respectfully," there's no way of figuring out what this means. Does this disrespectful instructor yell at students or is it because nobody appreciates his use of foul language? I guess these things will remain mysteries as long as the university doesn't revise the system.
How about adding some new categories to the ratings. Imagine more useful categories like "instructor humour", "instructor's amazing ability to not repeat themself", "lectures are not identical to reading materials" and "tolerant of opinions outside the scope of instructor's own personal beliefs" added to these Scantrons--at least that would help me a great deal. The last thing I want is a boring and humourless prof who not only thinks students are illiterate by instructing the same things over and over again, but despises those who hold different views on controversial issues.
The scale is also misleading. From "strongly disagree" to "strongly agree", sometimes the scores provide a wrong impression for students. For example, there are teachers who communicate very enthusiastically and subsequently score high there, but they only do this in an annoying Paige-Davis-from-Trading-Spaces kind of way. Some grey zones need to be addressed here for the sake of accurate discernment. The scale should also include "strongly agree but not in a good way", "agree but only if I care" and "strongly disagree especially when my instructor is in a bad mood."
As far as the whole concept of instructor rating is concerned, it's probably more useful to post critical reviews online available to all who have the patience to read them. Since the university is already paying technical staff to distribute and process the Scantrons, I think we should also hire five to 10 smart critics to write instructor reviews just like how newspapers and magazines pay skilled critics to review movies. We can display perspectives of random people: a review by a hardcore nerd, another one by a constantly hung-over Den resident, etc. Everyone will get a kick out of reading these reviews full of scandalous details! Also, they will definitely make wiser choices in the future.
Instructor ratings can be, on some level, totally ridiculous. The fact remains that many instructors' jobs are partly evaluated based on the statistics gathered by the feedback of usually less than half of all course-attending students. Some instructors lose promotions or even future contracts because of these scores. Towards the end of each course, the opinions of students suddenly matter, so it's important to stay honest and just report things as they are. People can debate about the merits of having this system, but as long as it exists, I'm hoping that it will become more useful someday.