James Madison University

Psychology Lecturer Receives Top Professor Rating

By: Jordan Pye

PHOTO: Kimberly D.R. DuVall teachingThis March, psychology lecturer Kimberly D.R. DuVall earned one of the highest honors college students can award: the ranking of top-rated professor in the nation on the popular website RateMyProfessor.com.

Although the site is an offshoot of a music channel, MTVU, and DuVall is not technically a professor – she became a full-time lecturer and adviser in the Department of Psychology last year, after teaching at JMU for 20 years as an adjunct professor – loyal students rated her just below a perfect 5.0 score for her course on Life-span Human Development. According to over 132 ratings that span the past six years, DuVall earned a 4.9 for helpfulness and clarity. Comments left by raters praise her as “the epitome of a good professor” and “helpful not only in class but for other daily activities in college,” claiming students will “always leave class smiling because of her funny stories, her crazy examples, or the life advice she gives you.” Students attest she is “by far the sweetest and most caring woman on this campus,” and “the 350 word limit [to leave a comment] is no where near enough to speak as high of Prof. D as [they] would like.”

DuVall first heard of her ranking when a Washington Post reporter called her asking for an interview. Despite all the hype, DuVall is slightly skeptical of the award herself, although she’s been told the ranking is similar to a People’s Choice Award, and the sample of student opinions voiced in the ratings have a high correlation to end-of-year course evaluations. DuVall has even received this recognition before – she ranked number 23 in the top 50 highest-rated professors on the same site in 2007, even though she is a master’s-level lecturer. But she thinks there are good, bad and ugly aspects to this notoriety.

PHOTO: Kim DuVall teaching“I don’t know whether I can legitimize it - I worry about RateMyProfessor, normally I try to forget it exists,” DuVall said, adding she feels lucky that complete strangers and students who fail her course haven’t obliterated her ratings. “This is kind of a weird occurrence, I think, because there are so many good professors at JMU especially. The psych department is so unusual compared to psych departments at some colleges where they focus on research over teaching.  I teach in a department where every one of the faculty love to teach as well as conduct their research.”

Since the recognition DuVall has received requests to appear as a guest speaker on teaching pedagogy from several JMU departments, other universities and even government agencies. She’s even received job offers based on this new credential, but swears she loves JMU and has no intention of leaving. Visitors from other schools, public relations staff and miscellaneous people trying to catch a glimpse of the nation’s top-ranked professor will line the back of her lecture hall to watch DuVall teach, but she hasn’t changed her teaching style and only adjusts her lectures based on student comments from course evaluations.

“I don’t know what it is I do, but number one, I love psychology,” DuVall admitted. “I never thought I’d be a teacher, but I love psych. I think teachers who go into teaching K-12 love to teach, and they want to teach. People [who] go into teaching in college want to share their enthusiasm for the subject, and I just love that I get to go in there and share this.”

DuVall doesn’t record attendance for her Life-span and Human Development course, but said she feels rewarded when students fill the hall for each lecture.

“I rarely get majors, so what I find is I may be the only opportunity for these business, math or computer science majors to ever see what psychology is about,” DuVall said. “So when they say to me ‘I thought psychology was bunk, and then after your class I really see that it’s useful,’ I think, ‘Yes!’”

Freshman Kenny Parker, a kinesiology and dietetics double major, said he enjoyed DuVall’s clarity and use of teaching examples that ranged from YouTube videos to personal stories that give the class a more social aspect.

“The fact that she is so open about her life experiences make her very approachable, which to me, as a freshman, is very important,” Parker said. 

Freshman Alexandra Janka said she also enjoyed ‘Prof. D’s’ relatable, personal touch, and thought the number one ranking was well deserved. Junior biology major Chelsea White said she plans to add her own rating to DuVall’s RateMyProfessor page, and her comments “will be nothing but praises for her ability to connect with her students on a completely different level and make the material truly come alive.”

Second-year graduate student Emily Kibler, who is also DuVall’s assistant, took DuVall’s course in the fall of 2004 as an undergraduate psychology major, when the class size was much smaller.

“Some of the assignments have changed, but Prof. D as a person is the same,” Kibler said. “Students love her because she helps them understand material in a way that is meaningful for them. She cares, which is so important, especially in a class that many freshmen take.  It's nice to have the friendly face in the front of the class.” 

DuVall also attributed her success to her love of JMU students and their academic curiosity, and said she especially enjoys teaching underclassmen and the general education population.

“I think that JMU students are really great – I’ve taught here since ’88 and I have seen them getting smarter and smarter and more challenging to teach,” she said. “You can’t just spit out information, they’re going to raise their hand and ask you to prove that.”

DuVall advises students to be wary of RateMyProfessor.com’s reviews, and emphasizes that a large enough sample size is needed to consider the ratings statistically accurate. To her, the best ratings are from students saying they took something away from a class, or were able to apply what they learned to their real lives.

“I tell students if you see more than 50 ratings, look at them, but take them with a grain of salt,” DuVall said. “Look at the trend, [whether students are] saying things like ‘he’s a good professor, he really got the point across,’ and not ‘oh, she’s so nice’ or ‘she’s so easy.’ It’s nice to be nice and it’s nice to be liked, but I want to be an effective teacher, and that’s my goal.”

DuVall isn’t worried about her future rankings, and doesn’t intend to let the website affect her teaching.

“I’m not sure what will happen with this RateMyProfessor, it’ll probably be like the Sports Illustrated jinx – once you get to the top, that’s it, you go downhill from there,” she said. “There’s going to be more pressure but I won’t change for that, I’ll change for the students like I always do. I am always looking for ways to be more effective in the classroom and my students are my best resource for this information.”