How Do Students Decide Which Courses to Take?

By Michael Dunlop

A review of formal and informal processes in course selection …

College students use both formal and informal processes when making decisions related to course selection. They often get course-registration advice through formal on-campus “institutional” resources and off-campus “non-institutional” resources.

In April 2016, a student in my Data and Decisions Analysis course at Suffolk University and I reviewed these practices from higher education institutional academic advising centers, as well as professional organizations whose mission is focused on excellence in academic advising.

More specifically, we examined the website Rate My Professors (RMP), analyzing data from 50 students who use RMP. The results provide evidence of the popularity of RMP as a resource that college students use in making course-selection decisions. See *Methodology.

In addition, more recent anecdotal evidence suggests that RMP remains a source of information students use in making course decisions. Indeed, RMP has been in existence for over a decade and is still used by students to read and write reviews similar to other websites such as Yelp and Tripadvisor.

Overwhelming sense of freedom

College students employ a variety of techniques during the course-selection and registration process. Unlike high school, where it is common practice to prescribe students a list of required courses, including the timing and sequencing of the courses, college affords students a greater amount of flexibility in the selection process. This new sense of freedom, particularly for first-year students, can be “a little nerve-wracking,” notes freelance writer Kelsey Mulvey in a HuffPost piece titled “Choosing College Classes: Important Tips For Incoming Freshmen.”

To alleviate this added stress, there are many systems of advising available to students.

“Whether you find their email online or make an appointment as soon as you step on campus (okay, maybe after you unpack), meeting with an advisor is a great way to narrow down your choices,” adds Mulvey.

The National Academic Advising Association states that the core of student success is effective academic advising and recommends nine conditions of excellence in academic advising. The College Board offers an eight-step approach in selecting college courses beginning with a review of the various options listed in the course catalog, as well as a visit with an academic adviser.

Academic advising centers often provide guidance to students on areas such as general education requirements, internships and study abroad. The advisers need to be generalists since they typically advise all types of students, regardless of major. On the other hand, more specific course selection in a student’s program of study is best provided by faculty advisers. Thus, consistent communication between advising centers and faculty is important. Selecting the right course at the right time, not only facilitates the learning experience, but also keeps students on track for graduation. A logical sequence of courses, a reasonable workload and scheduling classes around extracurricular activities such as work and athletics are also essential considerations.

The College Board also recommends creating a weekly schedule that is spread out with adequate time set aside for studying and other activities, fulfilling requirements as early as possible and taking a variety of courses that require different types of work, so you don’t end up writing five papers or solving five complex problems each week.

It is important to differentiate between advising centers and faculty advising. Effective communication between academic centers and faculty is important so a clear and consistent message is relayed to students. However, controlling the sources of information available to students in their decision-making process is difficult. Formal academic advising needs to be an efficient process that empowers students with knowledge and the ability to self-advocate. A prescriptive approach with a required and recommended sequence of courses taken for an academic year (freshman, sophomore, junior and senior) provides a useful roadmap for students so they can stay on track and graduate on time (i.e., four years). A collaborative approach among advising centers and faculty advisers will help reduce ambiguity in communicating with students which, in turn, should enhance a successful advising process and experience for students.

Many times, after a more formal meeting with an academic adviser, a student will seek additional resources in making a final decision on which courses or professors to take. More specifically, many students like to read faculty evaluations and will actively seek this information. It is not an uncommon practice for higher education institutions to limit or entirely restrict student access to formal internal faculty evaluations. Hanover Research found, however, that due to the rise in the rise of third-party external rating sites, some institutions are allowing student access to course evaluation results. One of the more popular third-party rating sites where students seek to obtain additional information is Rate My Professors.

The largest online repository where students can rate professors, RMP is an external resource that has gained popularity. RMP can be viewed as “word-of-mouth” marketing much like other online review sites. Anecdotal evidence has observed small groups of students sitting together with their laptops open discussing their class-registration schedule for the upcoming semester, while logged into RMP. This research study seeks to address and provide more insight on whether this is atypical behavior or part of a systematic trend?. 


Formal, institutionally based academic advising provides a level of assurance that students are on track to graduate by taking a proper sequence of courses. Yet, many students may prefer informal resources because they place more weight on recommendations from their own peer group. And even though our study was conducted in 2016, recent anecdotal evidence gathered in the 2020 fall semester indicates that RMP is still used by students at both the undergraduate and graduate levels.

It is important that students use formal institutional academic advisers in the decision-making process because external resources such as RMP often present a more biased and subjective portrayal of a particular course or professor. Colleen Flaherty notes in an Inside Higher Ed piece headlined Rating or Defaming? that although students have the right to leave comments on RMP, they do not have the right to lie. Students may be tempted to leave a negative comment, solely due to receiving a bad grade. When, in reality, the bad grade may be due to lack of student effort and have nothing to do with attributes of the instructor. Due to student anonymity, comments on RMP can be unduly influenced by factors that have little or nothing to do with a particular course or professor. Given this limitation, it is paramount that students employ a more holistic 360-degree approach when seeking academic advice from both formal and informal sources.

Using multiple sources of information can be helpful. Nonetheless, it must be stressed that formal advising from institutional advising centers and faculty advisers alike is the foundation of a sound academic advising program, as opposed to services like RMP.

Disparities can exist among faculty and their role in advising. This highlights the importance of consistency and the messaging that is communicated to students. Academic advising centers and faculty advisers need to be kept up-to-date with any programmatic changes that affect the curriculum or specific majors. And even though students may not always have their first choice “wish list” of particular courses or professors, it is helpful to remind students that they are likely to encounter several different styles of management in their post-college professional careers. To better reflect the real world, there are advantages of taking different professors’ courses because, in many respects, the student-professor relationship can mirror the employee-supervisor relationship.

Future research could focus on allowing more institutional transparency with internal faculty evaluations since this may be a more reliable indicator (as opposed to third-party online sources). In addition, obtaining information on the institutional role of academic advisers and faculty could glean further insight into their perspectives and opinions on advising. Finally, encouraging a dialogue among advisers, faculty and students focused on better practices in academic advising, as well as clearing up misperceptions created by online sources such as RMP, could provide useful information going forward.

Michael Dunlop is an instructor in the Department of Information Systems & Operations Management at Suffolk University’s Sawyer Business School.


Of the 50 respondents to the survey, 42 (84%) were pursuing a bachelor’s degree in business administration, whereas the other eight respondents (16%) were either undeclared or in another area of study. Thirty-two respondents (64%) were male and 18 (36%) were female. Six respondents (12%) were freshmen, 14 (28%) were sophomores, 16 (32%) were juniors, and 14 (28%) were seniors. All 50 respondents (100%) were enrolled in a higher education institution in the Boston area. One of the fundamental research questions was to determine if students use RMP. The results of the survey indicate that 46 respondents (92%) have used RMP, whereas only four respondents (8%) have not used RMP.

In addition, of the 46 respondents who have used RMP, a majority indicated the website was a very helpful resource. In fact, 33 respondents (72%) found RMP as either very helpful or extremely helpful. None of the respondents found RMP as unhelpful. The weighted average of the ranking on a scale from 1 (not helpful) to 5 (extremely helpful) was 3.91.

Finally, of the 46 respondents who have used the RMP website, only 8 respondents (17%) reported that they provide feedback on the website. Despite the fact that a majority of the respondents find RMP to be a helpful resource, this was an interesting finding and could necessitate future investigation. If students find RMP helpful, why are they reluctant to provide their own comments.


























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