Controversial study correlates professors' appearance with student learning

Looks aren't everything, but they may have an effect on students' academic performance

Students may perform better academically if their professor is good-looking, suggests a small study that's stirring up discussion about whether beauty really is skin deep. 

R. Shane Westfall, a doctoral student in experimental psychology at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, was inspired to investigate the importance of looks in the classroom after reading an article about faculty being graded on their looks on the website Rate My Professors.

"The faculty members complained about how demeaning it was to have their appearance rated with chili peppers, and how that was not supposed to have any impact on their teaching," Westfall told Peter Schmidt in an interview for the Chronicle of Higher Education. "That led me to ask, 'Well, does it?'"

In the study he led, 86 female and 45 male university students were told that they were taking part in an examination of the effect of different lecture styles on learning. Students listened to a lecture in introductory physics and took a multiple-choice test based on the content. Then, students evaluated the performance of both a male and female instructor who delivered the lectures.

Students were shown one of two photographs that they were made to believe depicted the instructor. One photo depicted someone whom participants in a previous study had rated as highly attractive, while the other photo featured someone participants rated below average.

Students who were shown a good-looking instructor gave that professor a better evaluation and also answered about 1.6 more questions correctly than those who were shown a photo of a less attractive instructor.

Westfall said the research has been met with intrigue, as well as disgust. Of course, physical attractiveness isn't the only aspect of being an effective teacher, he said. And non-superficial attributes can make a person more appealing.

It's difficult to say exactly what to do with the findings, as "many responses seem silly, insulting, or illegal," Schmidt noted. But Westfall views the research as an opportunity for people to take stock of the way that beauty standards influence people's behavior. 

You don't have to rely on chili peppers. Here's a better way to identify your best instructors

"The broader issue is that we all have certain aspects about us where we're privileged, and we all have certain things about us where we're disadvantaged," Westfall said. "As far as an instructor goes, you want to be aware of things that may be your strong point and, also, your disadvantages. Conversely, with students, you want to raise their awareness that you don't want to necessarily disregard somebody based on their appearance" (Schmidt, Chronicle of Higher Education, 9/27).

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