How Skin-Deep Judgments of Professors Might Influence Student Success

September 27, 2016

David Becker, Las Vegas Review-Journal
Shane Westfall’s research was inspired by complaints about the chili-pepper rating on the website Rate My Professors. Faculty members said their appearance "was not supposed to have any impact on their teaching," he said. "That led me to ask, Well, does it?"

College professors might end up staring in the mirror in response to a recent study led by R. Shane Westfall, a doctoral student in experimental psychology at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas. Building upon other researchers’ findings that people attribute positive characteristics to those who are relatively attractive, Mr. Westfall has concluded that good-looking instructors might have another advantage: Their students learn more.

Mr. Westfall and his study’s co-authors — Mandy Walsh, a fellow doctoral student, and Murray Millar, an associate professor of psychology — reached that finding based on an unusual experiment involving 86 female and 45 male university students. They fibbed to their subjects about the study’s purpose, describing it as an examination of how different lecture styles affect learning, and asked them to listen to a 20-minute lecture in introductory physics and take a 25-question multiple-choice test based on its content. They also asked the students to evaluate the instructor’s performance.

Some of the students heard a lecture delivered by a man; others, the identical lecture delivered by a woman. The twist was that they never learned their instructor’s real identity, and instead, for both the man and the woman, were randomly shown one of two photographs falsely described as depicting that person. Just over half viewed photos of someone whom participants in a previous study had, on average, rated as an eye-pleasing eight on a one-to-10 scale of physical attractiveness. The other photo showed a person whose average rating had been a below-average 3.25.

Over all, compared with the 62 student participants shown the less-attractive photo, the 69 shown a relatively good-looking instructor not only gave that person a better evaluation but performed significantly better on the multiple-choice test. On average, they answered about 1.6 more questions correctly — a difference equivalent to just over half a letter grade.

The Nevada researchers made quite splash with a peer-reviewed article on their study published this summer in The Journal of General Psychology. Their research was not only covered by The Wall Street Journal and the Las Vegas Review-Journal; it also inspired a skit on Jimmy Kimmel Live using tropes from strip-club advertisements to sell a fake college.

The Chronicle asked Mr. Westfall last week about his research. Following is an edited and condensed transcript of that interview.

Q. What spurred your interest in how students respond to instructors’ appearance?

A. I was reading an article in the campus newspaper where I earned my undergraduate degree, Texas Tech University, and they interviewed a couple of faculty members about 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. That led me to ask, Well, does it?

Q. Your paper says the difference in students’ performance was not due to sexual attraction but some other factor. How did you rule out sexual attraction, and what else could explain your results?

A. Our findings held true regardless of the gender of the instructor or the participant, and we kept only the heterosexual people in the sample. Were it driven only by sexual attraction, then we would find, perhaps, that the males did better with the attractive female instructor or that the females did better with the attractive male instructor. As far as potential explanations, there are several. I am focusing more on attention — that we have a tendency to pay more attention to attractive individuals.

Q. The students in your experiment were taking a class in physics. Might that field’s gender stereotyping in favor of males have played a role, and the results been different, if the students had taken a class in another subject, like English?

A. Absolutely, and that’s something I intend to explore in a future replication. For this particular study physics was selected because I had an excellent lecture that was closed-captioned for the hearing impaired, so I could make sure the content was exactly the same for both the male and female versions.

Q. Do you at all worry that you failed to account for aspects of attractiveness that photos might fail to capture, such as charm, poise, and self-confidence?

A. Since this was an area that had not been previously explored, I saw this is an initial study. Yes, when you are actually dealing with a person, one on one, there is a much more dynamic interaction.

Q. Let’s be honest, here. We’re not talking about fashion models, but professors. How much of the academic work force is attractive enough for their looks to potentially have a positive effect on student performance?

A. I see it more as something that is gradated rather than dichotomous. By that I mean that many instructors out in the real world fall in the higher end of attractiveness rather than the lower end. We are not talking about the few "super models" in the teaching world, but, on the proverbial one-to-10 scale, the sevens, eights, and nines are going to be more effective instructors than the ones, twos, and threes.

Q. How have academics responded to your findings?

A. Some people are really intrigued by the findings, some people find them intuitive, others find them frankly insulting. The common feedback I am receiving is, You know, I may be an unattractive person, but I can still be a great teacher. Of course you can. As I mention in the paper, there are several factors that can influence teaching ability. A great analogy would be, say, extroversion, where students prefer extroverted instructors who are energetic and engaging. You can still be an introverted, quiet individual and be an effective instructor.

Q. One of the biggest questions your study raises is what, if anything, to do about its findings. Hire instructors for their looks? Encourage them to get makeovers? Find ways to teach students not to be superficial? So many possible responses seem silly, insulting, or illegal.

A. 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. 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.

Peter Schmidt writes about affirmative action, academic labor, and issues related to academic freedom. Contact him at peter.schmidt@chronicle.com.