As teachers everywhere settle into classrooms for the fall, they will be looking at grades and classroom climate as some indicators to measure whether their work is making an impact. But a new study suggests there is a more superficial component of good teaching—teachers’ physical appearance.
Good looks may play a “previously overlooked” part in student learning, say researchers at the University of Nevada, according to Pacific Standard magazine. Their findings, published in August in the Journal of General Psychology, show that attractive classroom instructors can help students “perform better at learning tasks”—as well as be perceived more effective by students—than those rated less attractive.
The study went like this: 131 university students listened to an audio lecture, half with a male voice and the other half with a female voice, while looking at a photo of the supposed lecturer. The photo varied for each student—69 participants looked at a “highly attractive” person and 62 an “unattractive” person. (A separate group of students rated the attractiveness of the photos before the study began.)
After taking a multiple-choice quiz about the lecture, students who had an attractive educator scored higher than those who had a less-attractive educator—signaling a connection to better student concentration. Students also gave higher ratings in teaching ability and presentation, including how much the presenter influenced their motivation, to more attractive educators—though student perception was not necessarily a predictor of a better score. This was not based on sexual attraction, the researchers said, as the results were consistent despite the gender of either lecturer or participant.
Such findings mirror other studies that show good-looking individuals are often judged positively because of their looks and are considered to be more competent, intelligent, and persuasive, according to the report.
Some limitations to keep in mind: This is a single lecture, not a semester- or year-long class with an in-person educator. Because of this, researchers said, the effects appearance has on learning may be exaggerated. Given more time, students “might be influenced by more subtle characteristics (such as IQ) that are not readily apparent from just one lecture,” wrote researchers Richard Westfall, Murray Miller, and Mandy Walsh. "[I]n the classroom, students are exposed to an actual living, moving person and have the opportunity to study and practice recalling the material prior to being tested.”
It is also worth noting that while the students were of varying races and nationalities (39 percent were of European descent), all of the lecturer photographs were Caucasian.
Also, this study was done with college students, so it’s not clear at what age students start noticing their teachers’ level of attractiveness—although the researchers noted that good looks start to matter at an early age, according to the Wall Street Journal.
The effects of physical attributes in the classroom can also extend to how teachers relate to their students. A 2014 study by researchers at the University of Illinois at Chicago found that teachers give higher grades to students who are more good-looking.
The new study’s authors note that while the study “found further support for the power that physical attractiveness has over human person perception” and can influence learning, it’s only one component in a host of factors that play into student success in the classroom. Matthew Lynch, an educational consultant who writes the EdWeek blog Education Futures, wrote in a recent post about the attributes he believes teachers need most—among them enthusiasm, group leadership, a positive attitude, passion, and commitment to a code of ethics.
As one community college professor argued, personality has a large role to play in effective teaching. According to a Teaching Now post from June, English professor Rob Jenkins shared that the best teachers “are confident without being arrogant, authoritative without being condescending,” he wrote. “They seem comfortable in their own skin.”
A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.