Attractive Teachers May Inspire Greater Learning

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That’s the implication of a new study, which suggests good looks capture students’ attention.

By Tom Jacobs

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(Photo: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)

As the new school year gets underway, students everywhere are beginning to work on plausible excuses for their poor grades. Newly published research offers a novel one: My teacher isn’t sufficiently good looking.

“Physical attractiveness may actually play a previously overlooked role in classroom learning,” report University of Nevada researchers Richard Westfall, Murray Miller, and Mandy Walsh. In what appears to be a first-of-its-kind study, they present evidence that attractive instructors are more effective than their less comely counterparts.

Their study, published in the Journal of General Psychology, featured 131 university students (with an average age of 20), each of whom listened to a 20-minute audio lecture from an introductory physics course. Approximately half heard a male voice, and half heard a female voice.

A photograph, purportedly of the lecturer, was displayed on their computer as they listened. For 69 of the participants, the image was of a highly attractive person (as judged by a separate student panel), while for 62, it was of an unattractive person.

Participants who believed their instructor was highly attractive recalled more items on the quiz.

Immediately afterward, participants took a 25-item multiple-choice test covering material from the lecture. They also completed a 16-item questionnaire in which they rated the lecturer’s performance, including their “ability to present the material clearly” and their “overall teaching ability.”

“Attractive instructors were given better ratings than unattractive instructors,” the researchers report. This is not a surprise, given previous studies that have shown attractive people tend to be judged more positively than unattractive ones.

More strikingly, participants who believed their instructor was highly attractive recalled more items on the quiz than those who believed he or she was nothing special to look at. They were, it appears, concentrating more closely on the lesson.

Importantly, this effect was found regardless of the gender of either the lecturer or the participant. According to the researchers, this suggests the effect is not a simple matter of sexual attraction. (If the students were fantasizing about romancing the hot teacher, they’d presumably do worse on the quiz, not better.)

Rather, it appears that attractive instructors simply “command more attention” from students. This finding is in line with “considerable evidence that attractive people receive more attention than unattractive people, and maybe are more persuasive.”

The results “suggest the physical attractiveness of their instructor may influence student performance,” the researchers conclude.

This is, of course, one small study, and it doesn’t directly duplicate the experience of an in-person lecture. But given the many advantages attractive people enjoy, adding this to the list would be no surprise.

I suspect I would have done much better in Spanish class if it had been taught by Professor Vergara.

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