Alongside metrics like “uses a textbook”, the popular Rate My Professors website gives students the option to score their lecturers’ “hotness”. This might not be as frivolous as it seems, at least according to a new paper in The Journal of General Psychology, which claims that students learn more effectively from more attractive lecturers.
Richard Westfall and his colleagues at University of Nevada asked over 100 students to listen to an audio recording of a 20 minute physics lecture, delivered by a man or woman. As the students listened, they were presented with a photograph of either a highly attractive man or woman, or an unattractive man or woman, and they were told that this was the lecturer they were listening to. No note taking was allowed. The students thought the study was about the influence of different lecture styles.
Next the students completed a multiple-choice quiz about the lecture content. The students who believed their lecturer was attractive scored better on the quiz than those who’d been led to believe their lecturer was unattractive (18.27 items correct on average versus 16.68 – a small but statistically significant difference).
Replicating the well-established halo effect of attractiveness, the students who listened to an attractive lecturer also rated him or her more highly on a range of measures, such as teaching ability, health and intelligence and said they found it easier to pay attention and would be more motivated to learn from their lecturer, as compared with students who listened to an unattractive lecturer.
The apparent beneficial effects of an attractive lecturer were the same regardless of whether the lecturer and students were the same sex or not, which to the researchers indicated the effect is cognitive in nature, to do with motivation, attention and expectations, rather than to do with sexual interest.
The researchers acknowledged the lack of realism in their study, but they believe their findings may have real-life ramifications: “Physical attractiveness may actually play a previously overlooked role in classroom learning,” they said, adding the caution that “this should not be taken to imply that unattractive humans cannot excel at classroom teaching”. Note that because there was no condition with an “average looking” lecturer, it’s impossible to discern from this study whether the better-looking lecturers aided learning, or that the more unattractive lecturers harmed learning.