In a recent research article, Tobias Wolbring and Patrick Riordan report the results of a study looking into the effects of instructor "beauty" on college course evaluations. What they found might surprise you -- or worry you -- depending on your views on vagaries of fairness in life.
Before I reveal the results, let me say that this is one study (two experiments), and that the findings were very weak in the sense that the effects were small.
Their first study used a large data set involving university students. Given that the data was previously collected through routine evaluation procedures, the researchers could not be sure of the quality of the actual teaching, nor the true "beauty" of the instructors (they had to rely on online images).
The second study was a laboratory study where they could precisely vary the level of beauty of the instructor and their gender, while keeping the actual instructional materials consistent. Unfortunately, "the instruction" consisted of an 11-minute audio lecture taught by relatively young instructors (young adults), so it's not clear whether their results would generalize to more realistic instructional situations.
In both studies they relied on beauty as represented by facial beauty. While previous research shows that facial beauty is the primary way we rate each other on attractiveness, body beauty has also been found to have effects.
Their most compelling results:
They found that ratings of attractiveness are very consistent across raters. People seem to know who is attractive and who is not. This confirms findings of many studies.
Instructors who are more attractive, get better smile sheet ratings. Note that the effect was very small in both experiments. They confirmed what many other research studies have found, although their results were generally weaker than previous studies -- probably due to the better controls utilized.
They found that instructors who are better looking engender less absenteeism. That is, students were more likely to show up for class when their instructor was attractive.
They found that it did not make a difference on the genders of the raters or instructors. It was hypothesized that female raters might respond differently to male and female instructors, and males would do the same. But this was not found. In previous studies there have been mixed results.
In the second experiment, where they actually gave learners a test of what they'd learned, attractive instructors engendered higher scores on a difficult test, but not an easy test. The researchers hypothesize that learners engage more fully when their instructors are attractive.
In the second experiment, they asked learners to either: (a) take a test first and then evaluate the course, or (b) do the evaluation first and then take the test. Did it matter? Yes! The researchers hypothesized that highly-attractive instructors would be penalized for giving a hard test more than their unattractive colleagues. This prediction was confirmed. When the difficult test came before the evaluation, better looking instructors were rated more poorly than less attractive instructors. Not much difference was found for the easy test.
Ramifications for Learning Professionals
First, let me caveat these thoughts with the reminder that this is just one study! Second, the study's effects were relatively weak. Third, their results -- even if valid -- might not be relevant to your learners, your instructors, your organization, your situation, et cetera!
- If you're a trainer, instructor, teacher, professor -- get beautiful! Obviously, you can't change your bone structure or symmetry, but you can do some things to make yourself more attractive. I drink raw spinach smoothies and climb telephone poles with my bare hands to strengthen my shoulders and give me that upside-down triangle attractiveness, while wearing the most expensive suits I can afford -- $199 at Men's Warehouse; all with the purpose of pushing myself above the threshold of ... I can't even say the word. You'll have to find what works for you.
- If you refuse to sell your soul or put in time at the gym, you can always become a behind-the-scenes instructional designer or a research translator. As Clint said, "A man's got to know his limitations."
- Okay, I'll be serious. We shouldn't discount attractiveness entirely. It may make a small difference. On the other hand, we have more important, more leverageable actions we can take. I like the research-based findings that we all get judged primarily on two dimensions warmth/trust and competence. Be personable, authentically trustworthy, and work hard to do good work.
- The finding from the second experiment that better looking instructors might prompt more engagement and more learning -- that I find intriguing. It may suggest, more generally, that the likability/attractiveness of our instructors or elearning narrators may be important in keeping our learners engaged. The research isn't a slam dunk, but it may be suggestive.
- In terms of learning measurement, the results may suggest that evaluations come before difficult performance tests. I don't know though how this relates to adults in workplace learning. They might be more thankful for instructional rigor if it helps them perform better in their jobs.
- More research is needed!
Wolbring, T., & Riordan, P. (2016). How beauty works. Theoretical mechanisms and two
empirical applications on students' evaluation of teaching. Social Science Research, 57, 253-272.