Attractive female academics ‘rated as better teachers’

Paper finds there is no correlation between perceived good looks and teaching effectiveness among male scholars

September 22, 2020
 Judges give their scores.
Source: Getty

Female academics who are deemed attractive receive higher student ratings for the quality of their teaching, according to a study, but there is no “beauty premium” for male scholars.

The research, based on an analysis of almost 3,000 teaching evaluations by students at a US university, found that while both men and women received much higher scores in face-to-face classes than in online classes, only female faculty received a boost based on attractiveness in the in-person setting.

The size of this face-to-face premium depended on the perceived attractiveness of women, according to the study, published in Economics of Education Review.

The authors speculate that “if students are more engaged or are willing to work harder for instructors they find to be more attractive, those students may evaluate teaching effectiveness more favourably as a by-product of realised success in the course”.

The research was based on 2,968 course-level teaching evaluation reports completed by students at the University of Memphis between 2010 and 2016. The researchers recruited 98 student volunteers from two other universities to rate the attractiveness of lecturers based on their online photos.

The authors add that the findings have implications for equity within the academic profession, given that student-based evaluations of teaching are often used by universities when making hiring and promotion decisions.

Andrew Hussey, associate professor of economics at Memphis and co-author of the paper, said the findings suggest that student evaluations of teaching “should be viewed with caution” and that comparing scores across or within gender groups “may be problematic”.

However, he added that the results “don’t necessarily suggest that [evaluations] should be disregarded altogether. Beauty still only explains a relatively small amount of the total variation in evaluation scores.”

Camille Kandiko Howson, associate professor of education at Imperial College London, said that the study “highlights the biases in student evaluations of teachers, and how women are judged by their appearance by both male and female students”.

“Although student feedback is important for both students and teachers for quality enhancement and course development, this paper further builds the case against using such measures in hiring, probation and promotion decisions,” she said.

Previous studies have indicated that students’ ratings are strongly influenced by academics’ personal characteristics, such as gender and race. In the Memphis study, the positive relationship between attractiveness and teaching effectiveness among women was not found in online courses, apparently because physical appearance was generally “unobserved” on online courses.

Anne Boring, assistant professor of economics at Erasmus University Rotterdam and an expert on student evaluations of teaching, agreed that while these surveys can be valuable they should “carry much less weight in academic promotion decisions”.

“This article adds yet further evidence of the multiple ways in which student evaluations of teaching are biased,” she said.

ellie.bothwell@timeshighereducation.com

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Reader's comments (2)

Students’ scoring of their teachers’ teaching quality should never be overrated in the first instance. And it’s salutary this work seeks to provide some evidence in that direction. Esoteric factors ( surprisingly many ) way outside teaching qualities do influence students’ perception and scoring , gender attractiveness being just one. Sometimes so unrelated to actual teaching quality it could be compared to a child rating one parent better than another because the one constantly pampers and the other hsrdly. Or the reverse ! Yet students participation in the assessment remains crucial, but its art must be judged against its science ... or along with it. Basil jide fadipe.
Notice how the quotations used in this article reflect resistance to scientific falsification - despite a lack of evidence for the student evaluations reflecting teaching quality, people still continue to assume and assert that it does without evidence. Amazing.

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