Web sites such as ratemyprofessors.com give a professors a quality rating, that is similar to ratings found on any hotel or restaurant review site. But the site rates college professors not only on their teaching abilities, but also on whether they are “hot” or not.
This begs the question — does a teacher’s physical attractiveness contribute to the overall classroom experience?
Authors Elaine Hatfield and Susan Sprecher said in their book Mirror, Mirror: The Importance of Looks in Everyday Life that a 1979 study showed students from second grade through college thought attractive teachers “did their jobs better” than teachers considered unattractive. These students found their attractive teachers to be friendlier and more organized than their other teachers.
According to the users of RateMyProfessors (RMP), things have not changed much today. On a basic scale, the site lets users rate their professors’ teaching skills as “good quality,” “average quality” and “poor quality.” Among USF’s 60 “hottest” teachers (denoted by a chili pepper) only one is rated “average” and none are rated “poor.”
However, many question the credibility of this site, since ratings can be posted by anyone who visits it without any proof that they have taken a class with that professor or even that they are students of the University.
Last year, a University of Maine study compared student reviews posted on RMP with the formal in-class evaluations provided by the university. They found that the RMP evaluations correlated “substantively and significantly” with those of the university — even in cases where the professor had a small number of ratings on the site. The researchers concluded that their findings “should give pause to those who are inclined to dismiss RMP indices as meaningless.”
As for the chili peppers, UM researchers deduced that these ratings were nothing more than a “frivolous detraction that compromises the credibility of RMP.” They cited a 2005 focus group in which students generally disregarded the “hot” rating in terms of importance.
Jennifer Johnson, a junior majoring in social work, said that she found her “hot” professors just plain easier.
“In my experiences, (attractive professors) are not only easier to understand and more approachable — I’ve also found that they’re less demanding in their course requirements,” she said.
This supports Mirror, Mirror’s results from 30 years ago, when students said they suspected that the less attractive teachers would give them more work.
However, Jamie Goldenberg, professor of psychology and RMP-rated “hottie,” offered some counterexamples tothe stereotype.
“It could also be the other way around — that professors who are evaluated more positively are more likely to be perceived as attractive,” Goldenberg said.
She said most of her research for the University concerns how appearance is far more important in the evaluation of women than in that of men.
“For women, being attractive when they are being evaluated for higher level positions can actually hurt, leading to perceptions of them being less competent,” she said. “But I guess it depends on whether people think of a professor as a high status position.”
No matter how irrelevant, unnecessary or useful RMP’s “hot” rating is, the fact remains that the site is changing the way students everywhere select classes. The site is home to more than seven million student-created reviews and almost one million professor profiles.