Study: Charismatic Teachers Don't Help Students Learn More

The teachers who deliver the most engaging and interesting lectures may have been your favorite, but a new study suggests they probably did not help you learn more than your "boring" teachers. The study raises questions about the value of student evaluations of teachers.

For the study, researchers conducted an experiment in which two classes each watched a different instructor give the same lecture explaining a scientific concept. In one class, the "fluent" instructor used all the techniques one would expect from a good public speaker: "the instructor stood upright, maintained eye contact, and spoke fluidly without notes." In the other class, the "disfluent" instructor did everything public speakers are not supposed to do: "the instructor slumped, looked away, and spoke haltingly with notes."

The class with the fluent instructor said their teacher was better prepared and more effective, and their predictions of how they would do on the exam were higher, than the class with the disfluent instructor. The fluent instructor class did not, however, learn significantly more than the disfluent instructor class. Also, the disfluent instructor class was much closer to predicting how much they had learned.

The study was conducted by Professors Shana K. Carpenter, Miko M. Wilford and Kellie M. Mullaney, who work for the Department of Psychology at Iowa State University in Ames, Iowa, and Nate Kornell, who works for the Department of Psychology at Williams College in Williamstown, Mass. "Appearances can be deceiving: instructor fluency increases perceptions of learning without increasing actual learning" was published in the May 2013 issue of Psychonomic Bulletin & Review.

That students may be learning less than they think they are learning from those they consider the "good" professors has implications for how teaching effectiveness is evaluated. At many colleges and universities, professors are evaluated on their teaching mostly, or entirely, by asking their students. This study suggests, though, that students may be evaluating their teachers based upon qualities that contribute little to actual learning.

Eric Mazur, Balkanski Professor of Physics and Applied Physics at Harvard University, told Inside Higher Ed that he was not surprised at the findings because students learn better with a "Socratic method," in which the teacher asks students questions to get them to think about the subject matter.

"With a better presenter it might seem like you are taking more in, but it doesn't mean that anything has actually been learned – it doesn't mean there has been an 'Aha!' moment," Mazur said. "The hard work has to be done by the learner – there's not much the instructor can do to make the neuroconnections necessary for learning."

In an article for Psychology Today, Kornell also seemed unsurprised by the findings. He noted that there have been other studies showing that students do a poor job of evaluating teaching effectiveness.

"Bottom line? Student evaluations are of questionable value," Kornell wrote.