How academics dress for a lecture doesn't affect how students perceive them — at least in the long run.
That was the conclusion of a study at North Hennepin Community College that measured students' perception of an instructor based on what type of clothing she wore to her lectures.
Yasmine L. Konheim-Kalkstein, who holds a doctorate in educational psychology, grouped four sections of an introductory psychology course she taught last fall into two "casual" classes and two "formal" classes, each of which were held at different times and on different days.
On the first day of the study, Ms. Konheim-Kalkstein wore jeans, a drab-colored T-shirt, and gray sneakers to the casual class, and black pants, a button-up, black-and-white-striped shirt, and a small heel to the formal class. Students were surveyed about their initial impressions of her approachability, her ability to teach, her age, and her teaching style.
Dressing casually "felt very awkward at first, but I got over it very quickly," she says. "As soon as you start lecturing you forget about it."
For the next four weeks, she continued the routine, but often wore the same shirt — either a button-up blouse or a plain T-shirt — with both her casual and formal outfits. Students were surveyed again at the end of four weeks.
The data showed that Ms. Konheim-Kalkstein's clothing made a small difference in perceptions of her on the first day of class, with those students in the "formal" classes finding her more qualified and approachable than did those in the informal classes. But four weeks into the semester, wearing less-formal clothes had about the same effect on student perceptions as wearing formal clothes.
Ms. Konheim-Kalkstein says she still prefers teaching in formal clothing, but now she feels more comfortable wearing casual clothes in lectures as well. She says she'd like to do further research that takes into account gender differences, as well as the environmental context of the college or university.
"I work at a college where professors wear a variety of things," she says, "Some wear suits and ties and others wear shorts, so regardless of which class I was dressing for, I didn't really stand out."
That would not be true at every institution, Ms. Konheim-Kalkstein observes. "My husband is going to start teaching at West Point," she says. "If he showed up in sneakers, I think he would have a much stronger reaction there from his students."