Winthrop researchers find link between instructors’ popularity with students, Facebook profiles

adouglas@heraldonline.comMay 17, 2013 

Merry Sleigh, associate professor of psychology, Winthrop University

College students may view a professor with less respect and expect his classes to be easier if the teacher posts on Facebook that he likes “good beer, good times” and “The Simpsons,” according to research by Winthrop University.

Associate psychology professor Merry Sleigh and Winthrop student Jason Laboe published the results of their research recently.

It showed that the content on a professor’s Facebook page can influence a student’s perception of her teacher.

“The results of the study might encourage faculty members to be mindful of the type of information they are posting on Facebook,” Sleigh said.

“The data also provides some evidence that students develop expectations about teachers and their classrooms based on a wide variety of factors, some of which professors can control and some they cannot.”

In general, Sleigh said, students don’t use the social networking site to connect with professors but may draw conclusions about instructors’ personalities and ability to teach based on profile pictures, wall posts and information given about their family, hobbies and political associations.

A researcher at Kent State University also participated in the study, which surveyed current college students who responded to fake Facebook profiles set up to depict certain traits and affiliations.

Although previous research by others shows that students would rather be “friends” on Facebook with their mom or their boss than a professor, the site can drive a student’s impressions about college faculty members, according to the Winthrop research.

For example, a professor who appears to be politically conservative on a Facebook profile was rated in the Winthrop study as likely to be the most difficult professor in the classroom and the most unpopular with students.

The researchers set up temporary, fake profiles to depict a religious, professional, social, liberal, conservative and family-oriented professor.

The social professor who liked beer and “The Simpsons” animated TV show and was looking to date was likely to be popular among students.

The social professor also was listed as being in a fraternity and had a photo album called “Weekend at Finnigan’s.”

The politically conservative and politically liberal professors were perceived to be the least friendly toward students.

Sleigh was surprised, she said, that her research revealed that students react somewhat negatively to professors who post political views on Facebook.

“This study took place in the context of our first African-American president having been recently elected partially because of heightened political involvement by young adults,” she said.

“The question arises as to why young adults might be personally engaged in politics, yet respond less positively to faculty who are visibly doing the same.”

The fake profiles

To depict politically conservative leanings, researchers posted that the professor was the College Republicans group adviser and enjoyed “listening to Rush” Limbaugh.

The conservative professor listed himself as a member of the National Rifle Association and a fan of “states’ rights” and Fox News.

To depict a politically liberal professor, researchers listed the instructor as the College Democrats group adviser who is interested in The Onion, MSNBC and is a member of the American Civil Liberties Union.

The liberal professor listed his favorite books as “Dreams From My Father,” by Barack Obama, and “Handbook for Progressives.”

Professors who appear family-oriented or religious on their profiles are least likely to have students draw powerful conclusions about them, according to the research.

To depict a family-oriented professor, researchers set up a profile of a man described as married and a Little League coach.

The family-oriented professor listed “American Idol” as a favorite TV show and “The Cat in The Hat” as a favorite book. In the professor’s fake “about me” section, he wrote that he has “a wonderful wife and two great kids.”

The religious professor wrote that he was involved with the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, that his political views were Christian and one of his favorite books was the Bible. In the favorite quotes section of his Facebook profile, the religious professor listed a Bible verse.

Students ranked religious information on a professor’s Facebook page as the least interesting among other profiles.

Information about a professor’s professional activities and hobbies was the most interesting to students who participated in the survey.

Some professors widely accept any student who wants to be their “friend” on Facebook, Sleigh said, while others are selective.

Facebook is popular with young people, with 93 percent of college students on the site in 2008, according to one study cited in Winthrop’s research.

As of March 2013, Facebook had 655 million daily active users.

Merge expertise, interest

The Winthrop and Kent State research team started the study about four years ago.

The undergraduate student researchers went on to pursue graduate studies, which delayed the publication of the results, Sleigh said.

Facebook and how people are perceived on social media, she said, are highly relevant topics with interest from many research circles such as mass communication, sociology, psychology and computer science.

Sleigh’s research background is primarily in early nervous system development, using animals such as fish, birds, frogs and mice.

Mentoring students who want to conduct research is important to her and the university, Sleigh said, so venturing into social media research was a welcome change of pace.

“The challenge is to merge my areas of expertise with the students’ interest, so that I can be appropriately helpful,” she said.

“In the case of the Facebook study, I brought some knowledge about students’ expectations of professors and classrooms to the research team, and the students contributed their interest and extensive experience with Facebook.”

Anna Douglas •  803-329-4068

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