The Big Five: What traits students want to see in their professors 

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After covering the Big Five personality traits, ask students to get into small groups and pose these questions.

  1. Thinking about your ideal instructor, rank order the Big Five traits according to the instructor’s traits that are most important to you.
  2. For each of those traits, what behavior would you expect to see from that instructor?

Once discussion dies down, start with one of the Big Five traits, say extraversion, and ask volunteers to report where they scored their ideal instructor on that trait, why they chose that score, and what behavior did they expect to see from an instructor with that trait score.

After you have gone through all of the traits, share with students a few peer-reviewed studies.

A study reported in Inside Higher Ed (Elmes, 2017) using a British sample found that students rank ordered the traits they like to see in an instructor this way: conscientiousness, agreeableness, extroversion, openness, and neuroticism.

Chamorro-Premuzic, (2008) found students had a preference for instructors who were low in neuroticism and high in conscientiousness. Interestingly, students preferred instructors who matched themselves on openness and conscientiousness. High openness-scoring students preferred high openness-scoring instructors, for example.

A 2005 study, also by Adrian Furnham and Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic found that “students tended to prefer conscientious, open, and stable lecturers, though correlations revealed that these preferences were largely a function of students' own [emphasis in original] personality traits.” Again, this was true for openness, but this time instead of conscientiousness, it was agreeableness. Students preferred an instructor who scored similarly to them on agreeableness.

Do student perceptions of instructor personality affect student evaluations of teaching? Yep. When students perceived their instructor as high on conscientiousness, agreeableness, openness, and extraversion, students rated the course and the instructor’s ability to teach as high. When students perceived their instructor as high on neuroticism, students rated the course and the instructor’s ability to teach as low. What about student personality traits? Students high in agreeableness were more likely to rate their instructor’s ability to teach as high (Patrick, 2011). No surprise; they’re agreeable!

While students may have preferences for instructor personality, is there any evidence that instructor personality affects student performance in the course? I haven’t found any, but if someone knows of some, please let me know.

To conclude your class discussion, ask students which of the Big Five traits is most strongly correlated with both high school and college GPA. The answer? Conscientiousness (Noftle and Robins, 2007).



Chamorro-Premuzic, T., Furnham, A., Christopher, A. N., Garwood, J., & Martin, G. N. (2008). Birds of a feather: Students’ preferences for lecturers’ personalities as predicted by their own personality and learning approaches. Personality and Individual Differences, 44(4), 965-976. doi:10.1016/j.paid.2007.10.032


Elmes, J. (2017, May 18). Who wants a neurotic professor? Retrieved from

Furnham, A., & Chamorro-Premuzic, T. (2005). Individual differences in students' preferences for lecturers' personalities. Journal of Individual Differences, 26(4), 176-184. doi:10.1027/1614-0001.26.4.176

Noftle, E. E., & Robins, R. W. (n.d.). Personality predictors of academic outcomes: Big Five correlates of GPA and SAT scores. PsycEXTRA Dataset. doi:10.1037/e514412014-495

Patrick, C. L. (2011). Student evaluations of teaching: Effects of the Big Five personality traits, grades and the validity hypothesis. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 36(2), 239-249. doi:10.1080/02602930903308258

About the Author
Sue Frantz has taught psychology since 1992. She has served on several APA boards and committees, and was proud to serve the members of the Society for the Teaching of Psychology as their 2018 president. In 2013, she was the inaugural recipient of the APA award for Excellence in the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning at a Two-Year College or Campus. She received in 2016 the highest award for the teaching of psychology--the Charles L. Brewer Distinguished Teaching of Psychology Award. She presents nationally and internationally on the topics of educational technology and the pedagogy of psychology. She is co-author with Doug Bernstein and Steve Chew of Teaching Psychology: A Step-by-Step Guide, 3rd ed. and is co-author with Charles Stangor on Introduction to Psychology, 4.0.