Educational Seduction or the Dr. Fox Effect

Educational Seduction, or the Dr. Fox Effect
In a well-known study, a professional actor was hired to deliver
a non-substantive and contradictory lecture, but in an
enthusiastic and authoritative style. The audience, consisting of
professional educators, had been told they would be listening to
Dr. Myron Fox, an expert on the application of mathematics to
human behavior. They were then asked to rate the lecture. Dr.
Fox received highly positive ratings, and no one saw through the
Student Evaluations: A Critical Review 4/22/21, 11:33 AM Page 5 of 14
hoax.(14) Later studies have obtained similar results,(15) showing
that audience ratings of a lecture are more strongly influenced by
superficial stylistic matters than by content.
Adding support to this conclusion was another study, in which
students were asked to rate instructors on a number of
personality traits (e.g., “confident,” “dominant,” “optimistic,”
etc.), on the basis of 30-second video clips, without audio, of the
instructors lecturing. These ratings were found to be very good
predictors of end-of-semester evaluations given by the
instructors’ actual students. A composite of the personality trait
ratings correlated .76 with end-of-term course evaluations;
ratings of instructors’ “optimism” showed an impressive .84
correlation with end-of-term course evaluations. Thus, in order
to predict with fair accuracy the ratings an instructor would get,
it was not necessary to know anything of what the instructor
said in class, the material the course covered, the readings, the
assignments, the tests, etc.(16)
Williams and Ceci conducted a related experiment. Professor
Ceci, a veteran teacher of the Developmental Psychology course
at Cornell, gave the course consecutively in both fall and spring
semesters one year. In between the two semesters, he visited a
media consultant for lessons on improving presentation style.
Specifically, Professor Ceci was trained to modulate his tone of
voice more and to use more hand gestures while speaking. He
then proceeded, in the spring semester, to give almost the
identical course (verified by checking recordings of his lectures
from the fall), with the sole significant difference being the
addition of hand gestures and variations in tone of voice
(grading policy, textbook, office hours, tests, and even the basic
demographic profile of the class remained the same). The result:
student ratings for the spring semester were far higher, usually
by more than one standard deviation, on all aspects of the course
and the instructor. Even the textbook was rated higher by almost
a full point on a scale from 1 to 5. Students in the spring semester
believed they had learned far more (this rating increased from
2.93 to 4.05), even though, according to Ceci, they had not in fact
learned any more, as measured by their test scores. Again, the
conclusion seems to be that student ratings are heavily
Student Evaluations: A Critical Review 4/22/21, 11:33 AM Page 6 of 14
influenced by cosmetic factors that have no effect on student
6. Academic Freedom
Some argue that SEF are a threat to academic freedom.(17) Not
only do SEF influence instructors’ grading policies, teaching
style, and course difficulty, but they may also restrict what a
professor says in class. Professors may feel inhibited from
discussing controversial ideas or challenging students’ beliefs,
for fear that some students will express their disagreement
through the course evaluation form. More than one author has
described SEF as “opinion polls,” with the suggestion that SEF
require professors to think like politicians, seeking to avoid
giving offense and putting style before substance.(18)
Alan Dershowitz reports that some of his students have “used
the power of their evaluations in an attempt to exact their
political revenge for my politically incorrect teaching.” One
student, who complained to Dershowitz about his (Dershowitz’)
teaching about rape from a civil liberties perspective, informed
Dershowitz that he should expect to be “savaged” on the student
evaluations at the end of the term. Several students subsequently
complained on their teaching evaluations about the content of
his lectures on the subject of rape, saying that they were
offensive, that he should not be allowed to teach at Harvard, and
so on. Alan Dershowitz, of course, need have little fear of losing
his job. The same is not true of less prominent, junior faculty at
institutions across the country.(19) I have personally received
evaluation forms complaining that the professor “teaches his
own views,” and I have as a result been influenced to remove
controversial material from my classes.
College students do not have a universal appreciation for the
ideals of free speech and academic freedom. An anthropology
professor I once had at Berkeley became locally (in)famous for
his criticisms of affirmative action and for his view that
minorities and women had lower average levels of intelligence
than the rest of the population. Subsequently, a group of
Student Evaluations: A Critical Review 4/22/21, 11:33 AM Page 7 of 14
students disrupted his class to protest against his allegedly
racist, sexist, and homophobic teachings. The students went on
to call for his dismissal from the university. Signs appeared on
campus saying, “No more racist bullshit in the name of academic
freedom.”(20) Berkeley, it seemed, had come a long way since the
days of the free speech movement. Fortunately for him, the
professor already had tenure. But what would have happened to
a junior faculty member in a similar position? Given the student
reaction in this case, it is not difficult to imagine that even much
less controversial statements might have elicited low end-ofterm
evaluations from those students who wished to see the
professor fired. Even a small percentage of such extremely
negative evaluations could have a significant impact on a
professor’s career.
Professors discussing unconventional or controversial ideas may
also receive a larger number of very positive student
evaluations, relative to other professors whose classes are more
bland and, perhaps, boring. In spite of this, there are two reasons
why the overall incentive created by SEF will be for the professor
to avoid controversy. First, the average rating professors receive
is 4 or above on a scale of 1 – 5; therefore, a very hostile student
can give a rating three points below the average, whereas a very
enthusiastic student can only give a rating one point above the
average. Thus, assuming the professor is average, the marginal
unusually hostile student has an impact up to three times greater
than the marginal unusually enthusiastic student. Second, there
is a saying in American politics to the effect that one doesn’t gain
votes, one only loses them–meaning that it is much easier to
earn a voter’s opposition through taking substantive stands on
issues than it is to gain support by doing so. If a politician says
three things that I agree with and one that I disagree with (all
concerning emotionally charged issues), I am more likely to vote
against him, provided the other candidate did not say anything I
disagreed with, even if this was because the latter said very little
at all. This explains why American politicians often avoid taking
non-trivial stands on issues. A similar principle applies to
professors, when their retention is decided in a similar manner:
any statement or question a teacher raises that anyone could take
offense at will run a risk of evoking hostile reactions from a few
Student Evaluations: A Critical Review 4/22/21, 11:33 AM Page 8 of 14
students who will regard the statement or question as grounds
for a negative evaluation, while there is little chance that even a
non-hostile student will take it as grounds for an especially
positive evaluation. Thus, it is reasonable to suppose that the
degree to which a professor is controversial would be a strong
depressive factor on his student evaluations, although this thesis
has not yet been subjected to systematic testing.
There exist simple and well-known ways for a professor to avoid
giving offense. One technique, when a class ostensibly focuses
on a controversial subject matter, is to focus one’s lectures on
what other people have said. For example, a professor may,
without raising any eyebrows, teach an entire course of lectures
on ethics without ever making an ethical statement, since he
confines himself to making reports of what other people have
said about ethics. This ensures that no one can take offense
towards him. During classroom discussions, he may simply nod
and make non-committal remarks such as “Interesting” and
“What do the rest of you think about that?”, regardless of what
the students say. (This provides the added “advantage” of
reducing the need both for preparation before class and for effort
during class, on the part of the professor.) Although pedagogic
goals may often require correcting students or challenging their
logic, SEF-based performance evaluations provide no incentive
to do so, while the risk of reducing student happiness provides a
strong incentive not to do so. Some students may take offense, or
merely experience negative feelings, upon being corrected,
whereas it is unlikely that students would experience such
negative feelings as a result of a professor’s failure to correct
them. Overall, SEF reward professors who tell their students
what they want to hear.
G. F. Schueler draws our attention to a related case:
Socrates, who is usually thought to have been one of the world’s
“Great Teachers,” nevertheless received rather low marks from his
“students” on his final teaching evaluation. At a time of life when
most of us would long since have retired, the Athenian jurors at
his trial met his request for a pension by voting to put him to
Student Evaluations: A Critical Review 4/22/21, 11:33 AM Page 9 of 14
As Schueler notes, there is no reason to believe that the majority
of Athenian citizens who were familiar with Socrates’ activities
would have evaluated his work as a philosopher much
differently. The death sentence, allegedly for corrupting the
youth and believing in gods of his own invention, was Socrates’
payment for his lifelong efforts at challenging the beliefs of his
fellow citizens. Though today’s students lack the power to put to
death professors with whom they disagree, the lesson that such
challenges are not always welcome is unlikely to be lost on those
professors who hold unconventional views.
7. Why Use SEF?
In the light of the preceding objections, why do most institutions
continue to use SEF? The main reasons are probably the
following: (a) SEF are easy and inexpensive to administer. (b)
SEF give an impression of objectivity, in comparison with more
“subjective” measures such as letters from observers, since SEF
produce definite numbers. (The impression seems to be an
illusion, however, since the numbers are merely measurements
of subjective impressions.) (c) There are few alternatives to SEF,
if one wants to assess teaching effectiveness. Steven Cahn argues
that teaching should be assessed by experts in the field, i.e., one’s
colleagues,(22) but as indicated in section 1, such measures
appear to be even less valid. Greenwald and Gillmore suggest
using student ratings but with statistical corrections for grading
leniency; this, however, would not address the concerns of
sections 4, 5, and 6 above.
8. Other Approaches
Institutions seeking to improve teaching quality may take one or
more of the following measures, which would not be subject, or
would be less subject, to the objections of sections 3-6:
1. Faculty members could be offered courses or workshops on
improving teaching effectiveness, receiving recognition on
performance reviews for having taken such courses.
Student Evaluations: A Critical Review 4/22/21, 11:33 AM Page 10 of 14
2. Student evaluation forms could be redesigned to emphasize
relatively objective matters, such as “Did the professor come to
class on time?”, “Did he read student work and return it within a
reasonable time frame?”, and so on, rather than subjective items
such as “How would you rate this instructor?” or “How fair was
the grading?” The former sort of questions would probably be
less subject to the effects of bias than the latter. In addition, they
have a better chance of inducing improvements in teaching
3. Written comments might be taken into account in weighting
student ratings. Evaluation forms on which low ratings are given
without explanation, or where the complaints are directed at the
professor’s beliefs, the harshness of the grading, the difficulty of
the course, or the professor’s personal characteristics (such as
physical appearance, clothing style, or personality) might be
4. Teaching can be evaluated in part by examination of syllabi
and other course materials. These can be used to verify that a
course contains substantive content; but professors should not be
monitored for the “correctness” or moral or political value of that

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