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The “Dr. Fox Effect”

by Donald Prothero, Apr 18 2012

Having taught for 33 years at small nationally-ranked liberal arts colleges (Vassar, Knox, and Occidental) where teaching is a priority over research, I’ve seen pedagogical fads come and go. It seems like every 2-3 years the college brings in some pedagogical “expert” to tell us experienced professors that we were doing it all wrong for years, despite the excellent responses and teaching evaluations that we receive. I’ve sat through endless committee meetings and workshops where they try to get us to follow their “one size fits all” approaches to pedagogy. In some fields where discussion of everyday experience is the norm, they insist that we should make every class a discussion section, and let students “discover for themselves” what the field is about. I’m all in favor of “active learning,” as the current fad is called, but there are limits to where it is applicable. Some subjects, such as most of the natural sciences, are “content-heavy” and require that the students be exposed to a certain minimum amount of material, or they cannot take the next course in our  highly structured and sequential curriculum. We try to make up for it by giving students all the “active learning” we can in lab sections, where they handle the materials and do the experiments themselves. But even in a small liberal arts college where the largest lecture section is limited to 32 students, it’s a severe challenge to “cover the material” and expect the student to also take an active role in every lecture. When some humanities professor tell us science faculty that we should turn Intro Chemistry into a non-stop discussion section, we all just laugh at their cluelessness. Not only do we have the constraints of a large amount of material to cover so the student can take the next course in the sequence, but in the case of chemistry and biology, there are MCAT and GRE exams that also have an expectation of a certain amount of “content” mastered by the students’ third year. Nonetheless, the reality is that the content-driven lecture is an essential element of at least some college courses. You may be able to get away from them in some subjects in the humanities and social sciences where every person has at least some valid expertise or ability to form an opinion, but it won’t work with a  lot of the material we cover in the natural sciences, since so much of it is alien to one’s everyday experience and few students could have a meaningful debate about the merits of some reaction in organic chemistry.

This is not to say that I don’t integrate “active learning” techniques in my lecture whenever I can. They can range from simple things like passing a specimen of a rock or fossil around and make sure they are all see or feel what I’m describing; or getting them to all stand up in their seats, and then having the men and women sit down in 2:1 ratios as if they were atoms paired up into crystals and settling out of a magma chamber.  I frequently pose questions to the class and wait patiently til someone comes up with the answer, giving them a few hints along the way if necessary. I’ve got amusing cartoons that make the point interspersed here and there through my slides; I try to make sly references to cultural phenomena or things the students can relate to, or poke fun at familiar movie plot devices that are geologically impossible. I try to pose realistic scenarios (especially on exam questions, which are all essay style) so that they can show they understand how their knowledge applies to the real world, and not just how well they can memorize and regurgitate a list of facts.

Many big universities are forced by the necessity of their big enrollments to schedule lecture sections with hundreds of students. They have all sorts of new gimmicks and toys to keep the students showing up and paying attention. The latest is the “clicker”, a small remote-control unit that electronically gives each student a chance to select answers to a question posed by the lecturer (while also taking roll at the same time). I’m aware of the difficulties in teaching huge sections where you can’t even see their faces, but fortunately I’ve been spared that most of my career. My largest lecture sections ever were about 80 students, but the room was small and shallow so I could see the back row easily. I made a point of watching the students’ faces as I lectured (I’ve taught for so long I no longer need notes) to spot whether my bellwether students are looking puzzled. If so, this is my cue to stop, back up, and make sure they understand. Even in my largest classes, I tried to know all their names in the first few weeks, and in small classes, I can immediately spot who’s absent. Most of my students really appreciate it that I know who they are and keep up with how they’re doing in class, and whether they show up. And I have 33 years of excellent student course evaluations to back me up.

The key, as I learned early in my teaching career, to making a lecture effective is making it interesting and—dare I say?—entertaining. We’ve all had experiences with boring, poorly presented lectures, where it is a struggle just to stay awake, let alone to follow what the lecturer is saying. But there’s a big difference between a decent lecturer and the truly gifted communicator as well. One year, I was visiting a friend in Salt Lake City, and she had me tag along and sit in on a lecture by her favorite professor, Dr. Laurence Lattman at the University of Utah. He started the lecture by asking the students to close their notebooks! He wanted their undivided attention to follow the amazing story he was about to tell, and he didn’t want them distracted by writing things down. Then he launched into a truly spellbinding lecture, weaving in themes of history and culture into a simple geology topic—and the class was mesmerized. I’d never seen a performance like it, despite all the years I’ve witnessed lecturers of every caliber, including some amazing speakers we bring to the Skeptic Society lecture series.

But there is more to it than that. Early in my career, before I had tenure, we untenured faculty all agonized about the student evaluations and how just a few disgruntled students had the power to destroy your career, even if you had done a great job. Then my colleagues and I ran into a series of famous papers about the “Dr. Fox effect” (Naftulin et al., 1973; Williams and Ware, 1975, 1976). These studies, done in the early 1970s, decided to see how much the entertainment value (“seductiveness”) of the lecture affected student evaluations and retention of material. They coached a good actor (in this case, veteran character actor Michael Fox—NOT the much younger Michael J. Fox, whose screen name added the fake “J.” because he couldn’t use the same name as the older actor) with no formal training in a subject to give a convincing, exciting lecture that was pure gibberish! They disguised him and named his character “Dr. Myron L. Fox”. They then ran several different experiments on different groups, both students and faculty. In some trials,  “Dr. Fox” gave a relatively bland formal presentation, while others when he pulled out all the stops to be entertaining, engaging, and charming. The results were clear. First, no matter which delivery he used, no one spotted that the lecture made no sense! But when course evaluations were turned in, the audience made it clear that they felt they had learned a lot more from the engaging lecture rather than the more conventional one. In both cases, the audience did very well in answering questions afterwards about the content of the course—without noticing that it was gibberish! Not surprisingly, they had much better “retention” of the material in the engaging lecture than they did in a conventional one.

Of course, to a terrified junior faculty member struggling to get good student course evaluations, this is discouraging. All that seems to count is being a good actor—even if you don’t know the material! But it does raise a larger point: human learning is a complex process, but it’s clear that you have to engage and get their attention and even amuse them or they’ll tune you out—no matter how solid the technical side of your lecture is.

This makes the idea of “distance learning” and teaching all courses on-line so that the student and the professor never even have to be in the same room seem even more absurd to me. Lots of universities are adopting “distance learning” modes more and more, because they are cheap and allow them to serve a potentially infinite number of students with a pre-packaged, pre-recorded series of lectures. But as someone with decades of college education experience under my belt, I can see it’s just a scam to cut costs. Most of the subjects we teach require that you learn by discussion with your peers as well as the professor, nearly impossible when you’re not even in the room. Even in the lecture setting, the main job of education is interaction and communication, which are virtually impossible if you’re just flipping through Powerpoint slides on your laptop in your pajamas in your bedroom.



Naftulin, D., J.E. Ware, Jr., and F.A. Donnelly, 1973. “The Doctor Fox Lecture: A Paradigm of Educational Seduction”, Journal of Medical Education 48: 630-635.

Williams, R., and J. Ware, 1975, “The Dr. Fox effect: a study of lecturer effectiveness and ratings of instruction,” Journal of Medical Education 50: 149-156.

Williams, R., and J. Ware, 1976, “Validity of student ratings of instruction under different incentive conditions: A further study of the Dr. Fox effect”, Journal of Educational Psychology 68: 48–56.

22 Responses to “The “Dr. Fox Effect””

  1. starskeptic says:

    Ha – on my laptop in my pajamas in my living-room…waiting for the PowerPoint slides…

  2. Sam says:

    Oops, I meant to rate it 5 stars! Can’t undo the earlier rating..

  3. Jim Grinstead says:

    The Dr. Fox Effort shows up lots of places. We use it at News Consumer to illustrate bias in the media.

  4. Eric Welch says:

    As someone who suffered through many huge undergraduate classes at an Ivy League university, I would argue those lectures were “distance learning” although often not much learning was actually going on. I would also like to point out that the “book” is one of the best learning tools around, yet that is also a form of “distance learning.” Ultimately, what is learned has less to do with the teacher/lecturer, than with the student.

  5. Kevin says:

    Eric Mazur at Harvard has no problem teaching students through a questioing format in his physics classes…without lecturing…student retention of knowledge is much higher than when he lectured. He assigns a reading the evening before, and poses questions during class, which the students discuss in small groups. He facilitates the discourse by asking guiding questions.

  6. G says:

    I know someone who teaches through an online graduate business program from a large accredited university. They struggle with presentation of the material such that the students really do have a chance to learn the material; they’re as harshly graded on the same material as the students who attend in person.

    Among other things, they do have live group discussions in school-provided forums, live “office hours” where the professor is available online to answer questions, and a more traditional-type forum where they can post for non-live discussions and interact with both their peers and the professor.

    My friend who teaches through this program says that she does have a lot of confidence in their methods. She’s seen some good results. So hey, not all distance learning is just watching Powerpoints in your pajamas.

  7. LovleAnjel says:

    I’ve felt the push for both interactive learning AND online courses from the administration (how, exactly, am I supposed to do both?).

    Different students learn best in different ways. Some students (primarily the top 20%) do really well with interactive learning. The rest basically suffer without the support of straight lecturing. We just need to do what we’ve always been doing, which is mixing it up enough to keep things interesting.

    From what my colleagues say, an online course is even worse because the students have to contact them for a lot of help “outside” of the powerpoints. The interaction that would normally happen in class and thus include every student, now has to happen on an individual basis. It seems to be more of a faculty time-suck than a traditional course.

  8. LovleAnjel says:

    Also, you can play a pretty good game of “Spot the Logical Fallacy” with the pedagogical literature. I even found a paper which used the appeal to quantum physics!

  9. ecw0647 says:

    Anyone who has seen some of the sophistication now available in online courses will realize that to call them Power Point slides is describing something totally inane and more resembling the traditional college lecture hall where professors either lecture straight or lecture with power point slides. You could simply record that and play it back over the Internet. That’s NOT a good online class. LovleAnjel is correct when she describes them as a time-suck since in a good online class there is far more individual interaction with students via phone, email, chat, skype, whatever, than with the traditional lecture format. We, as faculty, have a tendency to assume that because we learn best by sitting in a chair and being talked to, that our students learn best that way also. Definitely no longer true and some of the online classes I’ve seen force individual students to become involved with a whole variety of learning methods including audio lectures, video presentations, essays, interactive evaluative methods, and so on. There’s really good traditional teaching and really bad, just the same as is true for online classes.

  10. Clara Nendleshaw says:

    I have followed quite a few university level physics courses, and we would have been *much* better served by videos of a good professional lecturer with appropriate demonstration material and such. What we got instead was a bunch of idiots with Ph.D.s reading inferior versions of the textbook material to us while screwing up the formulae they chalk on the blackboard.
    And the sad thing is, this was the normal state of affairs at one of the better universities of Europe. Friends with whom I’ve discussed on the internet seem to agree that the situation is pretty much the same everywhere.
    I say, toss university lectures, and use this whole new media thing to the fullest extent possible to create something new. And maybe then getting a degree in science in a reasonable time frame can become the norm rather than the exception.

  11. HighlandAndy says:

    Sorry but I have to disagree. Having left school without the required grades to continue onto higher education at the age of forty I enrolled with the Open University in the UK. Apart from three weeks very intensive of lab work my entire degree in Physics was obtained through distance learning, whilst holding down a full time job. More students are taught quantum mechanics at the Open University than all the rest of the universities in the UK. Learning depends upon how much a student is prepared to put in, not just the quality of the lectures.

  12. Erik Jensen says:

    I enjoyed this post until it went off the rails in the last paragraph. Online courses are not “a pre-packaged, pre-recorded series of lectures”. And online students are not “flipping through Powerpoint slides on your laptop in your pajamas.” I’d encourage Dr. Prothero to see a properly designed and implemented online science course before repeating these generalizations.

    • Donald Prothero says:

      There may be science courses where this would work, but it is simply impossible in geology, especially since our labs require students to work with rocks and fossils and learn to identify the real things with all their imperfections, not images on a screen. Many geology courses are taught partially or entirely in the field, which does not work well on line (:virtual field trips are a poor substitute for the real thing). I dare say most chemistry lab courses fit this description as did all the courses I took as a biology major. Indeed, there are only a handful of science courses that are not lab-based and would allow distance learning.

  13. Steve-o Stonebraker says:

    The examples you give of “active learning” don’t ring true to me, Donald. I won’t assume that you’re unfamiliar with the education research on these topics, but I feel like you haven’t presented it fairly. Passing around a stone and standing/sitting in a certain pattern don’t sound like the sorts of things I’ve seen and read about in courses that have been designed for active engagement. The “active” aspect refers to the students’ minds actively thinking about the material. *Physical* activity like moving around or touching things may help (since it introduces additional modes to build associations with) but isn’t at the crux of the phrase “active learning”. It’s like the difference between active and passive reading or listening.

    Slater and Prather’s “Lecture Tutorials” which require each student to frequently think through, discuss, and reassess their understanding of the material in the middle of the lecture session are much more what “active learning” means to me. Admittedly, the Lecture Tutorials so far don’t seem to have been applied in more hardcore for-majors courses, but Mazur’s well-marketed “Peer Instruction” follows a similar model and was developed in Harvard’s introductory physics sequence.

    And going beyond that, there are indeed successful courses that almost entirely eschew traditional lectures that some of your readers might want to look into. The “SCALE-UP” system pioneered at NCSU is an example, as well as the high-school level “Modeling Instruction”. These courses sometimes cover less material, but students’ retention and depth of understanding tend to counteract that when it comes to standardized tests. (They might not be familiar with as much stuff, but they are more likely than other students to answer correctly on the stuff that they *are* familiar with. And this is, of course, the same tradeoff you face in *any* attempt to go more in-depth on your material, regardless of the instructional style.)

    None of this is to counter your main point that an entertaining presentation is (generally) better than a boring one, assuming that the entertainment factor doesn’t interfere with the academic rigor on either the teacher’s preparation side or the students’ attentional side. Nor does it counter the idea that traditional teacher-centered lectures can be very effective teaching tools. Sadly, many lecture-based courses leave surprising gaps in student understanding, even those taught by professors who are entertaining and get great evaluations. Mazur’s own dive into education research was prompted by the realization that his physics students couldn’t get a decent score on the Force Concept Inventory despite the fact that all other indicators implied he was doing a good job. He couldn’t reconcile those data, and ended up developing Peer Instruction to try to fix the problem.

    Some further reading if people are interested:
    ((Nevermind. Including links made the blog software accuse me of posting spam. Use your Google-Fu, folks. SCALE-UP. Lecture Tutorials. Modeling Instruction.))


  14. Max says:

    The video of the Doctor Fox lecture is here

  15. John Chase says:

    A great lecture is still a powerful tool in the educator’s tool belt.

    As you say, modern pedagogical trends discourage lecturing. But it can be powerful and useful. Here are some more of my thoughts:

    I’m a high school math teacher, and I mostly lecture. Someday I may consider ‘flipping’ the classroom, which may be a good compromise.

    One way or another, students still need to learn the material from direct instruction. Some things are valuable to ‘discover on your own’ but you can’t earn a degree in math by rediscovering every single theorem by yourself!

    • Malachi Constant says:

      I’m studying to be a high school physical science teacher right now, and we’re being taught the “as much group work as possible” idea in my teaching courses. At the same time I’m taking a course being taught almost completely through group work.

      The problem is that this course is covering quantum mechanics. We do our group work questions before we arrive in class, then discuss our answers with our group. If none of us understand some question or concept we eventually have to say, “I dunno”, and move on. The professor will then briefly go over each question and give a one or two sentence explanation of the concept.

      When struggling with some of the group questions we end up trying to parse every sentence and word of the textbook (which the professor wrote for this class). I appreciate being given the time to sit and think about the concepts before class and to work through the math, but we already have group discussions before class working with our study groups. I would much rather have a straight up lecture where our confusion could be cured with a simple question or two.

      This is a Junior level course, and it would be much nicer if they treated us like adults who can be expected to do the work before class and would benefit from hearing it explained in a slightly different way by the professor in class instead of wasting time discussing stuff again with a slightly different group of fellow students. Sometimes this works and other students’ perspective helps me understand the material, but sometimes none of us understand it and all we get is the two sentence answer.

      I’m going to be teaching high school sophomores and juniors who have never been exposed to science, and I’m being taught that more group work is always better but, as others have commented here, you just can’t beat a good lecture for transmitting the basic concepts and methods in a science class. Group work is great for lots of reasons (peer teaching is very effective, having kids talk about the material with each other can greatly increase their understanding of it, it generates good discussion questions with the whole class), but the current trend of “more group work more of the time” just seems like another teaching fad to me. Two minutes with a professor can eliminate hours of frustration trying to grasp a concept.

      I know it’s just anecdotes, but from what I’ve experienced and seen in high school and university, and from what I heard from my fellow students, and also from what I’ve read it seems any teaching method that says, “Do this, this, and this” is necessarily too simplistic and useless.

      It seems to me that teaching is more art than science and that it would be far better to teach teachers a variety of methods of teaching and how to evaluate their own effectiveness rather than telling them to stick to this or that method.

      If I were training a chemist I would drill the concepts and methods into them, give them opportunity to gain experience using those concepts and methods in the real world alone and in groups, and show them how to step back and look at where they succeeded and where they failed, and how they can learn from that.

      Is training teachers so different? Or am I missing some realities of training teachers? Or something else?

      • Frank says:

        An anecdotal response: I gained my undergraduate degree in Earth Science Education. I went onto graduate school instead of becoming a high school teacher. I am now in my 6th year of graduate school (paleontology). Of all my courses from my undergraduate, I remember the most from my education courses. In those courses, they used similar techniques to what you have described. In contrast, I have trouble remembering anything I learned in advanced petrology or hydrogeology. So, the “fad” education techniques worked for me.

        On a side note, your statement about “teaching being more of an art than a science” really made me think.

  16. Jerrold Alpern says:

    Dr. Prothero, are you familiar with the online, graduate Seminars on Science courses at AMNH, ? Their format of textbooks, readings, videos, interactive assignments, final projects and intense, asynchronous discussions among the students and the course scientists and teachers is extremely effective. They are mostly taken by high school biology teachers. I am not a teacher, just an Ed. Vol. at the Museum but have taken six and will soon take a seventh. They work.

    For a more informal experience, Dr. Thomas R. Holtz, Jr. posts the syllabuses of his U. Md. courses online, . They are so dense, detailed and well-written that just studying them gives one a substantial part of the benefit of taking the courses in person.

  17. Phea says:

    Learning should be fun, entertaining, and engaging, as it difficult to become passionate about a field or subject when it’s not. I know that the more a really good book or movie hooks me, the more effort, attention, and energy I’m willing to put into experiencing it, to learn from it.

    I believe the key to learning is developing a passion for the subject. At least for learning on ones own. When a sports fan is passionate about his team, or particular player, or a movie, or history buff, it’s amazing how much stuff some learn, and not just memorize.

  18. Charles Alexander Zorn says:

    Five stars…it recorded 4.5 and wouldn’t let me modify it.

  19. Jolly says:

    I am shocked that “distance learning” as you put it (“online courses” or what have you) is a full-on replacement of face to face. Society seems to have accepted this. I think it is a shame all the way around.