The “Dr. Fox Effect”

Are You Getting the Most Out of Your Students? Revisiting the “Dr. Fox Effect”

Take a moment and think back to the last lecture you attended.  What do you remember about the person giving the talk?  Was the teacher fun and engaging?  Or was it an incredibly boring experience where you found yourself looking at your watch every couple of minutes, hoping that it would all be over soon?

Now let’s take it a step further.  How much did you actually learn from that lecture?

Both your perception of what you learned, as well as what you actually learned may have been influenced by an educational phenomenon called the “Dr. Fox Effect”.  This effect was first described in the early 1970’s in an attempt to determine the correlation between teacher expressiveness, lecture content, student evaluation, and achievement.

The initial experiment involved a professional actor by the name of Michael Fox (not to be confused with Michael J. Fox who added the “J” to differentiate himself from the older actor) who presented a series of lectures as “Dr. Myron L. Fox” to an audience of physicians, psychologists, and graduate students.  Dr. Fox was instructed to vary his presentation style between highly entertaining (“seductive”) and extraordinarily dull.  The one constant throughout each lecture was that the content was essentially drivel, filled with double talk, neologisms, non-sequiturs, and contradictory statements.  Afterwards, the course evaluations were reviewed and the results were clear – the audience felt that they had learned more from the engaging lecture compared to the dull, traditional talk.1

A video of one of the original “seductive” lectures given by Dr. Fox can be watched below.

A follow-up study found that when controlling for content, students performed better on achievement tests after attending the lecture where the teacher incorporated enthusiasm, expressiveness, friendliness, and humor into their teaching style.2

This phenomenon was recently revisited and found that once again students’ perception of learning was significantly affected by the instructor’s presentation style – NOT the content of the lecture.3 In the same study, student evaluation of teaching effectiveness was significantly better for those who incorporated strong non-verbal cues (stood upright, maintained good eye contact, and spoke fluidly without notes) into their lecture.

So what does this all mean?

  1. Spend time perfecting your presentation.  If you want to significantly improve your student evaluations to reflect the quality of what you teach, focus on developing strong, non-verbal communication skills in addition to the technical content of your lectures.

  2. The more engaging you are, the better your students will perform!  Improving your presentation skills may improve your students’ performance as well as increase the amount of information that they retain.

  3. Being a great educator isn’t easy.  Always keep your primary focus on delivering high-quality content, but recognize that the way you present will affect the way it is received.

References

1. Naftulin DH, Ware JE Jr, Donnelly FA. The Doctor Fox Lecture: a paradigm of educational seduction. J Med Educ. 1973 Jul;48(7):630-5. PubMed PMID: 4708420.

2. Ware JE Jr, Williams RG. The Dr. Fox effect: a study of lecturer effectiveness and ratings of instruction. J Med Educ. 1975 Feb;50(2):149-56. PubMed PMID: 1120118.

3. Carpenter SK, Wilford MM, Kornell N, Mullaney KM. Appearances can be deceiving: instructor fluency increases perceptions of learning without increasing actual learning. Psychon Bull Rev. 2013 May 4. [Epub ahead of print] PubMed PMID: 23645413.

 

Editor’s note:
Many thanks to John Greenwood for submitting this post. We want to welcome John to the iTeachEM team.

JCG Face Pic

Dr. John Greenwood

Comments

  1. says

    The “seduction” here is in believing education or learning has anything to do with style or popularity. Ted talks may make the audience feel smart, But feeling that you learned something is very different from actually retaining relevant clincal information. I would offer this recent study to make you question your belief about what makes a good lecture. http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/everybody-is-stupid-except-you/201305/do-the-best-professors-get-the-worst-ratings

    • says

      Interesting thoughts. Thanks for posting. I agree with much of what you say. This makes sense as I truly believe that good teaching doesn’t necessarily equate to an entertaining speaker. BUT, my experience (not studies for me here) tells me differently. Many of the talks that I have attended that were given by really talented speakers were very memorable and they INSPIRED me to want to know more…to want to learn more about it…even master the material. My experience with the lectures I have suffered through over the years tells me that being a charismatic speaker, a speaker that entertains AND inspires, is important. So, although I have learned quite a bit from “boring” speakers, I definitely remember the great ones. And to this day, many of those speakers still inspire me…That feeling that a really good speaker brings out in the listener has got to be important….

      Thanks for the article. Good read.

    • says

      Hi Jonathan,

      I agree, interesting thoughts. I think the TED talks are a great example of a presentation (a persuasive act) whose primary goal is to inspire an audience, but they are not intended to be educational lectures. There aren’t stated educational objectives, unlike many of our clinical/post-grad lectures. This is an important distinction because I agree all educational lectures should not just be TED talks, but in my opinion lecturers could benefit by using some of the presentation styles TED speakers incorporate into their presentations!

      The Carrell article is interesting, but does have some flaws. Each professor’s “Value-added” is incompletely defined from the perspective of teaching “style” – there were no explanations of what made a teacher “better” except their student’s performance on a standardized test. Did they utilize small groups? discussion? more active learning? Were the teaching styles in the follow-on classes different changing performance?

      It is interesting that the students’ performance was inversely proportional to the “qualifications” of the teacher.
      “We find that less experienced and less qualified professors produce
      students who perform significantly better in the contemporaneous
      course being taught, whereas more experienced and highly qualified
      professors produce students who perform better in the follow-on related
      curriculum.”

      Lastly, I have to agree with Rob about wanting to learn more about a topic after listening to a good lecture (or podcast for that matter). Unfortunately, there is a scant amount of literature on this concept.

      Again, thanks for your thoughtful comments!

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