Bonuses for being a popular teacher are coming to colleges. The Chancellor of Texas A&M University is offering up to $10,000 to professors based on end-of-year evaluations by students. But many faculty members are concerned that evaluations are a popularity contest. And the Texas A&M faculty senate passed a resolution opposing it.
The professors are correct to reject his scheme. Solid research in 1973 by three researchers—Naftulin, Ware, and Donnely—discovered the "Dr. Fox Effect." They hired a professional actor and coached him to "lecture" with great enthusiasm and confidence, using humorous anecdotes. The fraudulent "Dr. Myron L. Fox" was introduced as an authority on the application of mathematics to human behavior.
He lectured to three classes using contradictory statements and double talk that was carefully rehearsed to avoid any real content. In the question-and-answer sessions, he replied "with meaningless references to unrelated topics." But he was very elegant and entertaining and all three audiences responded favorably. No one detected "Dr. Fox" was a fraud.
Students commented: "Lively examples...good analysis of subject...he was certainly captivating...knowledgeable." One person even indicated having read one of the speaker’s (nonexistent) publications. Dr. Fox got rave reviews for empty entertainment. More recent studies continue to confirm that most students easily confuse entertainment with teaching.
At Kansas regent’s schools, we must use student evaluations and we try to get beyond the entertainment factor. Was the teacher well prepared? Organized? Available during office hours? Clear in presentation? Answers students’ questions? But these questions, rated on a 1-to-5 scale, are a general and often trivial probe of the rich context of complex face-to-face classroom interactions. "Does the teacher stimulate students to grow intellectually?" is a question that cannot be given a 1-to-5 number.
While the Dr. Fox effect gave students "the illusion of having learned," the numerical evaluation forms often give administrators and their assessment staff an equally false "illusion of having evaluated." It is no more valid to evaluate teaching by number than it is to put a number ranking on the Mona Lisa.
Good teachers do thrive on the written comments on evaluations. Teaching is a complex art that cannot be broken into a checklist. But our language is complex enough and some college students should be talented and self aware enough to be able to characterize some of the intellectual growth they achieve in their classes. And no written student survey is as good as teaching evaluation by direct observation by veteran colleagues.
Yet many good students will not recognize, at the time they complete a class, how productive much of their grueling, exhausting, coursework will be until years later when they begin to apply their mastery in the workplace or in advanced study. Only then do many students realize that the hard old teacher helped them develop skills that an easy and entertaining teacher would not.
We live in a new age when students are using online databanks such as "Pick-a-Prof" to find easy teachers. There is a strong correlation between giving easy grades and high student evaluations. The Texas A&M proposal not only rewards easy classes and entertainment, but also sends the unpopular teachers in to observe and copy them. But we are a profession, not a company trying to make "student customers" happy. The lesson from Dr. Fox is that following that path leads to colleges of entertainment.
John Richard Schrock trains biology teachers and lives in Emporia.