Academic journal article e-Journal of Business Education and Scholarship Teaching

A Semester with a "Dr Fox": The Need to Go beyond SETS

Academic journal article e-Journal of Business Education and Scholarship Teaching

A Semester with a "Dr Fox": The Need to Go beyond SETS

Article excerpt


Most higher education institutions use some form of Student Evaluations of Teaching (SET) in order to gather information to gauge teaching performance and unit suitability. The value of SETs has come under increasing scrutiny, particularly in light of the Dr Fox study, which indicated that students are assessing charisma more than content. Similar results to the earlier study were found by the author during the process of moderating a teaching unit with a "Dr Fox" who had received good student feedback, and yet turned out to have poor subject knowledge. Whilst SETs may arguably provide a form of valuable feedback on teaching, the concept of teaching effectiveness needs to be monitored beyond simply the perceptions of the students' derived from a limited set of questions. This study recommends that in addition to SETs, a Reflective Action Learning Process (RALP) model be adopted, involving the use of a critical friend to provide additional feedback intended to assist with teaching improvement.

Key words: Student evaluation of teaching (SET), action learning, Dr Fox.


Student Evaluations of Teaching (SET) is a common device for assessing units and teaching ability in higher education (Pounder, 2007). The benefits and drawbacks of this approach have been discussed as far back as the 1920s (Wachtel, 1998), with mixed reports on the validity of the instruments and their usefulness in determining instructional effectiveness. Many writers have expressed reservations over the validity of SETs (Sheehan, 1975; Chandler, 1978; Powell, 1978; Vasta & Sarmiento, 1979; Dowell & Neal, 1982; Small, Hollenbeck, & Haley, 1982; Wilson, 1998; Slade & McConville, 2006). In particular, this form of evaluation has been criticised as encouraging inflating grades and "dumb(ing) down material" (Wilson, 1998: A12) in order to receive higher scores. However, it has also been discussed as being valid and accurate (Centra, 1977; Cohen, 1981; Marsh, 1984; McKeachie, 1990; Murray, Rushton, & Paunonen, 1990; Ramsden, 1991; Seldin, 1993; Koon and Murray, 1995) and can be an important product in striving for continual improvement (Wachtel, 1998).

Many higher education institutions have mandatory student feedback questionnaires to gauge feedback on unit and teaching performance at or towards the end of each semester. As many of the questions tend to focus on the teacher rather than the script (Biggs, 2003), SETs tend to measure charisma (the personality of the lecturer) as opposed to content (the coverage of critical issues by the lecturer) (Ware and Williams, 1975). SETs have also been blamed for encouraging some academics to lower their standards and raise their grades in order to "teach to the evaluations" (Wilson, 1998: A12).

The value of the academic's enthusiasm in influencing students was highlighted in research that sought to examine whether students are motivated by mandatory attendance policies (Verbeeten, 2007). When asked "what can your professor do to make you come to class?" (Verbeeten, 2007:31), the most popular response (90.4%) was "if he/she makes the class interesting" (Verbeeten, 2007:31). The second most common response (60%) was "if he/she is excited about the topic" (Verbeeten, 2007:31). This suggests that there is value in adding charisma to engage students in the learning environment. However, as SETs do tend to focus on measuring charisma, SETs should not be relied on exclusively.

Critics of SETs have seized on Naftulin, Ware, and Donnelly's (1973) research, which is commonly referred to as the Dr Fox study. In the study, the authors hypothesised that SETs largely rate charisma and popularity and that even experienced educators exposed to an irrelevant and meaningless but charismatic lecture can be seduced into feeling satisfied that they have learned. To examine this, the authors prepared a professional actor "who looked distinguished and sounded authoritative" (Natfulin et al, 1973: 631) to deliver a charismatic but insubstantial lecture on a topic that the actor had no knowledge of. …

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