In a virtual meeting, does our background matter? Experimental design practice

0 0 676

As telehealth visits skyrocketed during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, researchers wondered if the physician’s background mattered to their patients (Houchens et al., 2024). (The article is freely available.) The researchers asked volunteers to look at seven photos of the same physician with different backgrounds: bedroom, kitchen, bookcase, exam room, physician office (counter with office-type things on it), a wall of diplomas, and a solid color (control condition).  The researchers also asked about the type of physician (primary care or specialty care) and whether the patient’s length of relationship with the physician (new or established).

This experiment is a 7 (type of background) x 2 (type of physician) x 2 (length of relationship) within-participants design, although they analyzed it as a 7 x 4 (lumping type of physician and length of relationship into one variable). In the results, neither type of physician nor length of relationship mattered. The only statistical difference was for type of background.

There were two dependent variables. First, researchers asked volunteers which of the seven backgrounds they preferred. As compared to the solid color background, volunteers preferred the wall of diplomas followed by the physician office. The least preferred—again as compared to the solid color background—were the bedroom and the kitchen. There were no statistical differences between the solid color and the bookcase or the exam room.

For the second dependent variable, researchers calculated a composite score after asking volunteers to rate the physicians with each background on six factors on a scale of one to ten: “how knowledgeable, trustworthy, caring, approachable, and professional the physician appeared, and how comfortable the physician made the respondent feel.” As compared to the solid background (7.7), the only two backgrounds where the physician was rated statistically lower were the bedroom (7.2) and the kitchen (7.0). Because this was a within-participant design and volunteers saw the same physician against every background, I could imagine that once volunteers rated one, it may have been more difficult to rate the others much differently.  

After sharing this study with your students, give small groups this hypothesis:

If students see an instructor in a virtual classroom with a professional background, they will rate the instructor as being more knowledgeable and trustworthy.

Ask students to design an experiment to test this hypothesis. Students should be sure to identify the independent variable and its levels and the two dependent variables, providing operational definitions for all variables.

Invite a spokesperson for each group to share their experimental design.



Houchens, N., Saint, S., Kuhn, L., Ratz, D., Engle, J. M., & Meddings, J. (2024). Patient preferences for telemedicine video backgrounds. JAMA Network Open, 7(5), e2411512.


About the Author
Sue Frantz has taught psychology since 1992. She has served on several APA boards and committees, and was proud to serve the members of the Society for the Teaching of Psychology as their 2018 president. In 2013, she was the inaugural recipient of the APA award for Excellence in the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning at a Two-Year College or Campus. She received in 2016 the highest award for the teaching of psychology--the Charles L. Brewer Distinguished Teaching of Psychology Award. She presents nationally and internationally on the topics of educational technology and the pedagogy of psychology. She is co-author with Doug Bernstein and Steve Chew of Teaching Psychology: A Step-by-Step Guide, 3rd ed. and is co-author with Charles Stangor on Introduction to Psychology, 4.0.