Student Achievement

Students Learn Less When They Sense Teacher Hostility

By Sarah D. Sparks — May 11, 2018 2 min read
Students testing.
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Just as many students have stories of their favorite, inspirational teacher, many also can recall at least one class spent living in dread of a teacher’s acid comments. Maybe the teacher wanted to project take-no-guff sternness, or considered sarcasm the way to connect with adolescents.

Regardless of the reason, those teachers may have hurt their students’ academic progress, according to a new study in the journal Communication Education. It found that students in a lecture in which the teacher was hostile performed 5 percent lower on average on a test of the content than students in a class with a neutral teacher.

“The data tell a simple and perhaps unsurprising story: Some instructors are candidly mean to their students, and as a consequence, their students believe they learn less,” wrote lead author Alan Goodboy, a communications professor and bullying researcher at the University of West Virginia, and his colleagues. Prior studies have found that students remember put-downs and sarcastic or snide remarks by teachers and consider them a major barrier to learning.

Goodboy and researchers from West Virginia University and California State University, Long Beach, randomly assigned about 500 college students to either watch a lesson taught by a neutral teacher or one who was “antagonistic,” criticizing student comments, using put-downs, or favoring some students over others—though neither teacher actually raised his voice to students. Then both groups were asked about their impressions of the material and tested on its content.

Students who watched the hostile lecture were more likely than those who watched the neutral lecture to say they disliked the content, and more likely to report they would not take a class taught by the teacher in the future. And in a test of the material, students who watched the hostile teacher performed 5 percent worse than the other students.

Moreover, the students who were naturally oriented to learn to develop their own mastery of the subject, rather than just to get top grades and those who were inclined to put more effort into challenging tasks—in other words, the students mostly likely to be engaged and eager to learn in class—had the scores that were most negatively affected by being exposed to a derisive teacher.

“Even slight antagonism, coupled with otherwise effective teaching, can demotivate students from being engaged and hinder their learning opportunities,” Goodboy said in a statement on the study. “So even one bad day of teaching can ruin a student’s perception of the teacher and create an unnecessary roadblock to learning for the rest of the term.”

Teacher Stressors

These results come as teachers cope with shifting accountability systems, high-need students, and fights over pay and working conditions that have prompted walkouts across the country. It’s tough to not let that stress and frustration show in the classroom, and the rising tensions have prompted some administrators to call for more social and emotional supports for teachers, not just students.

The findings also build yet more evidence of the importance of relationships and respect in student learning. The students in the current study were all undergraduates, so the effects may be different on younger students in K-12.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Inside School Research blog.