It’s accepted wisdom that good relationships between teachers and their students lead to students who are willing to work harder in the classroom.
Could those positive feelings also have an impact in the other direction, leading teachers to up their instructional game?
As it turns out, yes.
A University of Missouri study found that students who feel their teachers care about them also report receiving better instruction.
Researchers pulled data for two years (the 2017 and 2018 academic years) from Missouri’s state-wide teacher evaluation system, in which students rated teachers’ effectiveness. They looked at four instructional areas, hypothesizing that teachers with positive student relationships would score higher in effectiveness:
- Cognitive engagement: Encouraged students to think deeply about the content.
- Problem-solving and critical thinning: Encouraged problem-solving and critical thinking.
- Affective engagement in the content: Ensured students were engaged.
- Instructional monitoring: Monitored student progress and adjusted their teaching strategy as needed.
Researchers say that positive teacher-student relationships tend to start declining after first grade, with the lowest drop in middle school, before evening out in high school.
The results showed that yes, students across grade levels rated caring teachers highly in the areas of cognitive engagement, problem-solving, and instructional monitoring. (There was an exception in the instructional monitoring ratings among seventh and eighth graders.)
“Our study supports previous studies that found classrooms with more positive TSRs [teacher-student relationships], have teachers who are more likely to check-in, monitor, scaffold, and/or provide constructive feedback to students, have greater confidence in their students’ abilities, and use better scaffolding strategies for critical thinking,” researchers wrote.
As for affective engagement, researchers came to believe that the reverse of their hypothesis was true—that students who feel the content is engaging will go on to have better relationships with their teachers.
Older students were also more likely to report teachers using complex, high-impact teaching practices. Researchers believe it may be in part due to their age and development, and partly because secondary school teachers are content specialists who can dive more deeply into their subjects.
“These cognitive developments allow adolescents to reason abstractly, incorporate new information, and monitor learning progress faster and easier,” researchers write. “In addition, as course content becomes more challenging in higher grades, teachers may tend to use these complex strategies more often.”
What might educators glean from the findings? That perhaps if they want to improve their teaching practices, researchers say, a good place to start would be improving their relationships with their students.
“One way to improve TSRs may be to use teaching strategies that affectively engage students in the content,” according to the report. “Effects are likely to occur for all students but may be strongest for secondary students.”