Teachers enter the classroom with one overarching goal – to facilitate learning. In order to fulfill this goal, they are constantly making decisions regarding how much work to assign, how rigorous to grade, and key to my study - how to communicate with students. Although there are many types of teacher communication behaviors that affect learning outcomes, I examined the verbal and nonverbal behaviors that teachers use to influence students and the verbal and nonverbal behaviors that teachers use to communicate understanding or misunderstanding to students.
Teachers are constantly influencing students - to think critically, to complete assignments, to behave appropriately, and so on. Consequently, the way teachers influence students, or exert power, in the classroom can have a positive or negative impact on learning outcomes. In addition, teachers use verbal and nonverbal behaviors to communicate they understand, or conversely do not understand, their students. To communicate understanding, teachers do things such as accurately summarize information students share, ask follow-up questions, directly state they understand their students, and identify and confirm emotions that accompany students’ messages. Conversely, to communicate misunderstanding, teachers refrain from paraphrasing or summarizing student contributions, respond to students’ contributions with a blank stare, provide little feedback after students’ comments, and/or answer questions incorrectly. Students’ perceptions of being understood or misunderstood by their teacher can also have a positive or negative effect on learning. Thus, the goal of my project was to determine the relationship between these two teacher communication behaviors in the college classroom.
Five hundred and fifty-five undergraduate students completed an online survey about a current teacher’s communication behaviors, and as a result, several important findings were revealed. First, when college instructors communicate from prosocial power bases, they are also more likely to use verbal and nonverbal behaviors that communicate understanding. Prosocial power bases include reward power, expert power, and referent power. Instructors communicate from the reward power base when they compliment or praise students for following instructions, publicly recognize students for exceeding expectations, and reward the class for complying with their requests. They communicate from the expert power base when they deliver clear lectures, demonstrate advanced knowledge/expertise in the content of the course, and discuss current theory and research during class. Instructors communicate from the referent power base when they are authentic and genuine when interacting with students, relate to students in an open and approachable manner, and share personal stories and illustrations during class.
Second, when college instructors communicate from antisocial power bases, they are also more likely to use verbal and nonverbal behaviors that communicate misunderstanding. Antisocial power bases include legitimate and coercive power. Teachers communicate from the legitimate power base when they relate to students in ways that are formal or distant, use their position as Professor to maintain complete and total control over the class, and communicate they consider their position as Professor to be superior to that of students. They communicate from the coercive power base when they punish students for not following instructions, glare at students who misbehave in class, and belittle or put down students during class.
Third, teachers’ use of referent and expert power bases are the most predictive of students’ perceptions of instructor understanding, whereas teachers’ use of the coercive power base is the most predictive of students’ perceptions of misunderstanding. Thus, when teachers enact verbal and nonverbal behaviors that reflect referent and expert power, they are also more likely to utilize communication strategies that communicate to students they are understood. Conversely, when teachers rely on communication behaviors that align with the coercive power base, they are more likely to use verbal and nonverbal behaviors that communicate misunderstanding.
Overall, the results from my study suggest that college instructors should strive to utilize prosocial power bases, specifically the referent and expert bases, and avoid antisocial power bases, primarily the coercive base, to influence students in the classroom. Doing so could increase perceptions of understanding and reduce perceptions of misunderstanding, which in turn could affect other learning outcomes, such as student motivation and affective learning. In addition, teacher training programs should focus on helping novice teachers understand and use specific types of communication behaviors, such as prosocial power bases and behaviors that communicate understanding. Utilizing positive communication behaviors in the classroom could help teachers get one step closer to meeting their primary goal of facilitating learning.