Social influence is inherent in the process of classroom instruction. Interpersonal power, as social influence, is a relational phenomenon and is defined “as an individual’s potential to have an effect on another person’s or group of persons’ behavior” (Richmond et al. 1980, 38). It is a teacher’s job to communicate and to have an effect on students’ behavior and learning. Typically, teachers use power to help students learn, to keep students on task, to foster appropriate interactions between teacher and student and between student and student, to encourage students to stop antisocial or anti-productive behaviors, to encourage students to engage in pro-social and productive behaviors, etc. Notably, students exert interpersonal power in the classroom as well. Student communication, actions, and reactions have an influence on teachers and on other students.
It is important, as well, to realize that power is a perception. No one has power unless others perceive them to have it. Teacher power is granted or perceived by students, and student power is granted or perceived by teachers and other students. Conceptualization and use of power must be receiver-based.
French & Raven (1959) outlined five basic bases of interpersonal power: coercive, legitimate, reward, referent, and expert. These power bases are anchored in the eye of the beholder – the perception of the person on the receiving end of the power use (i.e., the “target”). Coercive power is the perception of the target that the “source” (i.e., the person who has the power) can punish them if they do not do what the source wants. Legitimate power is the perception by the target that the source has the official right to tell them what to do simply by merit of position or authority. Society grants this power to certain individuals in certain roles or functions (e.g., teachers). Reward power is based on the target’s perception that the source has the ability to provide something desirable in exchange for cooperation. Like coercive power, this perception is influenced by whether or not the source can or will provide the reward. Referent power is based on the target’s desire to be like the source. This power base is rooted in the concept of identification. If a student likes and “identifies” with a teacher, he/she is more likely to do what the teacher suggests. Referent power is one of the strongest power bases available and tends to have more positive and long-term outcomes than other power bases. Expert power is the perception by the target that the source has great knowledge, training, background, and/ or experience in a given area. “Knowledge is power” is a common and well-understood phrase. For this power base to be effective it must be relevant and seen as necessary by the target. There is a significant body of research literature dealing with classroom power.
In the early 1980s, a series of “Power in the Classroom” studies was launched to examine the operation and influence of power and compliance-gaining in instructional settings. Instructor power use was found to be significantly correlated with student affective and cognitive learning (e.g., Richmond & McCroskey 1984). Other studies have extended findings from this research series. Richmond (1990) discovered a significant relationship between instructor power use and student exiting motivation to study course content.
Culture plays a significant role in classroom power. Roach and Byrne (2001) found that American instructors are perceived to use significantly more power in all five power bases than German instructors. In a comparison with French instructors, American instructors are perceived to use significantly more reward and referent power, and French instructors are perceived to use significantly more legitimate power (Roach et al. 2005).
Students also have and exercise power in the classroom. Golish (1999) found that students feel they have more power with graduate teaching assistants (GTAs) than they do with professors. Golish and Olson (2000) found that although teachers were perceived to use more power, students also used power and this power use was positively correlated with teacher power use. These studies indicate that supervisors and subordinates have power in an interaction context; power does not just come from the top down.
It is important that teachers use classroom power effectively. The overall goal in the classroom is learning and teacher power use is intended to promote this. Research indicates that though coercive and legitimate power can be used to accomplish desired short-term ends, the negative interpersonal aspects of these techniques are usually counter-productive in the long term. Even reward power, generally perceived as positive, can be ineffective in the long term. Research indicates that teachers should concentrate instead on using referent and expert power. These two are the most pro-social power bases that produce the most positive outcomes. Use of referent power requires that teachers establish positive and trusting interpersonal relationships with students. Students are usually eager to respond to guidance from teachers they like and with whom they identify. Additionally, if teachers can convey their competence and character to the students, the resulting level of credibility will allow the teacher to use expert power approaches toward the desired end.
- French, J. R. P., Jr., & Raven, B. (1959). The bases of social power. In D. Cartwright (ed.), Studies in social power. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, pp. 150–167.
- Golish, T. D. (1999). Students’ use of compliance gaining strategies with graduate teaching assistants: Examining the other end of the power spectrum. Communication Quarterly, 47, 12–32.
- Golish, T. D., & Olson, L. N. (2000). Students’ use of power in the classroom: An investigation of student power, teacher power, and teacher immediacy. Communication Quarterly, 48, 293–310.
- Richmond, V. P. (1990). Communication in the classroom: Power and motivation. Communication Education, 39, 181–195.
- Richmond, V. P., & McCroskey, J. C. (1984). Power in the classroom II: Power and learning. Communication Education, 33, 25–36.
- Richmond, V. P., McCroskey, J. C., David, L. M., & Koontz, K. A. (1980). Perceived power as a mediator of management communication style and employee satisfaction: A preliminary investigation. Communication Quarterly, 28, 37–46.
- Roach, K. D., & Byrne, P. R. (2001). A cross-cultural comparison of instructor communication in American and German classrooms. Communication Education, 50, 1–14.
- Roach, K. D., Cornett-DeVito, M. M., & DeVito, R. (2005). A cross-cultural comparison of instructor communication in American and French classrooms. Communication Quarterly, 53, 87–107.
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