Teaching is a social influence process. Teachers influence students to learn. Influencing students to learn requires teachers to find ways to change students’ existing attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors. Teachers may need to induce a positive attitude toward learning mathematics or science. They may need to alter students’ beliefs about the causes of World War II. Teachers may need to encourage students to read more books. In order to effect such changes, teachers need to strategize ways to influence, motivate, or persuade students.
This process of persuasion, or the selection of verbal and nonverbal messages to effect change, is fundamental to teacher effectiveness. Persuasion always involves communication. The source of communication, or the teacher, seeks to elicit a particular, desired response from the receiver, or the student. The purpose of the communication is to change, modify, or shape the student’s responses. Classroom persuasion involves a conscious effort to influence students’ thoughts and behaviors.
Influence involves change; intentional influence involves a plan, a strategy, application, and persistence. From this perspective then, effective teachers are proactive and skilled persuaders. The teacher identifies specific attitudes, cognitions, or behaviors to be targeted, and deliberately designs messages intended to elicit those changes in the student. Most of what we know about learning is a product of persuasion. Influencing students to learn, then, is, by definition, what teachers do.
How Teachers Influence
Researchers have examined the various approaches teachers use to influence students to learn, both in and out of the classroom. Classroom management strategies, for instance, are designed to influence active student involvement, minimize student interference, and maximize efficient use of teacher time. The appeal of this perspective has its roots in a line of research in educational psychology demonstrating that the single best predictor of learning is academic engagement time (Woolfolk 2001). For example, teachers who are “with it” are keenly aware of what is going on in the classroom at all times, allowing them to notice problems early and put a stop to them. Being able to deal with more than one task at a time, or what Kounin (1970) calls overlapping, is another characteristic of effective classroom managers. Momentum is measured by the absence or presence of downtimes or slowdowns during instruction. During downtimes, students are likely to find alternative off-task behaviors more entertaining and engaging (Burden 1995; Charles 1996; Plax & Kearney 1999). In these and other ways, teachers are deliberatively and proactively influencing students’ on-task behaviors.
Another type of teacher influence occurs during mentoring (Waldeck et al. 1997). Students who are mentored receive academic, career, and social support, influencing greater student retention, persistence, and success. Similarly, teachers who make content relevant intentionally influence students’ willingness to attend, perceive, and retain information important to them. Teachers might also influence students in ways that motivate them to come to class prepared, study for tests, and enjoy the process of learning. Teachers who communicate caring or concern stimulate and influence student perceptions of teacher trust. At the same time, students evaluate the course and teacher positively and report greater learning with caring teachers (Teven & Hanson 2004).
Teachers also avail themselves of a number of power-based strategies designed to obtain student compliance. Conceptualized and operationalized as behavioral alteration techniques (BATs) and behavior alteration messages (BAMs), these strategies are used by teachers to influence or manage students’ behavior and misbehavior (Kearney et al. 1984; Kearney & Plax 1992). In all of these ways and more, teachers strategically and proactively influence their students’ attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors.
How Students Resist Teacher Influence
Research indicates that students are not entirely open to teacher influence. In fact, US elementary and secondary public and private schoolteachers cite student discipline and disruptions as important reasons for leaving the profession (Ingersoll 2001). Even college professors are not immune to student problems, with one in five students reporting resistance attempts. Inductively deriving from college students themselves the ways they have resisted teacher influence attempts, Burroughs et al. (1989) identified 19 different student resistance techniques. Strategies range from avoidance and reluctant compliance to deception, disruption, and excuses. Further efforts to define the underlying dimensions of resistance resulted in two primary types: teacher owned and student owned. Teacherowned strategies are those where students assign responsibility or blame to the teacher (e.g., “The teacher is incompetent”); student-owned techniques are those where the students assign ownership or blame to themselves (e.g., “I forgot to do my homework”).
Subsequent research examined the predictors of students’ resistance decisions and the strategies they select (Kearney et al. 1991). These researchers reasoned that students make decisions about whether to resist or comply as a function of what their teachers say and do. In addition, they argued that students will selectively choose how they resist based on the attributions they make of their teachers (Kearney & Plax 1992). They discovered that students are more likely to comply with nonverbally immediate teachers or those who are approachable, warm, and open, but are more likely to resist those who are non-immediate or who appear as unapproachable and distant. Compliance or resistance was also a function of the type of persuasive strategy the teacher used. Teachers who relied on more pro-social or positive persuasive techniques were associated with greater student compliance; those who used more antisocial or punishment-based techniques were associated with greater resistance. Of the two predictors, immediacy and strategy type, immediacy dominated students’ decisions to comply or resist. Moreover, immediacy was the more powerful predictor of how students chose to resist, with students opting for student-owned techniques with immediate teachers and teacherowned techniques with non-immediate teachers. Important to this program of research, these findings demonstrated that teachers can control whether students decide to comply or resist, and they have the potential to control the ways in which students choose to resist.
Predictors of Teacher Influence Effectiveness
The ability to influence students effectively is a function of a number of teacher antecedents, including immediacy, credibility, and confirmation, among others. Defined as physical and/or psychological closeness, nonverbal immediacy signals relational perceptions of approach, friendliness, warmth, and interpersonal closeness. Nonverbal behaviors indicative of immediacy include positive head nods, smiles, eye contact, vocal expressiveness, overall body movements and physical gestures, direct, relaxed, and open body positions, and close physical distances. Without exception, the research on teacher immediacy has established a substantial and positive association with students’ affect toward the teacher, school, and course content, and to a lesser extent, with students’ cognitive learning (Rodriguez et al. 1996). Moreover, students are more compliant or less resistant to immediate, as opposed to non-immediate, teachers (Kearney & Plax 1992). Immediate teachers, then, have more influence potential than non-immediate teachers.
When persuading an audience, Aristotle argued that a source’s credibility may be the most powerful rhetorical strategy available. Typically defined as perceived believability (McCroskey 1998), credibility encompasses perceptions of competence, character or trust, and caring. When students find their teacher knowledgeable about the content, trustworthy and honest, and communicating concern about their learning, it is not at all surprising that they would be likely to do what the teacher wants. Credible teachers have the potential to exert a great deal of influence in the classroom. Students report being motivated and learning more from a highly credible teacher; they also evaluate the teacher highly, enjoy the course, and recommend their more credible teachers to other students (Martin et al. 1997; Pogue & AhYun 2006). The list of positive associations goes on. Teachers perceived as highly credible have a better chance of persuading students to learn and to enjoy the process. With credible teachers, students are motivated to make a good impression and to demonstrate that they are content competent (Myers & Martin 2006).
Yet another social influence strategy available to teachers is teacher confirmation. Defined as those teacher messages designed to endorse, recognize, and acknowledge learners as valuable and significant (Ellis 2000), teacher confirmation is associated with a variety of instructional outcomes. Teachers confirm students in four primary ways. They confirm by responding to students’ questions with interest and openness, and by demonstrating a sincere interest and concern for their students. Further, they may use their teaching style to confirm by using a variety of techniques to ensure students’ understanding of the course content. Finally, teachers confirm by avoiding disconfirming behaviors, such as rude and embarrassing comments. Teachers who engage in confirming behaviors are also associated with students’ motivation to learn, reduced apprehension to communicate in class, increased affective and cognitive learning, and greater power to influence (Ellis 2004; Turman & Schrodt 2006).
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