Survey: Self-Deprecating Professors Undermine Their Teaching

A study published by the National Communication Association journal has reported that a survey of 438 American university undergraduates shows that in order to get the command of the classroom, teachers need to opt for a more action-orientated approach as opposed to relying on verbal cues.

It isn't just about what the teacher can do to fully engage the students, though. If students have not been taught proper manners at home, or do not yet appreciate the value of education, then a teacher will have trouble getting the attention of students no matter what they do.

"Although it is clear that a range of factors outside of instructors' control contribute to uncivil behavior in the classroom – such as societal shifts toward student entitlement and students' being raised in homes where manners are not adequately taught – results of this study indicate that there are at least some things instructors can do to minimize uncivil behavior," the study says.

Other studies have shown that not all kinds of interaction lead to students finding a teacher credible. When teachers open up about themselves by revealing what academic mistakes they might have made in the past they show themselves to be vulnerable — and that vulnerability is picked up by students, which in turn leads to a lack of trust in the classroom.

The study shows evidence contrary to the common belief that self-deprecating teaching methods help students relate to teachers. Instead of connecting with students by opening up and appearing more down to earth — which conventional teaching wisdom suggests will result in the teacher commanding greater respect and students following instructions more closely — the survey reveals that the opposite is true.

"Instructors who start out revealing negative things about themselves may raise the quotient of incivility in the class," the authors write. "Tempting as it may be for instructors to attempt to warm up students by being transparent about their foibles and excesses, extensive negative self-disclosure should be engaged in with caution."

The survey reveals that crafting and commanding authority in the classroom — and cultivating a classroom culture of trust in one's teaching — seems to come from one's mastery of subject matter and communication skills.

It can be confusing to know how to approach students when conventions suggest one thing and then studies show the opposite to be true — especially when several variables such as age group and the type of school environment means that a unified theory of teacher effectiveness may not exist.


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