Study: Students Learn Less When Their Teachers are Antagonistic or Mean

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When you get a group of teachers together for a happy hour after work, the conversation inevitably turns into a contest of war stories and anecdotes. Many teachers pride themselves on “snappy comebacks” or “telling students off.” We typically justify these interactions with students as “giving them a taste of their own medicine” or “telling them like it is.” Whatever we call it, new research indicates this behavior is problematic and detrimental to learning.

A study done by West Virginia University and California State University, Long Beach, found that students taught by a hostile or antagonistic teacher learn less:

Results revealed that students exposed to the treatment lecture with antagonism had lower effect for the course and instructor. Moreover, because they had lower effect for the material, antagonized students scored worse on a test of their learning (mediation) compared with students in the standard lecture.

The study assigned about 500 college students to watch a lesson. The lesson was taught by a neutral teacher or a teacher which was “antagonistic.” The latter would criticize student comments, use insults and engage in favoritism. Not only did students report disliking the content from the antagonistic teacher, but the students who watched that lecture also performed five percent worse than the students who watched the neutral teacher.

Lead author, Alan Goodboy, summarizes the findings of his study:

Even slight antagonism, coupled with otherwise effective teaching, can demotivate students from being engaged and hinder their learning opportunities. So even one bad day of teaching can ruin a student's perception of the teacher and create an unnecessary roadblock to learning for the rest of the term.

This really is not surprising. Which type of person are you more likely to listen to? The one who gives you the information you need in a cordial style or a person who speaks sarcastically and puts you down?

Most people would prefer to be spoken to in a respectful manner and, according to this latest research, students are no different. It’s strange that we would need a study to tell us that the most vulnerable and suggestible members of our population shouldn’t be put down by the very people they look up to, but if you needed such confirmation to treat your students with respect here it is: Students learn better, when you address them better.

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Andrew Pillow

Andrew is a technology teacher at KIPP Indy College Prep. He is graduate of the University of Kentucky and a Teach for America Alum. Andrew just recently finished his commitment as a Teach Plus Policy fellow, and he is looking forward to putting the skills he's learned to good use. Andrew has written for several publications in the past on a wide variety of topics but will be sticking to education for his role on Indy/Ed.