How do we make students happier?

I keep coming back to this theme, partly because of my desire to help students’ emotional health, partly because students’ feelings about classes affect what they learn from those classes or how they apply their knowledge to their life, partly because students’ emotions affect the classroom environment, and partly because students’ emotions affect enrollment and retention rates. So wouldn’t it be great if someone could tell us exactly how to make students happier?

It turns out someone can. In the article, “The Relationship Between Teacher Management Communication Style and Affective Learning,” Rebecca M. ChoryRebecca M. Chory and James C. McCroskey sought to understand how Management Communication Styles (MCS) affected student satisfaction and affective learning.  The MCS idea characterizes the way that supervisors manage their subordinates. There is a continuum between supervisor-centered communication styles (in which the supervisor makes decisions and tells the subordinates) and subordinate-centered styles (in which the subordinates make decisions). This continuum can be illustrated by four verbs: tell, sell, consult, and join. Earlier studies of businesses show that employee satisfaction is greater when it is more employee-centered and involves more employees, and greatest when the “consult” style is used.

In order to understand how this idea worked in the classroom, 108 students (53 male, 55 female) in communications classes at West Virginia University completed a survey about the teacher in the class prior to the communications class, but 16 incomplete surveys were omitted. The survey asked students to numerically evaluate the teacher’s MCS, the teacher’s body language, and the student’s affective domain (which Chory and McCroskey understood to be related to positive feelings towards a subject, ranging from selective attention to behavioral commitment to internalization). The survey suggests that teachers’ MCS was positively correlated to students’ affective learning. The following findings are also noteworthy:

  • Class size, student age, and teacher type (i.e. professor, visiting professor, or TA) did not affect affective learning. I should note that the age range within a college class was most likely not that large.
  • The more students attend class, the more they liked the class. It is unclear which causes the other, but they both might cause each other.
  • As classes became more interactive between teacher and students, more student-centered, and offered students more control over the class, students were happier. This is in line with the ideas behind collaborative learning and group work. So be a facilitator of peer-to-peer learning and not a sage on stage.
  • A major factor in the students’ perceptions of a teacher’s MCS was nonverbal immediacy. According to the On the Cutting Edge website hosted by Carleton College, a nonverbally immediate teacher has a relaxed posture and does not use a monotone voice, gestures while talking, moves around the room while teaching, looks and smiles at the class, avoids looking at notes or the board/PowerPoint, appropriately touches students, removes barriers between students, and dresses professionally but casually (perhaps becoming more casually dressed throughout the term). Even though it is not discussed in this study, it is worth noting that verbal immediacy involves using pronouns like “we” instead of “you” and “I”, calling on students by name, allowing students to call the teacher by name, allowing for small talk, providing feedback, and asking how students are feeling.
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