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Communication with Students to Enhance Learning

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Updated on Dec 23, 2009

For much of the 20th century, instructional communication researchers (who study human communication processes and related messages as they occur in instructional contexts across subject matter, grade levels, and types of settings) have relied on a teacher-centric rhetorical framework—acknowledging that the primary difference between knowing and teaching is communication (Hurt, Scott, & McCroskey, 1978). The teacher-centric perspective provides a manageable framework from which to understand communication within any instructional context because, (1) roles are generally restricted and adhered to carefully, (2) a majority of classroom communication is concerned with dispensing information and creating understanding, (3) the primary focus is on improving student competencies, and (4) evaluation is a major component of most educational environments. Within these parameters, it is possible to understand how teacher communication behaviors and strategies can enhance student learning. A comprehensive review of three decades of social scientific research focusing on the role and effects of communication in instructional settings is beyond the scope of the current review but is available in the Handbook of Instructional Communication (Mottet, Richmond, & McCroskey, 2006). The purpose here, however, is to summarize what is known about teacher communication competencies, focusing especially on teacher concerns, teacher immediacy, teacher clarity, and content relevance as rhetorical strategies for improving teacher communication in ways that promote student motivation, equity in the classroom, and effective classroom management.

TEACHER COMMUNICATION COMPETENCIES

In his review integrating research from education and communication literature intended to isolate effective teacher behaviors, Nussbaum (1992) cautioned against the creation of prescriptive lists because teacher effectiveness is largely dependent upon such dimensions as timing, context, content, and student ability. Effective teachers must have the ability to adapt to each particular context they encounter. There are general competencies, however, that are applicable across contexts. The National Communication Association (the oldest and largest national organization to promote communication scholarship and education) has outlined five broad teacher communication competencies regarding informative, affective, imaginative, ritualistic, and persuasive instructional messages. Effective teachers should demonstrate competencies in sending and receiving messages that (1) give or obtain information, (2) express or respond to feelings, (3) speculate or theorize, (4) maintain social relationships and facilitate interaction, and (5) seek to convince or influence (Cooper, 1988). Beyond these competencies, several teacher communication behaviors and strategies have been demonstrated to enhance student learning.

TEACHER CONCERNS

The original model for examining general teacher concerns (e.g., assessing student progress, excessive non-instructional duties) was provided by Fuller (1969) in her framework for examining three major categories of teacher concerns that teachers experience at different developmental stages in their career: (a) concern about self (concern about how one is perceived as a teacher); (b) concern about task (concern about instructional duties); and (c) concern about impact (concern about student learning). According to the model, teacher socialization occurs as a natural flow from concerns about self to concerns about task (teaching) followed by concerns about impact (student learning). Every teacher will have concerns in all three areas but the balance among the three can significantly affect the learning climate in the classroom. Borich (1994) cautions that when teachers are unaware of a preponderance of self concerns to the exclusion of task and impact concerns, they run the risk of unintentionally creating a learning climate that may be contrary to the goals of instruction.

Since the late 1970s communication researchers have chosen to narrow the focus of Fuller's original model by focusing specifically on teachers' communication concerns (e.g., ability to adequately present ideas and required material) and the resulting behaviors in an effort to discover how a teacher's communication strategies and tactics affect classroom interaction and impact the overall climate for learning (Staton & Hunt, 1992; Staton-Spicer,1983; Staton-Spicer & Bassett, 1979; Staton-Spicer & Darling, 1986; Staton-Spicer & White, 1981; Feezel & Myers, 1997). The results of this research program provide support for Fuller's original dimensions and indicate that teachers express communication concerns about their individual communication abilities (self), their ability to communicate with their students (task), and the effects of their messages and communication behaviors to increase student learning (impact).

Self concerns. Communication concerns about self are primarily related to establishing credibility as a teacher and achieving flexibility in teaching. Teachers attempt to establish credibility through self-disclosure behaviors that communicate that they are human, that they have good intentions, and that they are competent. Learning student names also allows teachers to be perceived as personable. Teacher concerns about flexibility are most apparent in assignment and schedule changes, re-teaching of course concepts, and in-class digressions.

Task concerns. Determining the best way to make abstract concepts concrete and finding the most appropriate teaching strategies are the two most critical communication task concerns expressed by teachers. The use of numerous examples and the integration of guest speakers have been demonstrated as effective communication strategies for making abstract concepts more concrete for students. Teachers are also genuinely concerned about their ability to lead an effective discussion, lecture, and employ other appropriate teaching strategies. Unfortunately, the choice of any instructional teaching strategy seems to be more a function of comfort than appropriateness.

Impact concerns. The two primary communication concerns about impact are related to facilitating student understanding and establishing a non-threatening instructional environment. Teacher communication behaviors that provide a clear and organized structure for lectures (i.e., define, restate, elaborate, and provide an example) and discussions (i.e., teacher asks a question, student responds, teacher paraphrases, elaborates, and provides a clear example) are more successful in facilitating student understanding. Non-threatening environments are established when teachers use reinforcement, self-disclosure, comprehension checks, and convey clear expectations. Teachers are more successful managing communication concerns about impact when they use comprehension checks to encourage student questions and elicit feedback, ask questions, give examples, and use classroom technology (e.g., chalkboard, handouts, computer presentations) to provide graphical representations that clearly communicate course concepts (for additional examples see Angelo & Cross, 1993).

Results of instructional communication research have provided a clear link between teacher communication concerns and actual classroom behavior. Teachers communicate differently depending upon whether they are concerned with (1) being accepted, credible, liked, and respected (self communication concerns), (2) teaching performance (task communication concerns), or (3) student learning and establishing a non-threatening

Effective communication between teachers and students includes much more than simple knowledge transmission.Effective communication between teachers and students includes much more than simple knowledge transmission.WILL & DENI MCINTYRE/PHOTO RESEARCHERS, INC.

climate (impact communication concerns). Prospective teachers express more self than task or impact concerns whereas student teachers express more task than impact concerns. Likewise, in-service teachers express more impact than self or task concerns and prospective teachers express more self concerns than student or in-service teachers. Finally, student teachers express more task concerns than prospective or in-service teachers, and inservice teachers express more impact concerns than prospective or student teachers. Taken together, the results demonstrate that teacher classroom communication concerns direct and affect classroom communication behavior that, in turn, serves to either enhance or hinder student learning.

TEACHER IMMEDIACY

Teacher immediacy was defined from a communication perspective by Andersen (1979) as a set of verbal and nonverbal behaviors that reveal a teacher's willingness to approach and be approached by students. The use of teacher immediacy behaviors enhances closeness and generates positive attitudes by decreasing the physical and/or psychological distance between communicators (Mehra-bian, 1969). Teachers who exhibit immediate behaviors reduce psychological distance by recognizing individual student ideas and viewpoints, incorporating student input into course and class design, and communicating availability and willingness to engage in one-to-one interactions.

Nonverbal immediacy behaviors include behaviors demonstrating variety in vocal pitch, loudness, and tempo, smiling, leaning toward aperson; face-to-face body position, decreasing physical barriers (such as a podium or a desk) between themselves and their students, overall relaxed body movements and positions, spending time with students, and informal but socially appropriate attire. Verbal immediacy includes a teacher's use of humor, praise, actions and/or comments that indicate willingness to converse with students both in and out of the classroom, teacher self-disclosure, using inclusive pronouns (i.e., “we,” “us,” “our”) when referring to coursework, willingness to provide feedback, and asking students about their perceptions about assignments and due dates.

Teachers using verbal behaviors and nonverbal immediacy behaviors appear more human and accessible to their students. In turn, student-teacher interaction contributes to the quality of the overall learning experience. Findings from a significant amount of instructional communication research have demonstrated the profound effects of teachers immediacy behaviors to positively impact student achievement (for a complete review see Richmond, Lane, & McCroskey, 2006). Results provide a clear and substantial link between teacher immediacy and student favorable attitudes toward course content and the instructor, as well as improvement in student attention, concentration, retention, and recall. In addition, teacher immediacy increases student interaction and student motivation while decreasing student resistance. Finally, teachers who exhibit verbal and nonverbal immediacy behaviors are perceived as more competent communicators and receiver higher course and teacher evaluations.

TEACHER CLARITY

Teachers who are content experts must also possess specific communication competencies that allow them to transfer the cognitive dimensions of teaching into visible instructional behaviors that are clear, organized, understandable, and effective. Teacher clarity, therefore, is the teacher's ability to effectively stimulate the desired meaning of course content and processes in the minds of students through the use of appropriately structured verbal and nonverbal messages (Chesebro, 2002). Instructional clarity has also been defined as an instructional message variable that constitutes a cluster of teacher behaviors that contributes to the fidelity of instructional message (Chesebro & Wanzer, 2006). Put simply, teachers who present knowledge in a way that students understand are perceived as clear. As such, clarity functions to connect content and pedagogy. Students tend to judgea teacher's effectiveness based largely on perceptions of teacher clarity. In fact, researchers have demonstrated a fairly robust positive relationship among teacher clarity, student satisfaction, student motivation, and student achievement.

Teacher clarity is a multidimensional construct that includes three broad behavior clusters: (1) presentation or verbal clarity (e.g., verbal fluency, explanations, and examples); (2) structural or message clarity (e.g., previews, organization, transitions, summaries, outlines, illustrations and visual aids); and (3) instructional process clarity (e.g., stresses important aspects of the content, assesses and responds to perceived deficiencies in student understanding, connects and integrates specific concepts into course curriculum, provides content relevance, communicates classroom policies and violation consequences).

Inexperienced teachers (because of self and task concerns) have a tendency to focus too heavily on detailed content and, as a result, create cognitive overload by trying to cover too much information. When inexperienced teachers are worried about whether they are perceived as credible they inadvertently provide too much information (TMI) to their students. Unfortunately, students don't seem to care about the leaves on the trees in the forest until they know what the forest is and where it is located relative to other places with which they are familiar. Clarity increases as teachers develop and as impact become more salient. That is, clear teachers will begin to “essentialize” and “chunk” the curriculum using a deductive strategy that focuses on the most important information presented in a logical sequence—before providing specific details. Teacher clarity can best be understood using a jigsaw puzzle example. Clear teachers first provide students witha jigsaw puzzle box top so students have a complete picture (clear direction for learning). Next, clear teachers extract and assemble the edge pieces to distinguish the border clearly before requiring students to focus on any individual puzzle piece (color, shape, possible location). Finally, clear teachers provide the details of the puzzle pieces and provide a context for which they can be organized.

Results across three decades of research demonstrate that teacher clarity, as it occurs in each of the three broad clusters of instructional behaviors (presentation, message, and process)is relatively stable across varied populations and academic contexts. Clear teaching reduces student anxiety, increases student motivation, improves student affect for both instructors and course material and ultimately functions positively to enhance student achievement.

CONTENT RELEVANCE

Content relevance was originally defined by Keller (1983) as a student's perception of whether the course instruction and its content, or both, satisfied personal needs, personal goals, and career goals. As is readily demonstrated by the teacher classroom behaviors explicitly related to teacher concerns, immediacy, and clarity, perceptions of content relevance can be enhanced when teachers make a conscious effort to make the content of their instructional messages relevant to students' personal and career goals. However, just as teacher effectiveness is largely dependent upon such dimensions as timing, context, content, and student ability, content relevance is influenced by teacher characteristics (e.g., credibility, competence, immediacy), message characteristics (e.g., clarity, structure), and by individual student characteristics (e.g., aptitude, interests, etc.).

There are six types of strategies that can be implemented by teachers to increase the likelihood that more of their students will perceive their instructional messages as personally relevant (Keller, 1987). However, because instruction does not take place in a vacuum, the implementation of any strategy to increase content relevance will obviously require that teachers have some knowledge and understanding of their students. Included in the six types of strategies are (1) experience (state explicitly how the instruction builds on the learner's existing skills, relate learner's interests to instruction, build on common student experiences); (2) present worth (provide examples of how the content is meaningful and important, have students relate course concepts to personally interesting contexts); (3) future usefulness (state explicitly how instruction relates to future learner activities, ask learner to relate instruction to personal future goals); (4) need matching (link content to specific student needs); (5) modeling (use guest speakers, alumni, or tutors to demonstrate the value and relevance of course content; and (6) choice (provide meaningful alternative assignments, provide personal choices for organizing work (Keller, 1987).

It seems logical to conclude that student motivation to study is positively related to whether students are able to connect course content presented by their teacher to their personal needs and career goals. Research comparing students on the dimensions of content relevance support this claim and consistently demonstrate that students who perceive instructional activities as having increased value and as something worthy of their effort, report increased affect for teachers and subject material, a sense of greater empowerment in the classroom, and higher levels of achievement and state motivation (Frymier & Shulman, 1995; Frymier, Shulman, & Houser, 1996; Frymier, 2002).

IMPLICATIONS FOR EDUCATORS

What teachers need to know obviously goes beyond how to enhance self-presentation, how to keep students on task, and how to manage student resistance. Effective communication includes much more than simple knowledge transmission. There are critical moral and intellectual dimensions of teaching that supersede concerns for technique, climate, and control. In addition, because of the scope of the current review is relatively narrow, it does not include research focused on student characteristics (e.g., students' motives for communicating with teachers, student immediacy and nonverbal influence, or student resistance) or research from a more relational perspective (e.g., teacher caring, power, humor, and affinity seeking). What researchers know (from a teacher-centric rhetorical framework) is that teachers who are interested in improving their communication with students can integrate knowledge gleaned from three decades of research about teacher concerns, immediacy, clarity, and relevance to promote student motivation and enhance student achievement.

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