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Teaching and Learning Forum 2006 [ Refereed papers ]
Students' perceptions of teachers' interpersonal behaviour and identifying exemplary teachers

Rekha B Koul and Darrell L Fisher
Science and Mathematics Education Centre
Curtin University of Technology

The paper reports on part of the results of a large-scale study aimed at determining students' perceptions of their teachers' interpersonal behaviour when teaching science in Australian Primary Schools. In this part of the study, a total of 810 students from 34 classes in six different Western Australian schools were asked for their perceptions of their teachers' interpersonal behaviour using the Questionnaire on Teacher Interaction (QTI), their perceptions of cultural factors using the Cultural Learning Environment Questionnaire (CLEQ) and their attitude towards science using Attitude Scale (based on TOSRA). In particular, the QTI was used to identify and describe exemplary primary science teachers. The exemplary teachers were identified as those whose students' perceptions were more than one standard deviation above the mean on the scales of Leadership, Helping/Friendly, and Understanding and more than one standard deviation below the mean on the Uncertain, Dissatisfied and Admonishing scales. Exemplary teachers were then observed teaching and descriptions made of their classroom behaviour. These descriptions are reported in this paper.


Background

The importance of science education, and the urgent need for its improvement at all educational levels, has been widely recognised in numerous government reports in Australia (Brennan, 1994; Goodrum, Hackling, & Rennie, 2001; NBEET (National Board of Employment, 1996)

According to DETYA report The Status and Quality of Teaching and Learning of Science In Australian Schools (Goodrum et al., 2001), the actual picture of science teaching and learning is one of the great variability but, on average, the picture is disappointing as in some primary schools, often science is not taught at all. When it is taught on a regular basis, it is generally student-centred and activity based, resulting in high levels of student satisfaction. When students move to high schools, many experience disappointment, because the science taught is neither relevant nor engaging and does not connect with their interests and experiences. Disenchantment with science is reflected in declining numbers of students who take science subjects in post-compulsory years of schooling.

Another report, The Place of Literacy and Numeracy in Primary School Curriculum (Hill, Hurworth, & Rowe, 1998) noted that science was one of the areas of the curriculum where primary schools perceived the greatest decrease in time allocation over the previous three years. Yet another study, Foundations for Australia's Future-Science and Technology in Primary Schools, stated that 'much has been achieved in primary science and technology education over the past ten years but much more needs to be done' (Stocker, 1997).

The present study therefore, focused on science education, which is clearly one of the critical factors, for economic and social well-being of Australia.

Use of student perceptual data

Until the late 1960s a very strong tradition of trained observers coding teacher and student behaviours dominated classroom research. Indeed, it was a key recommendation of Dunkin and Biddle (1974) that instruments for research on teaching processes, where possible, should deal with the objective characteristics of classroom events. Clearly, this low-inference approach to research which often involved trained observers coding teacher and student behaviours was consistent with the behaviourism of the 1960s. One field which broke with this tradition in the late 1960s and used student perceptual data is the study of classroom psychosocial environments. Low-inference approaches which characterised early classroom environment research in the USA (see Chavez, 1984), have given way to the use of the summary judgments of milieu inhabitants based on their long-term involvement in the particular setting. Since the mid-1960s, the strong trend in classroom environment research has been towards this high-inference approach with data collected from teachers and students. Support for this methodological approach is found in Walberg's (1976) perceptual model of the learning process which proposes that student learning involves student perceptions acting as mediators in the learning process. In addition, Walberg advocated the use of student perceptions to assess environments because students seemed quite able to perceive and weigh stimuli and to render predictively valid judgments of the social environment of their classes.

Several advantages of the use of measures that define the educational setting in terms of the inhabitants' perceptions have been suggested by Fraser (1994), Fraser and Walberg (1981) and Walberg (1991). First, students and teachers are at a good vantage point for making valid judgments about classrooms and schools. As they are immersed in the atmosphere for extended periods of time, this exposure allows students and teachers to form opinions based on long-term experience. This approach contrasts with short-term observations that often are associated with the use of external observers (e.g., snapshots of one or two lessons). From a methodological perspective, this means that the milieu inhabitants have more data to bring to the data collection stage. Moreover, these data have been processed by the inhabitants, resulting in the formation of judgments. A second advantage of using student and teacher perceptions over the notes, codings and perceptions of observers is that students and teachers act on the basis of their perceptions. Accordingly, the assessment of these perceptions as determinants of behaviour is preferred to the reporting of an observer's assessment of classroom reality. Third, perceptions of classroom environment have been found to account for considerably more variance in student learning outcomes than have directly observed variables. Fiedler's (1975) study of classroom interaction showed that students' perceptions of their own influences on the class, but not observer estimates of the class, predicted academic gains (Walberg, 1991). Walberg concluded that low-inference studies using observers could be a narrow approach to the understanding of classroom environments. That students are able to make valid summary judgments about schooling is best demonstrated by the classroom environment components of the present study which focus on cultural, factors and teacher-student interactions.

Consequently the study described in this paper utilised students' perceptions of their teachers' interactions with them and aspects of their classroom learning environment.

Teacher-student interactions

One particular focus of classroom environment research has been the investigation of teacher-student interactions. Wubbels, Créton, and Holvast (1988) investigated teacher behaviour in classrooms from a systems perspective, adapting a theory on communication processes developed by Watzlawick, Beavin and Jackson (1967). Within the systems perspective on communication, it is assumed that the behaviours of participants influence each other mutually. The behaviour of the teacher is influenced by the behaviour of the students and in turn influences student behaviour. Circular communication processes develop which not only influence behaviour, but determine behaviour as well.

With the systems perspective in mind, Wubbels, Créton, and Hooymayers (1985) in The Netherlands extrapolated the seminal interpersonal behavioural research of Leary (1957) who worked in the clinical psychology field to develop an instrument, the Questionnaire on Teacher Interaction (QTI), to gather students' perceptions of their interactions with their teacher (Wubbels & Levy, 1993). The QTI assesses eight dimensions of teacher-student interaction: Leadership, Helping/Friendly, Understanding, Student Freedom, Uncertain, Dissatisfied, Admonishing, and Strict. They provide a comprehensive description of teachers' interactions with their students. Table 1 presents a description and sample item for each scale of the QTI.

Past lines of research have related teacher-student interactions with student outcomes. Generally, higher cognitive outcome scores and attitudinal outcomes are positively associated with leadership, helping, friendly and understanding teacher behaviours. Conversely, admonishing, dissatisfied and uncertain teacher behaviours are negatively associated with students' cognitive and attitudinal outcomes (Rawnsley & Fisher, 1997; She & Fisher, 2000; Wubbels & Levy, 1993). The QTI also has been important in the selection of very good or exemplary science teachers (Waldrip & Fisher, 2003a, b).

Table 1: Description of scales and sample items for each scale of the QTI

Scale nameDescription of scale
(The extent to which the teacher...)
Sample item
Leadership...leads, organises, gives orders, determines procedure and structures the classroom situation.This teacher knows what is going to happen next in this class.
Helping/friendly...shows interest, behaves in a friendly or considerate manner and inspires confidence and trust.This teacher helps us with our work.
Understanding...listens with interest, empathises, shows confidence and understanding and is open with students.This teacher trusts us.
Student freedom...gives opportunity for independent work, gives freedom and responsibility to students.This teacher allows us to take responsibility for what we do.
Uncertain...behaves in an uncertain manner and keeps a low profile.This teacher allows us to tell him/her what to do.
Dissatisfied...expresses dissatisfaction, looks unhappy, criticises and waits for silence.This teacher thinks that we cheat.
Admonishing...gets angry, express irritation and anger, forbids and punishes.This teacher gets angry quickly.
Strict...checks, maintains silence and strictly enforces the rules.This teacher is strict.

Cultural factors of the learning environment

Recent reviews (e.g., Fraser, 1994, 1998) have demonstrated the importance of the field of classroom environment research, particularly the use of student perceptions, over the last three decades, and how this field has contributed much to understanding and improving student achievement, particularly in science. For example, classroom environment assessments provide a means of monitoring, evaluating and improving science teaching and curriculum. A key to improving student achievement and attitudes is to create learning environments that emphasise those characteristics that have been found to be linked empirically with student outcomes. However, classroom environment research has been somewhat limited in primary schooling compared with secondary schooling.

Increasingly, cultural issues are being addressed within science education. The classroom teaching and learning is influenced by both the cultural world views of the student (Fisher & Waldrip, 1999; Gay, 2002; Jacobs, 2003; Jegede & Okebukola, 1991; Squire, et.al, 2003) and the teacher (Gay, 2002; Le Roux, 2002; Squire, et.al, 2003). Dempsey (1981) argued that teachers from different cultural backgrounds from their students must be made aware of possible conflicts that might arise from their expectations of students. To survive the school process, some of these students, besides resisting assimilation (Driver, 1989), tend to compartmentalize their learning (Waldrip & Taylor, 1999) into what is relevant to passing school and what is external to success at school. Changing students' views is not easy, especially when these views continue to be used by their family and peers (Hodson, 1999). The challenge for the teacher is to stimulate learning while not resulting in the student becoming alienated from their society knowledge, beliefs and values. These views can directly impact on students' perceptions of teachers' interpersonal behaviour.

With these issues in mind, Fisher and Waldrip (1999) developed an instrument named the Cultural Learning Environment Questionnaire (CLEQ), to specifically assess cultural factors of the learning environment. The new instrument utilised in this study was based on previous learning environment scales that a review of research literature indicated could be culturally important. The selection of these scales was guided further by an examination of literature from the fields of anthropology, sociology and management theory. In particular, the work of Hofstede (1984) and his dimensions of culture proved useful. After collecting information with a detailed questionnaire from thousands of individuals working in multi-national corporations operating in 40 countries, Hofstede (1984) analysed the data and identified four dimensions of culture, namely, Power distance, Uncertainty avoidance, Individualism, and Masculinity/femininity. Other studies, for example, Bochner & Hesketh (1994) and Stull & Von Till (1994) have used an instrument approach based on Hofstede's dimensions to study culture in education settings. Similarly, this study utilised an instrument containing scales whose construction was influenced by these four dimensions.

Also influential in the selection of scales was Moos' (1979) research on human environments and his identification of three general categories that can be used in characterising diverse learning environments. The three dimensions are: relationship dimensions which identify the nature and intensity of personal relationships within the environment and assess the extent to which people are involved in the environment and support and help each other; personal development dimensions which assess personal growth and self-enhancement; and system maintenance and system change dimensions, which involve the extent to which the environment is orderly, clear in expectations, maintains control, and is responsive to change. The development of the CLEQ has been described in detail elsewhere (Fisher & Waldrip, 1999, 2002).

The result was a questionnaire containing 35 items in seven scales: Equity, Collaboration, Deference, Competition, Teacher Authority, Modelling, and Congruence. Each scale contains five items that are responded to on a five-point scale with the extreme alternatives of Disagree - Agree. Students are asked to indicate to what extent they agree that each item describes their classroom.

The CLEQ has been shown to be a valid and reliable instrument (Fisher & Waldrip, 1999; Dhindsa, 2004). For example, the CLEQ was used with a sample of 3,785 grade 8 to 10 students and their 186 teachers in 67 Australian schools, and the Cronbach alpha coefficients for the CLEQ scales ranged from 0.69 to 0.86. This indicates that each CLEQ scale displays satisfactory internal consistency for scales containing only five items each. The refinement and validation of the CLEQ also involved a series of factor analyses the purpose of which was to examine the internal structure of the set of 35 items. A principal components analysis with varimax rotation was used to generate orthogonal factors. The conceptual distinctions among the scales were justified by the factor analysis. Dhindsa (2005) confirmed this structure with Brunei secondary students.

Associations between QTI sector scores and learning environment perceptions

In one of the first studies to use both the QTI and a learning environment questionnaire (the Science Learning Environment Inventory - SLEI) (REF) with the same sample of students, Henderson, Fisher & Fraser (2000) used commonality analysis (Cooley & Lohnes, 1976; Pedhazur, 1982) to determine the degree of common variance shared by the QTI and the SLEI in their contributions to student outcomes, as well as the unique contribution to variance made by each instrument. The purpose of these analyses was to ascertain whether the QTI and the SLEI each made a unique contribution to outcome variance over and above that accounted for by the other instrument. The significance of the commonality results was that, because the QTI and the SLEI each made an appreciable contribution to the variance in students' achievement outcomes and in attitude to laboratory work which was independent of the variance attributable to the other instrument, it would be worthwhile to use both instruments together in the same study in future research.

Rawnsley (1997) discovered that positive classroom environments with higher levels of students' perceptions of teacher support, equity and task orientation were associated with higher levels of leadership, helpful friendly and understanding interpersonal behaviour and also behaviour which give students some responsibility and freedom. Positive learning environments were negatively associated with uncertain, dissatisfied, admonishing and strict behaviour. Rawnsley also showed that the QTI and the learning environment instrument made unique contributions in explaining variance in affective and cognitive student outcomes.

In one study involving the CLEQ, Fisher and Waldrip (1999) used a sample of 3,785 science students in 186 classes in 67 Australian secondary schools. Among the results there was an indication that teachers that displayed strong leadership were more likely to have classes where congruence between school and home learning was perceived, students would prefer modelled learning, and be competitive. A teacher with a high level of understanding tended to have classrooms in which students were more likely to state what they thought rather than to wait for others in the class to give their opinions. With a teacher perceived as being very helpful and friendly, students perceived equity, liked to work in collaboration, noted congruence between school and home learning, favoured modelled learning and were more likely to challenge the teacher. Student freedom was seen to occur in classrooms where students were competitive and tended to model what the they had seen. Admonishing Teachers who admonished a lot tended to have classrooms whose students liked to work in groups, challenge the teacher, be competitive and model learning. Students saw little congruence between school and home learning with these teachers.

It was decided to modify the CLEQ for use in primary schools. Part of this modification involved a reduction in the number of scales to three, namely, Equity, Collaboration and Congruence. These scales were selected because they were considered to be important in the primary context and they were consistent predictors of students' attitudes and achievement (Fisher & Waldrip, 2002). Therefore, the CLEQ (primary) contained 15 items which had been construct and content validated by teachers, students and fellow researchers. Table 2 presents a description and sample items of each of the three scales.

Table 2: Descriptive information for each scale of the CLEQ (Primary)

ScalesDescriptionSample item
EquityThe extent to which students perceive
males and females are treated equally.
I feel that comments in class by male and female students are equally important.
(+)
CollaborationThe extent to which students perceive they collaborate with other students rather than act as individuals.I feel that it is important for the class to work together as a team.
(+)
CongruenceThe extent to which the students perceive learning at school matches their learning at home.What I learn in this class helps me at home.
(+)

The first large-scale adaptation of this instrument to the primary level was thus an important component of this study and the study adds to our understanding of primary school classroom learning environments (Fisher & Waldrip, 1999). This paper, while clearly related to the previous ones, is distinct in that it incorporates classroom environment theory and research to examine the contribution that primary students' perceptions of cultural factors related to their learning environment have on their attitudes and understanding of science concepts.

Significance

This study has been significant in the following ways:
  1. It is the first study in Australia to investigate primary students' perceptions of cultural factors that affect their classroom-learning environment. Students in this study were accepted as active participants rather than passive recipients in learning process.
  2. It is first ever study to investigate links between primary student' perceptions of cultural factors that affect their classroom learning environments, students' interactions with their teachers, and their attitude towards science.
  3. This study has increased our understanding of effective teaching of science in primary schools, ultimately benefiting community through the application of research results to schools and education systems.

Objectives of the study

  1. to develop and validate an instrument to assess primary students' perceptions of cultural factors that affect their classroom learning environment;
  2. to investigate associations between students' perceptions of cultural factors that affect their classroom learning environment, teacher-student interactions and their attitudes to science;
  3. to inform teachers about the associations established and implement an intervention programme designed to bring about changes in teaching practice.

Instruments used

The following instruments were used in the study:
  1. The Questionnaire on Teacher Interaction (QTI): (Wubbels, Créton, & Holvast, 1988), investigated teacher behaviour in classrooms from a systems perspective, adapting a theory on communication processes developed by (Watzlawick, Beavin, & Jackson, 1967).Within the systems perspective on communication, it is assumed that the behaviours of participants influence each other mutually. The behaviour of teacher is influenced by the behaviour of the students and in turn influences student behaviour. Circular communication processes develop which not only influence behaviour, but determine behaviour as well. With the systems perspectives in mind, (Wubbels, Créton, & Hooymayers, 1987) in The Netherlands extrapolated the seminal interpersonal behavioural research on (Leary, 1957) who worked in the clinical psychology field to develop an instrument, the QTI. The QTI assesses eight dimensions of the teacher-student interactions: Leadership, Helping/Friendly, Understanding, Student Responsibility, Uncertain, Dissatisfied, Admonishing and Strict. These dimensions provide comprehensive description of teachers' interactions with their students.

  2. Cultural Learning Environment Questionnaire (CLEQ) was developed by (Fisher & Waldrip, 1999) to assess cultural factors of the learning environment and was based on the work of (Hofstede, 1984) identifying the dimensions culture. (Dhinsa, 2005) reconfirmed the validity and reliability of this instrument. It was decided to modify the CLEQ for use in primary schools. Part of this modification involved a reduction in the number of scales to three, namely, Equity, Collaboration and Congruence. These scales were selected because they were considered important in the primary context and they were consistent predictors of students' attitudes and achievement (Fisher & Waldrip, 2002). Therefore, the CLEQ (primary) contained 15 items, which had been construct and content validated by teachers, students and fellow researchers. The CLEQ has shown to be a reliable and valid instrument.

  3. Attitude Scale Test of Science -Related attitudes TOSRA was developed by (Fraser, 1978) to measure science-related attitudes amongst school students. The TOSRA has been cross-validated in several studies since its initial validation in 1977 (Fraser, 1981). TOSRA was created to measure seven science-related attitudes but it was decided to use only Enjoyment of Science Lessons scale in this study.

Design and procedure

In the study, primary version of CLEQ developed and validated in first phase along with primary version of QTI, and attitude Scale (bases on TOSRA) were administered on 810 students from 34 classes in six different West Australian Schools from grades five, six and seven. Associations between students' perceptions of cultural factors affecting learning environment; teacher-student interactions was investigated using simple, multiple and canonical analysis with two different units of analysis (the student and the class mean).

Data analysis and findings

Quantitative data

The validity and reliability information of the instrument used in this study was determined by the degree to which items in the same scale measure the same aspect of attitude towards science, cultural learning environment and teacher-student interactions, a measure of internal consistency, the Cronbach alpha reliability coefficient (Cronbach, 1951) was used. The highest alpha reliability of .89 was obtained for the scales of Enjoyment to Science and the lowest for of .63 for the scale of Uncertain. All the reliabilities are above 0.5 making the instrument reliable for use.

Very high mean scores ranging from 3.22 to 3.89 cooperation-submission dimension of the QTI suggest that students perceive their teachers demonstrating high levels of positive interactive behaviours in the class. For opposition-dominance dimension of the QTI students rate their teachers low ranging from 1.94 to 2.67 suggesting that students perceive their teachers demonstrating low levels of negative behaviours. Mean scores for the scale of CLEQ ranged from 3.52 for the scale of Congruence to 4.03 for the scale of equity. Mean score of 3.51 for enjoyment to science demonstrates very positive attitude of students towards science. Standard deviation for all the scales varies from 0.73 to 0.93 suggesting that there was not large diversity in student perceptions.

The results of the inter-scale correlations from the study generally reflect the circumplex nature of the QTI and further confirm the validity of the instrument. The Leary model predicts that correlations between two adjacent scales are expected to be the highest, but the correlation gradually decreases as the scales move further apart until opposite scales are negatively correlated. For example, the scale Leadership is correlated closely and positively with Helping/Friendly (0.73) and Understanding (0.86). This correlation decreases with other scales with the highest negative correlation of -0.7 occurring with the Dissatisfied scale. The results from these analyses confirm the circumplex nature of the QTI. The reliability and the ability to differentiate between classes suggest that the QTI can be used as a valid instrument. Further correlations between the attitude scale, scale of QTI and scales of CLEQ are all statistically significant at the 0.01 level (2-tailed).

Qualitative data

Based on the findings of the quantitative data five exemplary teachers were identified and their teaching observed and informal interviews conducted. Denzin and Lincolin, (1994) bricolage method influenced me while interpreting the information, which was collected using a variety of research methods. This approach enabled me to draw on a variety of paradigms to inform their interpretation in a bid to explain the cultural, factors that could contribute towards the exemplary teacher-student interactions. The main themes, which emerged from the qualitative data, are:

Contributions

  1. This study of identifying exemplary teachers and students perceptions of teachers' interpersonal behaviour addresses the fundamental elements of student learning.

  2. The study aimed at student-teacher interactions at primary science classrooms and results of this study were implemented by the volunteer primary school teachers to bring about desirable changes in their teaching.

  3. Community at large can benefit through the application of research results to schools and education systems and increasing our understanding of effective teaching of science in primary schools particularly the schools adopting genuinely emancipatory approach to teaching and learning (like the volunteer teachers in the study).

References

Brennan, M. C. (1994). Science and technology education: Foundations for the future (Report to NBEET). Canberra, Australia: Australian Government Publishing Service.

Cronbach, D. J. (1951). Coefficient alpha and internal structure of tests. Psychometrika, 16(3), 297-334.

Denzin, N. K. & Lincolin, Y. S. (1994). Introduction: Entering the field of qualitative research. In N. K. Denzin & Y. S. Lincolin (Eds.), Handbook of qualitative research (pp. 1-18). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Dhinsa, H. S. (2005). Cultural learning environment of upper secondary students. International Journal of Science Education, 27(5), 575-592.

Fisher, D. L. & Waldrip, B. G. (1999). Cultural factors of science classroom learning environments, teacher-student interactions and student outcomes. Journal of Science Education and Technology, 17(1), 83-96.

Fisher, D. L. & Waldrip, B. G. (2002). Measuring culturally sensitive factors os classroom learning environments with the CLEQ. In M. S. Khine (Ed.), Studies in educational learning environments: An international perspective (pp. 27-48). Singapore: World Scientific.

Fraser, B. J. (1978). Development of a test of science related attitudes. Science Education, 62, 509-515.

Fraser, B. J. (1981). Test of Science-Related Attitudes handbook. Melbourne, Australia: Australian Council for Educational Research.

Goodrum, D., Hackling, M. & Rennie, L. (2001). The status and quality of teaching and learning in science in Australian schools. Canberra, Australia: DETYA.

Hill, P. W., Hurworth, R., & Rowe, K. J. (1998). The place of literacy and numeracy in the primary school curriculum. A national survey. Canberra, Australia: Department of Education, Training and Youth Affairs.

Hofstede, G. (1984). Culture's consequences. Newbury Park, CA: Sage Publications.

Leary, T. (1957). An interpersonal diagnosis of personality. New York: Ronald-Press Company.

NBEET (National Board of Employment, E. a. T. (1996). Mathematical sciences: Adding to Australia. Canberra, Australia: Australian Governemnt Printing Services.

Stocker, J. (1997). Science and technology in primary schools. Canberra: Australian Government Publishing Service.

Watzlawick, P., Beavin, J. & Jackson, D. (1967). The pragmatics of human communication. New York: Norton.

Wubbels, T., Créton, H. & Holvast, A. (1988). Undesirable classroom situations. Interchange, 19(2), 25-40.

Wubbels, T., Créton, H. & Hooymayers, H. P. (1987). A school based teacher induction programme. European Journal of Teacher Education, 10(1), 81-94.

Authors: Dr Rekha B Koul, SMEC, Curtin University of Technology, GPO Box U1987, Perth, Western Australia 6845. Email: R.Koul@curtin.edu.au

Darrell L Fisher, SMEC, Curtin University of Technology, GPO Box U1987, Perth, Western Australia 6845. E-mail: D.Fisher@curtin.edu.au

Please cite as: Koul, R. B.and Fisher, D. L. (2006). Students' perceptions of teachers' interpersonal behaviour and identifying exemplary teachers. In Experience of Learning. Proceedings of the 15th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, 1-2 February 2006. Perth: The University of Western Australia. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf2006/refereed/koul.html

Copyright 2006 Rekha B Koul and Darrell L Fisher. The authors assign to the TL Forum and not for profit educational institutions a non-exclusive licence to reproduce this article for personal use or for institutional teaching and learning purposes, in any format (including website mirrors), provided that the article is used and cited in accordance with the usual academic conventions.


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