How Controlling Teaching Styles Affect Student Motivation and Sense Self-Worth

How Controlling Teaching Styles Affect Student Motivation and Sense of Self-Worth

Enter middle school. New teachers. New peers. New pressures. New challenges. In middle school, students experience numerous intellectual challenges and changes. And academic motivation is one of them. Many students who were motivated and curious during elementary school may find themselves less engaged as middle school progresses. Researchers Kimberley J. Bartholomew et al. note that for many students, “the adolescent years mark the beginning of a downward spiral in school-related motivation and engagement that often leads to academic underachievement” (50). While student family-life and physical changes may play a part in students’ changes in motivation during these years, Bartholomew et al. argue that teachers’ instructional styles also significantly influence student motivation and behavior. In particular, their paper, “Beware of your teaching style: A school-year long investigation of controlling teaching and student motivational experiences,” examines how students’ perceptions of controlling teaching styles is linked to not only a decrease in student intrinsic motivation, but also to student behaviors that hurt their academic performance.

Bartholomew et al. argue that while many studies have examined how teaching styles connect to student motivation, fewer studies have focused on the effects of negative teaching styles, particularly controlling teaching (50).

“Teachers are controlling when they ignore students’ perspectives and behave in authoritarian and pressuring ways in order to impose a specific and preconceived way of thinking, feeling, and behaving” (51).

The authors explain that controlling teaching can manifest in different ways. Teachers can explicitly intimidate students to control student behavior or thinking. Teachers can yell or threaten students with punishment, such as giving an additional test, canceling a fun activity, or having students run extra laps in PE. Teachers can single out and criticize students in front of their classmates. Teachers can also use more subtly controlling methods that target students’ inner feelings. Teachers may shame students, ignore students, or induce students’ feelings of guilt by expressing excessive disappointment (51).

All of these behaviors are intended to pressure students into acting and thinking the way the teacher wants. Moreover, these teaching behaviors have been empirically shown to hurt student motivation, especially given that they do not support students’ psychological needs (51). Previous research has suggested that students’ basic psychological needs in a learning environment include: (1) having the ability to make decisions in their own learning (autonomy), (2) having opportunities to feel successful and confident (competence), and (3) feeling connected to and respected by peers and teachers (relatedness) (51). Controlling teaching styles do not support these student needs (causing need frustration) and instead prompt students to engage in coping strategies that often negatively affect their academic performance.

In their paper, Bartholomew et al. explain the results of their two studies on controlling teacher behavior, student motivation and coping strategies. 419 middle school students across 9 different PE classes participated in the first study (54). 447 middle school students from a different set of 9 PE classes participated in the second study (57). In November, January, and April of the students’ school year, the students completed extensive surveys. These surveys asked students to report on their teachers’ instructional styles and their own motivation and behavior in class.

Of particular interest was the type of motivation that students demonstrated throughout the school year: autonomous, controlled, or amotivation. The authors explain that while autonomously motivated students engage in an activity because they find it intrinsically interesting or important, controlled motivated students complete an activity because they feel external pressure (teacher demands) or internal pressure (guilt or fear of getting into trouble). Amotivated students simply go through the motions and do not demonstrate a sense of care either way (52).

“Controlled motivation and amotivation for PE have been shown to predict boredom and unhappiness, decreased effort, and lower grades” (52).

The Findings

“Across the three assessment waves, the more students perceived their teacher to be controlling, the more their needs were frustrated, and the less autonomous motivation and more controlled motivation and amotivation they felt” (56).

  • Students who felt their teachers were controlling participated in activities more because they felt pressure to do so, and less because they found the activity intrinsically valuable or interesting (59).
  • Female students viewed their teachers as less controlling than male students in both studies.
  • Female students reported less need frustration in both studies (56).
  • Students who participated in after-school sports reported more autonomous motivation in PE class and less challenge avoidance (56, 60).
  • Students who perceived their teacher as controlling reported:
    • more fear of failure in class
    • more avoidance of challenging activities (60)
  • Fear of failure decreased over time while challenge avoidance increased over time (60).

“Pupils became less worried about failing because they began to avoid challenging situations in environments in which they experienced need frustration” (60).

  • Students who perceived their teacher as controlling reported that their views of their own self-worth depended on their successes in class (60).

Bartholomew et al. remind teachers that even when controlling behavior is infrequent, it can still have long-term negative effects on student performance. They remark that “when teachers’ interpersonal behavior is perceived to be controlling, students are more likely to exhibit poor quality motivation and be overly concerned about failure” (60). Teachers should keep in mind the already vulnerable state of middle school students in general and create supportive learning environments where students feel comfortable failing and trying challenging things, and feel worthy in their efforts.

Paper Title:  Beware of your teaching style: A school-year long investigation of controlling teaching and student motivational experiences

AuthorsKimberley J. Bartholomew (a), Nikos Ntoumanis (b), Athanasios Mouratidis (c, e), Ermioni Katartzi (d), Cecilie Thøgersen-Ntoumani (b), Symeon Vlachopoulos (d)

(a) University of East Anglia, UK, (b) Curtin University, Australia, (c) Hacettepe University, Turkey, (d) Aristotle University, Greece, (e) Department of Psychology, TED University, Ankara, Turkey

Full Paper:

Published: Learning Instruction, Volume 53, Pages 50-63

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