Communication educators have taken a well-known typology of power and applied it to teachers. According to this theory-based schematic, individuals exert influence over other individuals based on five different sources of power.
Reward power—Students learn quickly that teachers can give them rewards such as bonus points, extra credit, or other forms of positive feedback. Students do what the teacher asks or tells them to do because they are motivated to get these rewards.
Coercive power—Students also learn that teachers can punish. There may be penalties for late papers or unexcused absence. In this case, students respond to the teacher’s power because they want to avoid these kinds of punishments.
Legitimate power—Students expect teachers to have some authority over them. Teachers determine what students will study, what assignments they will complete, and what standards they must reach in order to pass and do well. If students accept these agreed-upon definitions of a teacher’s role, they will acquiesce to the teacher’s direction.
Referent power—Students do the teacher’s bidding because students admire the teacher. Because students identify with the teacher and have positive regard for him or her, they willingly do as the teacher says.
Expert power—This power comes from the teacher’s knowledge of content and/or expertise as an educator. Students are willing to do as the teacher says because they recognize that the teacher knows more than they do.
Teachers make moves based on these sources of power—they tell students how to solve a problem, or that points will be taken off if papers are late, and they respond with smiles, nods, and positive reactions to a student’s answer. If students respond by following the teacher’s direction their behaviors confirm their willingness to let the teacher influence them.
The application of these sources of power to the teacher-student relationship is well explained in this article: Schrodt, P., Whitt, P.L., and Truman, P.D. (2007). Reconsidering the measurement of teacher power use in the college classroom. Communication Education, 56 (3), 308-332.
Excerpted from Sources of Power, The Teaching Professor, April 2008.