April 18th, 2011

What Students Want: Characteristics of Effective Teachers from the Students' Perspective


As an undergrad, I put myself through school waiting tables – a truly humbling experience that made me a better instructor. With a mission of 100% customer satisfaction and my livelihood on the line, the patron’s experience became my highest priority.

Taking that mindset into the classroom, I strove for 100% student satisfaction – within the confines of academic integrity, of course – and achieved great results. It turns out, oddly enough, that students love feeling important, valued, respected, and honored. And through the resulting faculty-student connection, students willingly transform into vessels of learning.

My teaching career has not always been rosy, however. After spending months with mini-demons from a special place in Hell, though they claimed to be from behavioral remediation, I grew jaded, losing my respect for students and not coincidentally my effectiveness as a teacher.

Years passed before a colleague helped me rediscover that our attitude toward students makes all the difference. Back on the path to student satisfaction and effective teaching, I constantly ask myself what students really want from me.

Conveniently, I was able to watch faculty from the Memorial University of Newfoundland present a study on Students’ Perceptions of Effective Teaching in Higher Education at Wisconsin’s 26th Annual Distance Teaching and Learning Conference. Researchers had asked their students this question: What characteristics are essential for effective teaching from the student perspective? Analyzing and combining reasonably synonymous characteristics, researchers isolated the top nine for online and for face-to-face students.

1. Respectful 1. Respectful
2. Responsive 2. Knowledgeable
3. Knowledgeable 3. Approachable
4. Approachable 4. Engaging
5. Communicative 5. Communicative
6. Organized 6. Organized
7. Engaging 7. Responsive
8. Professional 8. Professional
9. Humorous 9. Humorous

Respect is numero uno. How about that? More important than knowledge (than knowledge!!!) and the ability to communicate and engage, respect dominates all other characteristics in effective teaching, according to students. Faculty spend, on average, 22 years acquiring enough knowledge to teach at the university level. How much time do we spend on respect?

Students should be shown all the respect we can muster. We need to regularly analyze and question our attitudes. We need to empathize with students by imagining role reversals and by believing in them whenever possible. We need to humble ourselves so that even the least are worthy of our attention and admiration.

The same top nine characteristics are common between online and face-to-face students, with only the order for the two bolded characteristics changing. Responsiveness is more highly valued online, moving five positions. This jump explains why classroom faculty new to e-learning don’t always realize the urgency in responding to email and discussion posts. These faculty have been operating under a paradigm in which responsiveness is not so critical – a paradigm that needs to shift for online learning.

The remaining characteristics warrant a more thorough examination than this article provides. I challenge you to explore ways of fostering all nine characteristics.

Ellen Smyth is an instructor in the Mathematics Department at Austin Peay State University at Fort Campbell.

Delaney, J.G., Johnson, A.N., Johnson, T.D., & Treslan, D.L. (2010). Students’ Perceptions of Effective Teaching in Higher Education. St. John’s, NL: Distance Education and Learning Technologies.

  • Ellen Smyth

    On page 26 of the referenced and much more thorough article, http://www.uwex.edu/disted/conference/Resource_li… there is a list of the most popular synonyms that were grouped together to make respect. That will start to give you a really good idea of what these students are talking about in terms of respect. More research and exploration would be great, though.

  • Ellen Smyth…a portion of your link is not in your response…please reenter it

  • Ellen Smyth

    It was all there, but it added the comma, which made the URL invalid. I didn't realize it would do that before posting, and I don't think there is a way to edit. Hopefully this one will work. I'll test to see.

    • Kerrie-Anne

      Thanks for sharing this very comprehensive article. Very interesting reading

  • azman

    dear author,
    I found it is true that being responsive to my online students has a positive effect towards their learning. Compared to students whom, I conducted face-to-face learning, I found out that engagement is to be listed in the upper position, say no. 2.

  • Does anyone know of any similar studies that have been done with secondary students?

  • Sean H

    We have been looking at these very same issues recently at the University of Warwick here in the UK. We collaborated with a group of PGCE trainee teachers to make 3 short videos responding to the question 'What makes an effective teacher? One of the videos looks at the opinions of year 8 students (early secondary). It is interesting to compare what they said with the results above –

  • Ellen Smyth

    Azman, the Newfoundland study only looked at students at their school, but they are in the process of expanding the study. As a matter of fact, they were soliciting for volunteer schools.

    Sam, I am sorry but I do not know of any similar studies for secondary education. I imagine their outlook and perspective is significantly different.

    Sean, thanks! I will check that out.

  • RobQ

    I definitely agree with the 'on-line responsive' importance! I'm currently undertaking a post grad distance learning certificate & the assigned tutor is very slow at responding to the discussion board. It's very frustrating when you're 'in the zone' so to speak & a reply doesn't happen for days or even weeks!
    I think this has to be both ways though as there are many students who don't bother to respond to others or only reply to people who agree with them.
    Great article & thanks to Sean too!

  • Respectful? LOL. The students expect us to be what they are not? the major reason I will never go back to the classroom is the lack of respect the students manifest for me, themselves, and the process of learning. I've been teaching solely online for five years now. If they are whispering jumping up and down, coming in late and answering their phones in class, at least I don't have to know about it.

  • I think you are right on the money Ellen. I have been teaching online courses for seven years now and I can attest to the difference in student perceptions in respect of faculty responsiveness. I hadn't realized when I started how powerful the sense of isolation is for the "distributed" student. They feel "disconnected' in so many different ways, and particularly in the asynchronous environment. We have become intolerant and impatient when we send an email to someone and they don't answer with the same alacrity with which we sent it and we know they received it. Put this into the student's perspective of needing a response in order to take action – we as faculty become their bottleneck – our demands of them for assignments and due dates etc don't change, but when we are not as responsive as they believe we need to be, we can often be their "single-point of failure".

  • By the way, I must comment on Leslie Hope. Respect, like loyalty and trust is earned. If we don't respect them, how can we hope to expect them to respect us. Someone has to start the process be it in a face-to-face setting, or an online setting. If my students were to sense I didn't care about them and their success, I should imagine that their respect for me would plummit. I think it is a critical requirement sine qua non for any teacher to demonstrate by personal example, and committed action that their students are highly valued. To me, this is simply professional good manners; by giving a good example of how to behave, I am most frequently rewarded by seeing my students follow that example with me and with their fellow colleagues.

  • Yes, Ellen, I would agree with you on the "rise-above", and that it is hard to swallow when students can so easily "blow off" all your efforts. But I too have found that I need to help them change their attitude because if they are disrespectful to me, then it invariably ends up that they are disrespectful of their fellow students. In a graduate school, where a lot of student learning is particularly centered around students sharing and working in group projects (particularly difficult on line), I find I need students to be sensitive to the needs of others and at least have a "we are all in the same boat and we sink or swim together" approach, rather than a "I am in the boat, Jack, shove off".

    • ABC

      I think you missed a bit of what Leslie is saying. It's not just the rude behavior, it's the disrespect for everything around them. As I agree that we need to "rise above," when students ridicule the process of learning as something they don't need, there's a bigger brick wall in front of us. Turning the other cheek causes most to slap the other side. They don't have the maturity to realize how their actions are affecting others or themselves. Can you teach students self-realization? That's when learning, growing, and respect occurs.

      • Leslie

        tried to give your post a thumbs up, but alas I am so clumsy on my new iPad that it came out the opposite. You certainly caught my drift. Thanks. I'd like to add that given the current job prospects for most of my students, I can only pity the lack of discipline I see in so many.

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  • Pat

    Not surprising that responsive rises to a higher importance online. I know my students definitely appreciate prompt replies. Conversely, I find myself especially attentive to students who respond promptly to me, so I guess it goes both ways.

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  • cynthia M.

    I believe as educators it is our responsibility to be effective in teaching and learning of students. We must continue to learn and develop skills we need to include in our practice. Respecting students is numero uno! It makes a big difference in student learnin, when they are included, engaged, respected, feel that they are important. We need to practice our effective communication techniques, know our students and their needs and be able to assist them to succeed.

  • Taylor sammy

    Student needs that the teacher should be eligible to teach them well and have thorough knowledge of what they are teaching! All the facts regarding the subjects should be known and the teacher should be able to solve their queries regarding their subject!

  • Taylor sammy

    Student needs that the teacher should be eligible to teach them well and have thorough knowledge of what they are teaching! All the facts regarding the subjects should be known and the teacher should be able to solve their queries regarding their subject!

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  • Patricia Hoffman

    I'm new to this on-line teaching program so I can only relate to the face-to-face line up. However, respect is on the top of the list for both. How do you show respect on-line? Is it a combination of quick response (respecting their time) and careful wording (respecting their ideas)? Respect in the classroom is partly a matter of protocol (conventional respect for the group), recognition of the individual and their ideas. So, here response time is tightly connected.

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  • JD Smith

    Interesting article. At the outset of a term there is not time for either students or instructors to "earn" respect- things are already in motion and those 10-16 weeks fly. Both sides of the teaching relationship must grace the other with a presumption of competence, sincerity and work ethic.

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