October 9th, 2013

Unraveling the Messages Our Behaviors Send to Students


How we teach begins and ends with behaviors. It’s good to remind ourselves of that every so often. Most of the ingredients identified as the components of effective instruction—things like clarity, organization, and enthusiasm—are abstractions. They’re intangible, without physical form. Their presence or absence is conveyed by the behaviors that have come to be associated with them.

What makes the focus on behaviors particularly powerful is that when it comes to changing your teaching, you don’t have the more daunting task of changing what you are—in my case, not terribly well organized when presenting content—but you can work on changing what you do. You aren’t trying to “be more organized,” you’re trying to use more internal summaries, skeleton outlines, and transitions identified with statements, emphasized with a pause, and underscored by moving to a different place.

And yet as we consider our behaviors, we realize how dauntingly complex they are. What any behavior means is determined by the person who does it and by the person who observes it. But that behavior doesn’t always mean the same thing to both of them. Although most users and observers equate gestures with enthusiasm, some people see gestures (especially repeated ones) and conclude the person is nervous. When the observer sees a different meaning in the behavior, then that behavior is not attached to the intended abstraction.

Moreover, typically the presence of an abstraction, take clarity for example, is not the function of a single behavior, but the aggregate of multiple behaviors. So for students to conclude that you have clarity, regularly providing definitions might not be enough. You may also need to be able to say the same thing in different ways, offer examples, partition complex concepts, identify steps in a process, and so on. How many behaviors equated with clarity does it take before an observer determines that you are being clear? That depends on the observer and most observers aren’t aware enough of the behavior-abstraction connection to tell you how many you need. When some students credit you with being clear and others do not, in addition to associating different behaviors with clarity, they are also disagreeing on the number needed.

So, not only do we have to consider that behaviors are interpreted differently and that a varying constellation of behaviors indicate the presence of a given abstraction, but we must also add to that list the influences exerted by the context in which the behavior occurs. What are the circumstances that surround the use of a given behavior or collection of behaviors? You may walk over to a part of the room so that you can better hear what a student is saying, but if a student nearby is texting, your behavior may be threatening. Maybe that student deserves to feel a bit threatened, but the meaning he’s attaching to your presence illustrates how context also shapes the meaning of a behavior, and most of these context variables aren’t ones teachers can control.

Finally, we can throw into the mix that fact that sometimes teachers (and people in general) do certain things without knowing that they’re doing them. Say it’s a repetitive behavior like pushing up sleeves, counting change in a pocket, or walking back and forth. Students can look at any of those actions and conclude that the teacher is nervous. And they’re probably right. But it does engender modest amounts of anxiety to think that behaviors can communicate messages without any involvement on our part.

You could read this and wonder how there’s ever any successful communication in the classroom or elsewhere. Fortunately, most of time, the majority of students will see a behavior set and equate it with the intended abstraction. That’s why it makes sense to think about teaching abstractions in terms of behaviors. Chances are good that if you start regularly using behaviors associated with clarity, students will decide that you are a teacher who explains things clearly. Chances are good, but not guaranteed.

  • DrJPSinclair

    Dr. Weimer, I read with great interest your article today on how our own behaviors as teachers affect our teaching and our students’ ability to learn. Yes, I agree that they see how we work as well as what we present, and learn both. They watch us and listen to us from the first moment we come into view, whether in the classroom, the hall, or on the parking lot. What a responsibility then, for us, knowing this. Yet at the same time, what a great opportunity. _Like many others on this list, I spent years in undergrad and grad classes. I admit to being very observant, so watching my instructors I learned a lot, and am sure that most of my teaching style comes from those years. What impressed me most, and what I like to think I have adapted as my own known style, is the sense of knowledge, preparedness, and organization that the best teachers brought with them to the forum. I am sure this style is as old as teaching itself

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  • Elena camera

    I enjoyed reading this article as it made me reflect on my own teaching practices and especially the way i communicate key components of teaching such as clarity, enthusiasm and organisation. All components which i feel i endeavour to display, but need to be more mindful of on amore sublte way. i agree with Dr JP Sinclair that we develop our own style by watching and observing.

  • Monica

    The discussion of behaviors and the perceived attitudes behind them is so ambiguous that it makes communication seem daunting and almost impossible (that may be a slight exaggeration). But seriously, as a student who is preparing to being a teaching career in a little more than a year, I am beginning to wonder how, specifically, so many characteristics and attitudes can be effectively communicated on my part. As you said, some actions are perceived entirely differently by each student based on individual background and circumstances. I like how you brought out that communication of specific traits, like organization and clarity are not as ambiguous as the perception of them. It would be awesome to hear more of your thoughts on specific ways to communicate traits like clarity.

  • Annie Riley

    This was a very insightful article, but it is very true. I believe that the behavior of the teacher is a big aspect with teaching the students and how the students will percieve the teacher, it will determin if the student will respect or laugh at the teacher. I am now thinking of all of my different teachers and how some inpacted me more than others. Some of my teachers were not serious about the class so I did not care myself, however the teacher who did care got me excited about the class as well. I am sure that my own specific teaching style will come to me through experiance and I am determined that it will be a good one, one that students can relate to.

  • Joanne Logan

    I feel that I generally come off to students as somewhat laid back about due dates and making up work, even though the syllabus clearly states the penalties of turning work in late. I try to be be understanding because I know they have a whole more on their plates than I did while in college, but yet I believe that punctuality is a very important career skill to master. Ever since I started "flipping" my classes (about 3 years ago), I think that even with incentives such as quizzes that test them on the out of class readings/videos, that they skim through them and do just enough to do ok on the quiz. I am nearly 100% certain that they do NOT take notes while watching the flipped lectures. In past semesters, they had to occasionally turn in their notebooks to be checked, but that got old awfully quick so I no longer do this. As a result from this huge decrease in note taking in the classes I teach, students also seem to have trouble keeping track of due dates, although they are cleared stated in the online syllabus and with each assignment and quiz. This problem of missing deadlines is getting much worse and I'm not sure what approach to take – change my behavior and become more of a hard ass, or find some system that will work for all of us. Suggestions welcome!