Antagonistic Teachers Lower Scores, Hurt Academic Futures

Antagonistic teachers, or teachers who seem hostile much of the time, are a fact of life. We reassure school children suffering the misery of an unpleasant teacher who belittles them. We tell them that not every teacher they have will be amazing, that muddling through the year is just something they have to do. But a new study suggests that having antagonistic teachers not only lowers students’ grades, but affects their ability to learn in future.

Which suggests that the tack we’ve taken all along, as parents, has been wrong. Why would we tell our kids to put up and shut up with unpleasant teachers knowing this will not only affect their grade point average but sour them on learning, going forward? The simple answer is: we wouldn’t. We’d try like heck to get our children transferred to a different class, in order to avoid that awful, no good teacher.

The study, by researchers from West Virginia University, Morgantown, and California State University, Long Beach, and funded by the Taylor & Francis Group, defines the antagonistic teacher as one who belittles students, shows favoritism, or criticizes a student’s efforts. And while the participants of this randomized trial were college students, it seems likely the results could be even more profound among, for instance, adolescents whose brains are still maturing and whose behavior is more volatile as a result.

In this particular study, experts in communication set up a teaching experiment in which around 500 college undergrads watched one of two versions of a videotaped lecture. Half the students watched a version of the lecture in which the teacher antagonized students. The other half watched a standard lesson, without antagonism. The students then answered questions on how they felt about the lesson, and went on to take a multiple-choice quiz on the lesson content.

Lesson With Or Without Antagonistic Teacher

In order to make the student subjects feel like they were in a real classroom, the authors filmed the lecture to show four undergrad students, two guys in the front row, two young women in the second row. The study participants viewed the lectures as if they were students sitting in the third row, behind the students shown in the first two rows in the video. What happened next was very simple, very clear cut: the students who watched the video of the lesson served with a side order of antagonism, performed worse on the test than the students who watched the standard lesson, without an antagonistic teacher.

Just what kind of antagonism did the students face? Some examples:

Antagonistic teacher: “You should already know the answer to that question if you were paying attention to last class.”

Normal teacher: “We went over that last class, so it should be in your notes, but I can go over that with you later if you’d like.”

Teacher modeling positive behavior
Teacher models positive behavior

Antagonistic teacher: “Yup. Well, it looks like some people can keep up and pay attention.” [Looks at student # 1.] “Brian, you could try and be more like Brenda here.” [Brenda is student #3].

Normal teacher: “Yup. Thanks for keeping up and paying attention.”

In the video with the antagonistic teacher, the instructor belittled the students in the first two rows, criticizing their answers and showing favoritism toward one of the students while criticizing the others. It sounds quite bad enough, but the truth is, the antagonistic teacher never raised his voice. The study participants generally rated the instructor as more than “sometimes antagonistic,” but less than “often antagonistic.

And still, the results were significant. Even stunning.

Boy happy to be holding a stack of books
Students do well when they enjoy their lessons

The students who watched the class with the antagonistic teacher scored as much as 5 percent lower than those who watched the standard lesson. The implication seems obvious: students don’t do as well when they don’t enjoy their lessons.

And it would be a rare student indeed who would enjoy being belittled, criticized, or shunted aside in favor of other students. That kind of teacher behavior is arguably abuse. At a certain point, you’d tune out the lesson in order to tune out the abuse. You’d miss stuff.

Anyone would.

Antagonistic Teacher: Long-Lasting Effects

The thing is, this wasn’t just about a student’s score on a single test after one lesson that showed the effects of the antagonistic teacher. The effects were much longer-lasting than that. The students made less of an effort with their learning: after all, if you can’t please the teacher, what’s the point of working hard and doing well? The students with the hostile teacher, moreover, said they would never take part in a future course taught by that teacher, going forward.

Can you blame them?

Study author Dr. Alan Goodboy feels that the long-term consequences of having an antagonistic teacher are the real takeaway from this study. “Even slight antagonism, coupled with otherwise effective teaching, can demotivate students from being engaged and hinder their learning opportunities. So even one bad day of teaching can ruin a student’s perception of the teacher and create an unnecessary roadblock to learning for the rest of the term.”

In Dr. Goodboy’s opinion, teachers must therefore take particular care not to allow themselves to engage in this sort of negative and hostile behavior in the classroom. “Antagonism can come into classrooms unexpectedly and suddenly, even without the knowledge of the teachers themselves,” said Goodboy.

Antagonistic Teachers: Unaware of Their Own Behavior

Asked how an antagonistic teacher could be unaware of his own unpleasant behavior, Goodboy said, “We know that many instructors are unaware when they are misbehaving by antagonizing their students. We know this because they self-report at very low levels of misbehavior (or they don’t want to admit that they do it).”

Goodboy admits there is another kind of teacher who is very much aware of his or her own ill behavior in the classroom. For them it’s a choice. “There are plenty of instructors who are quite aware of their misbehavior and choose to belittle and put down their students in class. These instructors make the volitional decision to antagonize their students,” says Goodboy.

The results of this study, however, are without regard to the teacher’s intention. It’s all about the students’ perspective in relation to nasty teacher behavior, whether purposeful or otherwise. In general, explains Goodboy, the antagonism occurs at “very low levels, but when it does occur, it negatively impacts a learning environment as students do not enjoy learning the content and subsequently score worse on a quiz of that material.”

Dr. Goodboy believes that most teachers don’t engage in this sort of behavior, don’t antagonize their students. But where they do, learning is compromised. The researcher offers a suggestion that teachers be trained in self-awareness: to know when they are beginning to act in an antagonistic manner in the classroom. It’s critical for teachers to recognize and put a stop to this negative behavior that we now know can both damage a student’s grades and his or her attitude to learning in future.

Staying Positive No Matter What

Goodboy also suggests that teachers work at developing positive methods of interacting with students, maintaining an even behavioral keel, even when disagreements arise between student and teacher.

Will the researchers continue to pursue this topic further? Absolutely. The subject is too important to stop here. “These studies focus on instructor misbehaviors in a college context. We do not know that teacher misbehaviors in middle school or high school are similar to those with college aged adults. We believe that college instructors engage in hostility more than K-12 teachers, but without the data this is just speculation,” says Goodboy.

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Taylor & Francis Group. “Hostile teachers can lose students 5 percent on test scores.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 10 May 2018.

Close Physical Contact Important for Crying Babies

Close physical contact between babies and those who care for them is important. We’ve known that for years. A new study shows us that not enough close physical contact has an effect on babies at the molecular level of their very cells. It’s something that can be seen even four years later. That’s according to a new study published by the University of British Columbia, in conjunction with the BC Children’s Hospital Research Institute.

The study found that the molecular profile of children’s cells was immature for their age in those four-year-olds who had experienced more distress and less close physical contact as infants. This begs the question: are such children behind their peers on a biological level? What would this mean for their health?

In an article for Science Daily, Michael Kobor, a Professor at the UBC Department of Medical Genetics and head of the “Healthy Starts” theme at BC Children’s Hospital Research Institute, explained what the researchers think it means. “In children, we think slower epigenetic aging might indicate an inability to thrive,” said Kobor.

While no one knows, at this point, what this lack of close physical contact, and the resultant lag in the development of cell profiles means in terms of child development or adult health, we’re a bit farther ahead than you might think. This study actually builds on the findings of a similar study performed on, um, rats.

Close Physical Contact in Humans

This study, however, is the first ever to show that the act of touching, for humans, is so important that having or not having close physical contact affects us at the molecular level. Whether our mothers and fathers hug and cuddle us may even have lifelong consequences for the epigenome. This is our personal biochemistry makeup that is responsible for the way our genes express themselves.

The study, published in Development and Psychopathology on November 22, included 94 healthy children in British Columbia. Their parents were asked to keep a journal detailing their 5-week-old babies’ behavior in terms of fussing, sleeping, crying, and feeding. They were also told to record how long they had close physical contact with their babies. Fast forward 4 ½ years later. This is when researchers swooped in to take painless DNA samples of the children, by swabbing the insides of their cheeks.

The researchers were looking for something specific in those DNA samples. They were looking for DNA methylation, a biochemical change where some sections of a chromosome get tagged with small molecules made from carbon and hydrogen. These little molecules serve as “dimmer switches” that tell each gene how active it should be, which mean the molecules affect the way the cells function.

Close Physical Contact and DNA

Mother enjoys close contact with her infant, in the baby's bedroomHow much methylation there is and where along the long chain of DNA methylation happens, is something that can be affected by outside influences, especially in children. Scientists also know how to predict all the ways these epigenetic patterns will change as a person ages.

The scientists in the British Columbia study saw methylation differences between children who’d had lots of close physical contact and those who’d had little. The difference in methylation was consistent and was seen in five places in the DNA. Two of these methylation sites are inside the genes. One of them plays a role in the immune system, while the other has to do with the metabolism. The scientists don’t yet know what this will mean for the children in terms of their development and future health.

What they do know is that children who were experiencing more distress, but receiving less close physical contact, had a lower epigenetic age than expected for their age. Many recent studies have shown a link between this developmental lag and poor health.

“We plan to follow up on whether the ‘biological immaturity’ we saw in these children carries broad implications for their health, especially their psychological development,” says lead author and postdoctoral fellow Sarah Moore. “If further research confirms this initial finding, it will underscore the importance of providing physical contact, especially for distressed infants.”

Asked how parents can gauge exactly how much contact is “enough”, Moore said, “Since we don’t have follow up outcomes of these children, we can’t extrapolate. I would say that if we further research this combination of infant distress and level of contact, that perhaps the ‘right amount’ of contact depends on the child’s needs, since we found that an association between contact and epigenetic age depends on child distress levels.”

In other words, if your baby cries, hold him/her. Then simply lather, rinse, and repeat as needed. One thing for sure: holding that baby can only help development, as it’s impossible to spoil an infant with too much close physical contact.


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