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Open Classroom Communication: An Argument for a Re-Evaluation of Teaching Strategies


Mary Gill

Volume 1, 1987

For decades discussions have occurred suggesting effective and ineffective methods of instruction. Yet despite these discussions teaching methods remain relatively unaltered from the traditional learning of reading, 'riting, and 'rithmetic. The students' job was to learn. The teachers' job was to teach. The method was of little concern provided the student did indeed learn. However, recent studies seem to illustrate that the method employed by the teacher does directly affect the learning potential of students. Throughout history the role of the teacher has changed. Early in history, the teachers' primary role was to broaden a child's knowledge. Frequently the parents lacked basic reading and writing capabilities. Even though the child attended school, the parents spent the majority of the child's growing years instructing and providing a role model. As our society has become less family oriented and more dependent on two incomes, the child's time is spent primarily without the parents and with the teacher serving as the primary role model. Certainly more time is spent with teachers than parents for students in post secondary education. Haslett concludes that teachers become the only source of extended personal contact for many students (1977, SO).

Given the effect teachers may have on students and their development, it is reasonable to suggest that all teachers need to evaluate the communication which occurs in their classrooms. After all, communication in the classroom defines the learning process, and it is necessary to communicate in order to influence learning. No discussion of change would be complete without a discussion of factors affecting the effectiveness of classroom communication. Problems which affect classroom communication are often unique since it is different from other formalized communication in that evaluation is integral to this form of classroom communication. Additionally, classroom communication is largely information sharing. Thus classroom communication is largely interpersonal in nature. Meeting the needs and goals of the individual become more relevant than meeting the needs and goals of the group.

Research suggests that there are three predominant concerns of classroom communication. Initially there is the concern of the alarming drop-out rate. Boser and Poppen report that one-third of students entering school will not reach the eleventh grade, and thirty percent will drop-out before completing the ninth grade (1978, 90-94). More alarming than the bare statistics is the primary reason for the high drop-out rate. Teachers are most frequently cited as the reason students dislike and eventually give up on the school environment. Well adjusted and ill adjusted students alike identified the less warm, less kind and less fair minded teacher as the problem (Boser and Poppen, 90-94). The statistics seem to suggest that the problem is more than a personality difference or the fault of the traditionally perceived "problem child." It appears that there are a number of teachers in educational systems that perhaps do not have the students' educational achievement foremost in their minds. The communication sent from the teacher becomes the impetus for the child to leave the educational structure.

Although the drop-out rate may seem like a symptom, the remaining two concerns appear to be direct causes of difficulties in classroom communication. The first cause arises from the students' perceptions of what should occur in the classroom. It, like the drop-out issue, rests with the teachers' effect on the students and what those students choose to do as a result. Frequently, expectations of the students are not met. McGlone and Anderson discovered that students are concerned with the teacher's expertise. Students evaluate the teacher's credibility based on knowledge. Learning increases as the teacher is viewed as more credible. As time goes on, however, the student is more directly affected by the instructor's moods and attitudes. As little as five weeks into a term students demonstrate attitude changes based directly on attitudes presented by or perceived from the teacher. Studies suggest that the teacher's attitude frequently changes within the classroom. As the attitudes move from energetic and positive to more cynical and less enthusiastic, student achievement decreases (McGlone, 198).

The second major difficulty stems from a lack of teacher awareness. Haslett discovered that frequently a discrepancy existed between a teacher's digital (verbal) communication and their analogical (nonverbal) communication. In virtually all of the occasions, the nonverbal communication was believed and the verbal communication frequently viewed as an excuse (1976, 8). For example, a student asks a clarifying question. Even though the instructor verbally communicates appreciation for the question, they are agitated and apparently flustered by the question. In this case, students are more likely to believe that agitation and see the verbal message of appreciation as an excuse. The conclusion again suggests that subtle changes affect the classroom environment but frequently the teacher is unaware of the contradictory nature of their verbal and nonverbal communication.

In addition to contradictions between verbal and nonverbal communication, studies have demonstrated that a factor as seemingly minor as seating position affects classroom performance. Daly and Suite conducted a study measuring this effect on student participation and achievement. They also considered the initial judgments made by teachers relative to seating positions of students. The results indicate that as the age of students change, teachers attitudes regarding seating positions also change. The younger child tends to be included regardless of seating position. As the child ages, teachers tend to concentrate classroom communication among those students in the front or middle of the room. Frequently the students in the back of the room are excluded from the discussion. Additionally, the students in the back of the room also tend to show lower achievement scores. As students' physical distance from the instructor increases, their achievement appears to decrease (Daly and Suite, 64-69). This study does not suggest that contributions to the classroom can be absolutely controlled by the instructor. However it does suggest that instructors must strive to be more aware of factors which influence their actions as well as the result these factors may have on students. When considering the difficulties of classroom communication, educators need to take care so that solutions do not become oversimplified. After all, it seems as though students operating on more realistic expectations and instructors striving to be aware would diminish the difficulties.

This, however, appears to be a Band-Aid solution to a complex weave of communication. Fortunately, studies have been conducted which pinpoint specific measures which enhance learning. These studies may be combined into four general categories. Initially methods of information dispensation should change from the lecture format to a more informal format. Ernest Spaights conducted a study involving high and low achievers. Among both groups, the consensus was that there was too much emphasis on the lecture format of instruction. The students felt as though the mastery of memorization of details was the most important task. They felt that real learning or understanding was of secondary importance (Spaights, 15-17). Uranowitz (15-41) and Zweignenhaft (529-532) similarly concluded that the lecture format forces students to remain at arms' length distance from the teacher. This distance has been shown to decrease student achievement. Although the lecture format is most often used, it clearly is not the most productive for raising student achievement.

Secondly, the atmosphere or feeling prevalent in the classroom affects learning. Studies indicate that a moderately loose, easy-going, calm and informal environment raises classroom effectiveness (Anderson, Alpert and Golden, 36-44). Bray and Howard discovered that students defined a good teacher as one who possessed good organizational skills and set high standards of achievement, yet demonstrated warmth, understanding, and patience (241-248). It appears as though the students aren't requesting an "easy" environment. Rather students want the information clearly organized for them but presented in an environment which enhances their understanding. A difficulty arises in the appearance of prescribing "openness" for the teacher. Uranowitz warned that the openness must be genuine. If the teacher isn't naturally open, then the effort should be made to become more open. He cautions that a faked environment of openness yields no benefits (Uranowitz, 15-41). Students quickly detect the artificial act and respond negatively.

Third, a number of studies have concluded that good interpersonal skills make for the best educational environment. Students surveyed in a number of studies identified sensitivity, understanding, an atmosphere of mutual respect and a teacher's possession of a sympathetic ear essential for their learning (Seiler, Schuelke and Leig-Bilhart; Lynn; Cleghorn, Boser and Poppen). Speculation suggests that as less interpersonal time is spent within the family, the growing student seeks it in the school environment. Thus the instructor willing to give of himself confirms the child's need to give and receive. As the child becomes comfortable with who he or she is becoming, learning is enhanced. By affirming the child the teacher has eased the pressure for the student, at least for a time, and concentration may once again be focused on the subject to be learned.

The fourth suggestion is a separate aspect of interpersonal communication. Studies have concluded that students are striving to find and demand honesty from their teachers. D'Angelo has found that students frequently suffer from poor emotional climates. Many children are disillusioned at an early age to realize the amount of pain and seeming lack of fairness that exists in life. He suggests that a large share of this disillusionment occurs as a result of emotional surprises for the child. Parents don't share family difficulties with the child until a final break-up of divorce or separation occurs. Frequently the child is hurt or sees one of his family members hurt. As a result, since the family unit is causing the disillusionment, the child looks to his teacher to establish a positive emotional climate. A positive emotional climate is one in which the child feels he may communicate honestly and that the teacher likewise will honestly communicate with him or her. D'Angelo suggested that the instructor who fails to admit to the class when he/she has made an error, who fails to incorporate students' views, and who fails to discuss current events in the classroom has failed to establish a positive emotional climate. Additionally D'Angelo suggested that the teacher should frequently serve as a moderator and maximize student to student interactions (D'Angelo, 329-330). This communication among peers is the communication that will be important in the future. Allowing students to interact openly with one another teaches the student a life-long honest communication. It highlights the compromise that makes for successful communication. Spencer Hildahl stressed the importance of the teacher being willing to admit honestly that an error has been made. As our society becomes more perfection-oriented and less tolerant of error, he suggests that it is imperative that students be taught that teachers, like students and other adults, are continually learning. Hildahl's study of college students concluded that this honest admission establishes rapport and that students feel as though there has been a demonstration of acceptance and respect for them. Correspondingly, students' enthusiasm for a course increases (Hildahl, 21-27).

The problems of education and classroom communication are not new. Difficulties have continued to evolve and be recognized for decades. It is alarming, however, when a profession seemingly ignores the warning signs. Too frequently, legitimate concerns of students are glossed over as complaints of a lazy student. Sufficient evidence exists however to suggest that the best and the worst of students have real concerns for the type of classroom environment in which they are placed. An environment which is moderately relaxed seems to allow for greater student performance. Non-lecture formats allow for more student-to-student interactions, which in turn allow the student to apply more skills that they will use in later life. Additionally, genuine openness and careful interpersonal skills displayed by the instructor teaches these values to students. The open environment reduces the stress felt by students and allows a higher level of achievement. Finally, honesty should not be understated as a value exemplified by the teacher. If the teacher is willing to openly admit that error and failure is a healthy dimension of living, the student experiences a feeling that to attempt and fail is of greater worth than to never have tried. If those in education are not willing to look at the methods available and be open to change for the betterment of learning, then the nature of education will stagnate. Those in education need to be concerned with student learning. For those who are concerned with student performance, it is only logical to suggest that teaching strategies must be re-evaluated and the techniques with proven effectiveness must be incorporated.



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Daly, John A. and Amy Suite. "Classroom Seating Choice and Teacher Perceptions of Students." Journal of Experimental Education, 50, Winter 1981-82, pp. 64-69.

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