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Teacher-student interactions in science classes: Differences between the perceptions of teachers and their students

Tony Rickards and Darrell Fisher
Science and Mathematics Education Centre
Curtin University of Technology
Most science teachers would believe that good interactions with the students they teach are important. But are the students' perceptions of the interactions that occur the same as their teachers? Also is there a difference in science teachers' perceptions of their actual teacher-student interactions behaviour in the classroom and what they believe to be ideal? The purpose of this study was to answer these two questions. A sample of 153 teachers and their 3,515 students from 164 secondary school science classes in 35 schools completed the Questionnaire on Teacher Interaction (QTI). The QTI assesses leadership, helping/friendly, understanding, student responsibility and freedom, uncertain, dissatisfied, admonishing and strict behaviours. Statistical analyses including internal consistency reliability, circumplexity and ability to differentiate between classrooms, confirmed the reliability and validity of the QTI for use with either secondary school science students or their teachers. Generally, teachers perceived their interactions more positively than did their students. The paper also describes how science teachers can and have used the questionnaire to assess perceptions of their own teacher-student interactions and used this as a basis for reflecting on their own teaching practice.


Introduction

Most science teachers believe that good relationships with their students are important. But are the students' perceptions of teacher-student interpersonal behaviour the same as their teachers? Is there a difference in science teachers' perceptions of their actual teacher-student interpersonal behaviour in the classroom and what they perceive to be ideal?

The purposes of this paper are to outline a convenient questionnaire designed to assess teacher-student interpersonal behaviour and to report its use in answering such questions as these. The paper describes various forms of the Questionnaire on Teacher Interaction (QTI) and reports its use in past research. Finally, the paper describes how science teachers have used the questionnaire to assess perceptions of their own teacher-student interpersonal behaviour and used this as a basis for reflecting on their own teaching.

Teacher and student interaction in the classroom

International research efforts over the last 25 years have firmly established classroom environment as a thriving field of study (Fraser, 1994; Fraser & Walberg, 1991). Recent classroom environment research has focused on constructivist classroom environments (Taylor, Fraser, & Fisher, 1997), cross-national studies of science classroom environments (Fisher, Rickards, Goh, & Wong, 1997), science laboratory classroom environments (McRobbie & Fraser, 1993), and computer-assisted instruction classrooms (Fisher & Stolarchuk, 1997; Teh & Fraser, 1995).

In The Netherlands, Wubbels, Creton, and Holvast (1988) investigated teacher behaviour in classrooms from a systems perspective, adapting a theory on communication processes developed by Watzlawick, Beavin, and Jackson (1967). Within the systems perspective on communication, it is assumed that the behaviours of participants influence each other mutually. The behaviour of the teacher is influenced by the behaviour of the students and in turn influences student behaviour. Circular communication processes develop which not only consist of behaviour, but determine behaviour as well.

With the systems perspective in mind, Wubbels, Creton, and Hooymayers (1985) developed a model to map interpersonal teacher behaviour extrapolated from the work of Leary (1957). This model has been used in The Netherlands in the development of an instrument, the Questionnaire on Teacher Interaction (QTI), to gather students' and teachers' perceptions of interpersonal teacher behaviour (Wubbels, Brekelmans, & Hooymayers, 1991; Wubbels & Levy, 1993). This model maps interpersonal behaviour with the aid of an influence dimension (Dominance, D - Submission, S) and a proximity dimension (Cooperation, C - Opposition, O). These dimensions are represented in a coordinate system divided into eight equal sectors (see Figure 1).

Figure 1: The model for teacher interpersonal behaviour

Every instance of interactional teacher behaviour can be placed within this system of axes. The closer the instances of behaviour are in the chart, the more closely they resemble each other.

The sections are labelled DC, CD, CS, SC, SO, OS, OD and DO according to their position in the coordinate system. For example, the two sectors DC and CD are both characterised by Dominance and Cooperation. In the DC sector, however, the Dominance aspect prevails over the Cooperation aspect, whereas in the adjacent sector CD Cooperation prevails over the Dominance aspect (Wubbels, T., Creton, H., Levy, J., & Hooymayers, H., 1993). Table 1 shows the names of the behaviours (e.g., leadership behaviour, helping/friendly behaviour, understanding behaviour) given to each sector. These sector names are the names given to the eight scales of the QTI. Table 1 clarifies further the nature of the QTI by providing a scale description and a sample item for each of the eight scales.

Table 1: Description of scales and sample items for each scale of the QTI

Scale nameDescription of scale
(The extent to which the teacher...)
Sample item

Leadership...leads, organises, gives orders, determines procedure and structures the classroom situation.This teacher talks enthusiastically about his/ her subject.
Helping/friendly...shows interest, behaves in a friendly or considerate manner and inspires confidence and trust.This teacher helps us with our work.
Understanding...listens with interest, empathises, shows confidence and understanding and is open with students.This teacher trusts us.
Student responsibility/ freedom...gives opportunity for independent work, gives freedom and responsibility to students.We can decide some things in this teachers class.
Uncertain...behaves in an uncertain manner and keeps a low profile.This teacher seems uncertain.
Dissatisfied...expresses dissatisfaction, looks unhappy, criticises and waits for silence.This teacher thinks that we cheat.
Admonishing...gets angry, express irritation and anger, forbids and punishes.This teacher gets a ngry unexpectedly.
Strict...checks, maintains silence and strictly enforces the rules.This teacher is strict.

One advantage of the QTI is that it can be used to obtain the perceptions of interpersonal behaviour of either students or teachers. When the QTI is administered to both teachers and their students, information is provided about the perceptions of teachers and the perceptions of their students of the interpersonal behaviour of that teacher. The information obtained by means of the questionnaire includes perceptions of the behaviour of the teacher towards the students as a class, and reflects relatively stable patterns of behaviour over a considerable period. Similarly, teachers can be asked for their perceptions of their own behaviour. The wording of the questionnaire is varied slightly when used to obtain teachers' self-perceptions.

For example the question "This teacher talks enthusiastically about his/her subject", becomes "I talk enthusiastically about my subject" in the teacher self-perception version, and "This teacher would talk enthusiastically about his/her subject" in the teacher ideal version.

Previous use of the QTI

The QTI has been shown to be a valid and reliable instrument when used in The Netherlands (Wubbels & Levy, 1993). When the 64-item USA version of the QTI was used with 1,606 students and 66 teachers in the USA, the cross-cultural validity and usefulness of the QTI were confirmed. Using the Cronbach alpha coefficient, Wubbels and Levy (1991) reported acceptable internal consistency reliabilities for the QTI scales ranging from .76 to .84 for student responses and from .74 to .84 for teacher responses.

Another use of the QTI in The Netherlands involved investigation of relationships between perceptions on the QTI scales and student learning outcomes (Wubbels, Brekelmans, & Hooymayers, 1991). Regarding students' cognitive outcomes, the more that teachers demonstrated strict, leadership and helpful/friendly behaviour, then the higher were cognitive outcomes scores. Conversely, student responsibility and freedom, uncertain and dissatisfied behaviours were related negatively to achievement.

When teachers described their perceptions of their own behaviours, they tended to see it a little more favourably than did their students. On average, the teachers' perceptions were between the students' perceptions of actual behaviour and the teachers' ideal behaviour. An interpretation of this is that teachers think that they behave closer to their ideal than their students think they do.

Variations in the students' attitudes toward the subject and the lessons have been characterised on the basis of the proximity dimension: the more cooperative the behaviour displayed, the higher the affective outcome scores (Wubbels, Brekelmans, & Hooymayers, 1991). That is, student responsibility and freedom, understanding, helping/friendly and leadership behaviours were related positively to student attitudes. Uncertain, dissatisfied, admonishing and strict behaviours were related negatively to student attitudes. Overall, previous studies have indicated that interpersonal teacher behaviour is an important aspect of the learning environment and that it is related strongly to student outcomes.

Levy, Creton, and Wubbels (1993) analysed data from studies in The Netherlands, the USA and Australia involving students being asked to use the QTI to rate their best and worst teachers. Students rated their best teachers as being strong leaders and as friendly and understanding. The characteristics of the worst teachers were that they were more admonishing and dissatisfied.

Levy, Wubbels, Brekelmans, and Morganfield (1997) investigated a sample of 550 high school students in 38 classes comprised of three primary investigation groups, namely 117 Latinos, 111 Asians and 322 from the United States. The primary focus was the language and cultural factors in students' perceptions of teacher communication style. This study focused on identifying ways in which the students' culture relates to student perceptions of their teachers. The results from this study suggested that the students' cultural background is indeed significantly related to the perceptions that they had of their teachers' interaction behaviour. The study also concluded that teachers do not seem to be aware of cultural differences in their interactions with students in their classes in the same way as their students were, despite altering their behaviour in classes with different cultural compositions.

The Australian version of the QTI containing 48 items was used in a pilot study involving upper secondary science classes in Western Australia and Tasmania (Fisher, Fraser, & Wubbels, 1993; Fisher, Fraser, Wubbels, & Brekelmans, 1993; Fisher, Fraser, & Henderson, 1995). This pilot study strongly supported the validity and potential usefulness of the QTI within the Australian context, and suggested the desirability of conducting further and more comprehensive research involving the QTI.

Wubbels (1993) used the QTI with a sample of 792 students and 46 teachers in Western Australia and Tasmania. The results of this study were similar to previous Dutch and American research in that, generally, teachers did not reach their ideal and differed from the best teachers as perceived by students. It is noteworthy that the best teachers, according to students, are stronger leaders, more friendly and understanding, and less uncertain, dissatisfied and admonishing than teachers on average. When teachers described their perceptions of their own behaviours, they tended to see it a little more favourably than did their students. On average, the teachers' perceptions were between the students' perceptions of actual behaviour and the teachers' ideal behaviour. An interpretation of this is that teachers think that they behave closer to their ideal than their students think that they do.

One recent Australian study (Fisher, Rickards, & Fraser, 1996) found that after having completed the QTI and having had time to consider the results supplied to them, science teachers reported that they had been stimulated to reflect on their own teaching and verbal communication in the classroom. For example, one teacher concluded that she had become more aware of her students' need for clear communication and that this had become a focus for her in improving her classroom teaching (Fisher, Rickards, & Fraser, 1996).

Methodology

With the systems approach to communication processes in mind the following research questions were proposed.
  1. Are the three forms of the QTI that examine student and teacher perceptions of the classroom learning environment valid and reliable in lower secondary science classes in Australia?

  2. Are there differences in teachers and students perceptions of teacher-student interpersonal behaviour?

  3. Are there differences in teacher actual and teacher ideal perceptions?

  4. Can the QTI be eficiently used by teachers as a tool for self reflection?
The aims of the proposed study were to provide further validation information for the student and teacher versions of the QTI (in terms of reliability and ability to differentiate between different groups of students) when used with a large Australian sample; to investigate differences in the perceptions of science teachers and their students; and to investigate differences in teachers' actual and ideal perceptions of teacher interactions. The final practical application of the study was to examine the use of the QTI as an effective means by which to monitor and reflect on teacher-student interpersonbal behaviour.

The sample was composed of 173 science classes at the lower secondary levels in two Australian states, namely, Tasmania and Western Australia. The total sample involved 3,589 students in 173 science classes spread approximately equally between grades 8, 9 and 10 in 35 different schools. Each student in the sample responded to the student version of the QTI while their 164 teachers completed the teacher self and teacher ideal perception versions.

Results

Validation of the questionnaire

The large database consisting of the responses to the QTI of 3,589 students in 173 classes provided further validation data on that instrument. Table 2 provides information for the QTI when used specifically in the present sample of science classes. Statistics for the student version are reported for two units of analysis, namely, the individual student's score and the class mean score.

As expected, reliabilities for class means were higher than those where the individual student was used as the unit of analysis. Table 2 shows that the alpha reliability figures for different QTI scales ranged from .63 to .88 when the individual student was used as the unit of analysis, and from .78 to .96 when the class mean was used as the unit of analysis.

These values presented in Table 2 for the present sample provide further information supporting the internal consistency of the QTI, with either the individual student or the class mean as the unit of analysis.

Table 2: Internal consistency (Cronbach Alpha Coefficient) and ability to
differentiate between classrooms for student and teacher versions of the QTI

Teacher
Student
Scale ActualIdealUnit of
analysis
Alpha
reliability
ANOVA
results (eta2)

Leadership .88.81Individual
Class Mean
.82
.93
.33*
Helping/ Friendly .92.86Individual
Class Mean
.88
.96
.35*
Understanding .88.83Individual
Class Mean
.85
.95
.32*
Student Resp/ Freedom .79.65Individual
Class Mean
.66
.82
.26*
Uncertain .78.69Individual
Class Mean
.72
.87
.22*
Dissatisfied .84.78Individual
Class Mean
.80
.93
.23*
Admonishing .79.75Individual
Class Mean
.76
.87
.31*
Strict .72.62Individual
Class Mean
.63
.78
.23*

*p<.001   n = 3515 students and 164 teachers in 173 classes.

Table 2 also indicates that the alpha reliability figures for different QTI scales using the teacher sample was somewhat lower and ranged from .72 to .92 for the teacher actual version of the QTI and .62 to .86 for the teacher ideal version of the QTI. These reliability figures are all above the 0.60 level proposed by Nunnally (Nunnally, 1967; 1978) , as a"suggested acceptable level for research purposes". Another desirable characteristic of any instrument like the QTI is that it is capable of differentiating between the perceptions of students in different classrooms. That is, students within the same class should perceive it relatively similarly, while mean within-class perceptions should vary from class to class. This characteristic was explored for each scale of the QTI using a one-way ANOVA, with class membership as the main effect. It was found that each QTI scale differentiated significantly (p<.001) between classes and that the eta2 statistic, representing the proportion of variance explained by class membership, ranged from .22 to .35 for different scales.

Differences between students and their teachers

In order to investigate if students perceived teacher-student interactions differently from their teachers, scale mean scores were calculated for each of the teacher and student samples and compared.

Table 3: Scale means and standard deviations for teachers and
science students' scores on the eight scales of the QTI

Scale mean
Difference
Standard deviation
Scale Teacher
Actual
Student
Actual
(Trs score -
Studs score)
TeachersStudentsF Value

Leadership3.04 2.74.30.34.7326.26**
Helping/ Friendly3.31 2.83.48.41.8650.18**
Understanding3.19 2.83.36.37.7934.37**
Student resp/ Freedom1.48 1.75-.27.45.6526.31**
Uncertain.81 1.01-.20.48.6914.17**
Dissatisfied.92 1.11-.19.44.789.22**
Admonishing1.04 1.40-.36.45.8031.98**
Strict1.98 1.78.20.44.6514.09**

*p<.05   teachers  n = 164
**p<.01  students  n = 3351

As indicated in Table 3, statistically significant differences were apparent in the responses to six of the eight scales of the QTI, with teachers considering they exhibited greater leadership, helping/friendly and understanding behaviours than did their students.

The students considered their teachers were more uncertain, dissatisfied and admonishing than did their teachers. Figure 2 illustrates graphically the different perceptions of teachers and students of the same 173 classrooms. The differences generally indicate that teachers believed they were more cooperative and less oppositional in the classrooms than their students perceived.

Differences between teachers' self perceptions and their ideals

Table 4 presents the differences that were recorded between the teacher ideal and teacher actual perceptions as collected using the QTI. Scale mean scores ranged from 0.81 to 3.31 for the teacher actual version and from 0.46 to 3.75 for the Teacher ideal version. These scales were scored on a Likert type scale that ranged from 1 to 5.

If these scale mean scores are examined more closely is is possible to see that teacher ideal scale mean scores are higher for the scales of Leadership, Helping/Friendly and Understanding. This suggests that teachers' perceive their ideal teacher as exhibiting more positive behaviours than they currently do.

Table 4: Scale means and standard deviations for teachers and
science students' scores on the eight scales of the QTI

Scale mean
Difference
Standard deviation
Scale Teacher
Actual
Teacher
Ideal
(Ideal-Actual)ActualIdealF Value

Leadership3.04 3.750.71.34.25461.05**
Helping/ Friendly3.31 3.690.38.41.3390.00**
Understanding3.19 3.620.43.37.33122.33**
Student resp/ Freedom1.48 1.42-0.06.45.421.88
Uncertain0.81 0.46-0.35.48.4942.3**
Dissatisfied0.92 0.69-0.23.44.4919.87**
Admonishing1.04 0.51-0.53.45.46109.80**
Strict1.98 1.980.00.44.470.09

*p<.05   teachers  n = 164
**p<.01  students  n = 3351

The teachers considered that they gave more student responsibility and freedom and exhibited more uncertain, dissatisfied and admonishing behaviours than did their ideal teachers.

Figure 3 illustrates graphically the different perceptions of the two teacher versions and the students perceptions of the same 173 classrooms. The differences in the teacher actual and teacher ideal scores suggest that teachers would generally like to see increased leadership, helping friendly and understanding behaviours exhibited in the classroom.

Student data, represented in figure 3, generally indicates that students saw their classroom as less positive than did their teachers who believed they were more cooperative and less oppositional in the classrooms than their students perceived.

How teachers can use the QTI

A number of science teachers have used the QTI as a basis for self-reflection. The process begins with the teacher completing the two teacher versions of the QTI which ask the teacher to rate how they see themselves and how they see their ideal teacher. By completing these two questionnaires, the teacher is able to provide details about interpersonal behaviour in their actual classroom environment as well as their ideal classroom environment.

To enable the teacher to gather data about the students' perspective of the actual classroom environment and teacher-student interpersonal behaviours in the classroom, the students are asked to complete the student version of the QTI.

Once the three versions of the QTI have been completed the totals for each scale for each version can be calculated, together with the mean for student perceptions. Student mean scores can be calculated manually or by using a spreadsheet program. Also results can be plotted onto sector profiles similar to those shown in Figure 2 by contacting the authors for use of a proprietary software package. From this information, a profile of classroom interpersonal teacher-student behaviours for a particular teacher can be produced. Figure 2 depicts the profiles recently provided by the authors to two science teachers who participated in a recent data collection.

The sector profile diagrams of Teacher 1 suggest that this teacher perceives herself as being close to her ideal teacher in all sections of the model of interpersonal behaviour. The students perceive this teacher to have a greater level of understanding than she believes. Furthermore, the teacher perceives much more uncertainty in her own behaviour than do her students.

The profiles for Teacher 2 suggest his ideal teacher would exhibit greater leadership behaviour than he perceives he demonstrates. The students have a different perception of the classroom interpersonal behaviour to that of their teacher. They perceive less Helping/Friendly and Understanding behaviours and more Admonishing behaviour.

Both teachers could use the data provided by the sector profile diagrams to reflect on their classroom behaviours and use the results as a basis for modifying their behaviour when interacting with students. For example, Teacher 2 may decide to exhibit more leadership behaviour in the classroom whilst trying to be more cooperative with students and give them more assistance while they are working.

After having completed the questionnaire and having had time to read the QTI report supplied to them, science teachers reported that the results had stimulated them to reflect on their own teaching.

Conclusions

In response to the initial research questions, this study has found that the three forms of the QTI that examine student and teacher perceptions of the classroom learning environment are valid and reliable instruments that can be used by science teachers to assess teacher-student interpersonal behaviours in their lower secondary science classes in Australia.

It showed that there were differences in teachers and students perceptions of teacher-student interpersonal behaviour and that teachers tend to perceive their classes more positively than their students.

Differences in teacher actual and teacher ideal perceptions were apparent and tended to suggest that teachers perceived their ideal teacher as being more positive than they currently are.

The QTI is able to be eficiently used by teachers as a tool for self reflection. The three versions of the QTI allow science teachers to obtain their students' perceptions of their interpersonal behaviour, their own perceptions and the behaviour that they consider to be ideal. This valuable information then can be used as a basis for self-reflection by teachers on their teaching performance. Based on this information, teachers might decide to change the way they behave in an attempt to create a more desirable classroom environment.

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Authors: Tony Rickards and Darrell Fisher, Science and Mathematics Education Centre, Curtin University of Technology, GPO Box U1987, Perth WA 6845

Please cite as: (1998). Teacher-student interactions in science classes: Differences between the perceptions of teachers and their students. Proceedings Western Australian Institute for Educational Research Forum 1998. http://www.waier.org.au/forums/1998/rickards.html


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