The relationship between teachers’ teaching styles, students’ engagement in school and ESL

Thursday 23 July 2015, by Tina Rutar Leban

A teacher’s teaching style (authoritative, authoritarian and permissive) affects students’ experience in school. It can provoke functional or non-functional perceptions of learning, self-efficacy and schoolwork, thus an appropriate teaching style can help prevent early school leaving.

Teaching style defines the behaviours or actions teachers exhibit in the teaching process. Moreover, it reflects the beliefs and values teachers hold about the role of the teacher and the learner in the learning exchange (Heimlich & Norland, 2002). Teaching style is not only the teaching method itself but something larger that relates to the entire teaching-learning exchange, regardless of the environment or content of teaching (Heimlich & Norland, 2002).

The relationship between teaching styles and early school leaving (ESL) has not been directly studied. But there is varying evidence that teachers’ teaching style affects certain factors such as self-efficacy, academic self-image, school-related attitudes, achievements, engagement in school (e.g. Walker, 2009; Wentzel, 2002) that have been shown to be important predictors of ESL (Lan & Lanthier, 2003). Different studies that analysed teaching styles through the framework of parenting styles indicate that teachers’ characteristics, similar to parenting behaviours characterised as authoritative (warm and supportive of autonomy as opposed to controlling), were found to be positively related to student motivation and feelings of academic competence (e.g. Moos, 1978; Ryan, Stiller, & Lynch, 1994; Wentzel, 1997). In addition, some characteristics of the authoritative teaching style (such as warmth, openness, support, supervision etc.) have been shown to help students at risk for ESL stay more engaged in school and thus be less prone to dropping out (Fallu & Janosz, 2003; Crosnoe, Kirkpatrick Johnson, & Elder, 2004; Murray & Malgrem, 2005).

There is empirical evidence that a teacher’s teaching style significantly affects the different outcomes of the teaching-learning process in school. What is important for teachers to realise is that their teaching style influences students’ perception of school and school work. The development of a teaching style is an ongoing process based on teachers’ professional growth and students’ characteristics. It is the teacher’s responsibility to recurrently analyse their teaching style, reflect on it and implement necessary changes. Constant reflection on one’s own teaching practices, classroom activities and problem-solving approaches in the classroom are the basic teaching style monitoring approaches.


Teachers create specific psychological and behavioural structures within classrooms, which hold consequences for student engagement and learning, and influence students’ academic self-image and their attitudes to knowledge and learning (Walker, 2008). Ultimately, they can also influence students’ decision to stay in or leave school (Lee & Breen, 2007; Tyler & Lofstrom, 2009). The social quality of teacher-student relationships contributes to both the academic and social-emotional development of students (e.g. Gregory & Weinstein, 2004; Hamre & Pianta, 2001). Students with caring and supportive interpersonal relationships in school report more positive academic attitudes and values, and greater satisfaction with school. These students also are more academically engaged (Roorda, Koomen, Spilt, & Oort, 2011).

These specific psychological and behavioural structures created by teachers within the classroom are commonly defined as teachers’ teaching style. Teaching style is referred to as a predilection to teaching behaviour and congruence between an educator’s teaching beliefs and their teaching behaviours (Heimlich & Norland, 1994). Conti (1985; 2004) describes it as persistent and distinct qualities a teacher displays in the classroom. It is also defined as a pervasive quality in an educator’s teaching that persists even when the content changes (Fisher & Fisher, 1979). Teaching style defines behaviours or actions that teachers exhibit in the teaching process. Teaching behaviours reflect the beliefs and values teachers hold about the role of the teacher and the learner in the learning exchange (Heimlich & Norland, 2002). Teaching style is not only the teaching method itself but something larger that relates to the entire teaching-learning exchange, regardless of the environment or content of teaching (Heimlich & Norland, 2002).

We can find different typologies of teaching styles in the literature (e.g. Bennett, 1976; Flanders, 1970; Good, 1979). Schultz (1982), for example, stressed the difference between a directive and a non-directive approach to teaching. Grasha (1996) identified five potential approaches/roles of teachers in the classroom (Expert, Formal Authority, Personal Model, Facilitator and Delegator). Deriving from the constructivist view of learning, a “learner-centred approach” has been advocated in the last few decades (Zophy, 1982; McCombs & Whistler, 1997; Weimer, 2002; Pillay, 2002). Based on the literature on teaching styles, Dupin-Bryant (2004) defines a learner-centred teaching style as responsive, collaborative, problem-centred and democratic in which both students and the teacher decide how, what and when learning occurs. On the other hand, a teacher-centred teaching style is defined as formal, controlled and autocratic in which the teacher directs how, what and when students learn. Behar-Horenstein (2006) defined teaching styles’ beliefs across two domains (teacher-centred and student-centred) and four subdomains (methods of instruction, classroom milieu, use of questioning, and use of assessment). Some researchers also tried to compare teaching styles with parenting styles (e.g. Barnas, 2001; Walker, 2009; Wentzel, 2002). They detected the authoritative, authoritarian and permissive teaching styles.

In this article, we focus on the role teachers and their teaching styles play in developing students’ self-efficacy, attitude to school work, learning, knowledge and academic achievements which represent potential protective factors against ESL (e.g. Battin-Pearson et al., 2000; Lan & Lanthier, 2003). The relationship between teaching styles and ESL has not been directly studied. But there is varying evidence that the teaching style of teachers affects some dimensions such as self-efficacy, academic self-image, school-related attitudes, achievements, engagement in school (e.g. Walker, 2009; Wentzel, 2002) that have been shown to be important predictors of ESL (Lan & Lanthier, 2003). Accordingly, emphasising the importance of an appropriate teaching style can help better prevent ESL.


The article is based on a review of the literature entailing searching in the PsycINFO, ERIC, Proquest, Science Direct and Google scholar, Proquest Dissertation & Theses Global search databases. Keywords used in the literature search were predictors for early school leaving, teaching styles, school environment, classroom environment, school performance, school achievements, teachers’ beliefs, teachers’ behaviours, school dropout etc. For the purposes of this article, we mainly took scientific papers and some online scientific books into consideration.

A parenting style framework for teaching style in the school environment

As mentioned, some researchers have investigated comparisons between parenting styles and teaching styles (e.g. Barnas, 2001; Walker, 2009; Wentzel, 2002). Parenting styles are constellations of parental attitudes, practices and non-verbal expressions that characterise the nature of parent-child interactions (Darling & Steinberg, 1993). Contemporary research on parenting styles derives from Baumrind’s (1971, 1978) studies of family interactions. Based on her observations of parents interacting with preschool children, Baumrind (1967) highlighted two basic dimensions of parenting styles: parental demandingness/undemandingness and parental responsiveness/unresponsiveness. Using combinations of these two parental behaviour dimensions, Baumrind recognised four parenting styles: an authoritarian parenting style – the style of enforcing power (characterised by high demands and unresponsiveness to children’s needs, interests, rights), an authoritative parenting style (characterised by a combination of high demands and responsiveness to children’s needs, warmth), a permissive parenting style – the style of inefficient control (characterised by low demands and responsiveness) and an uninvolved parenting style (characterised by parents’ lack of demands and responsiveness) (Baumrind, 1967).

Similarly to research on parenting styles, researchers have focused on dimensions of teachers’ demandingness and responsiveness in the classroom, and investigated students’ outcomes when different teaching styles were used in the classroom (e.g. Barnas, 2001; Walker, 2009; Wentzel, 2002).

Impact of teaching style on students’ learning and social outcomes

Different studies that analysed teaching styles through the parenting styles framework indicate that teachers’ characteristics, similar to those parenting behaviours characterised as authoritative (warm and supportive of autonomy as opposed to controlling), were found to be positively related to student motivation and feelings of academic competence (e.g. Moos, 1978; Ryan, Stiller, & Lynch, 1994; Wentzel, 1997). Walker (2008), for example, researched students’ (12-year-olds) perceived self-efficacy, their readiness for schoolwork and their academic performance in mathematics in classrooms with different teaching styles. Students in the class where the teacher applied the authoritative teaching style (as categorised by observers) made greater achievement gains than their peers who had permissive teachers. They also showed more engagement in school work than their peers who had authoritarian teachers. Similar results were found by Wentzel (2002). Students whose teachers set high academic expectations (a characteristic of authoritarian and authoritative but not permissive teaching styles) obtained better grades and were more interested in school. In contrast, students with teachers who were more critical and negative in their feedback (a characteristic of authoritarian but not authoritative and permissive teaching styles) had worse grades and were less interested in school (Wentzel, 2002). Barnas (2001) observed her own teaching style (teaching students at the university level) during the progress of her career. She perceived her teaching style as progressing from being permissive to authoritarian to authoritative. Her perception and student evaluation indicated that the authoritative teaching style was the most effective in that students were both prepared for class and participated enthusiastically. There is also evidence that students prefer college teachers who possess characteristics consistent with the authoritative style, such as warmth and approachability (e.g. Basow, Phelan, & Capotosto, 2006; Basow & Silberg, 1987). Bassett, Snyder, Rogers and Collins (2013) applied the parenting styles model to teachers in higher education. They reported the results of two studies in which university students described an actual professor for the current semester using a modified version of the Parental Authority Questionnaire (Buri, 1991), which measures the extent to which a person displays the characteristics of the permissive, authoritarian and authoritative styles. In both studies, students expected to receive better grades in a class with the teacher described as being higher on the authoritative style and lower on the authoritarian style. Further, teachers described by students as higher on the authoritative style were perceived as setting higher achievement standards, fostering more interest in learning, being clearer, being more helpful, and being a better quality teacher overall.

Further studies of relationships between teaching styles and different areas of students’ development point to the importance of consistent control, autonomy support and suitable responsiveness to students’ needs (all characteristics of the authoritative teaching style). In one study, researchers (Patrick, Turner, Meyer, & Midgley, 2005) identified three different types of classroom environment, all of which were established by the teachers’ behaviour. The first type of classroom environment was named a “supportive environment”. It was characterised by teachers’ high expectations for student learning, teachers’ use of humour and a high level of respect (authoritative teaching style). The second type of classroom environment was a “non-supportive environment”. Teachers who created this type of environment emphasised extrinsic reasons for learning, used authoritarian control and expected children to misbehave or cheat in exams. The third type of classroom environment was named an “ambiguous environment” as some inconsistencies were perceived in the teaching style. On one hand, the teachers expressed a desire for student learning and high learning outcomes but, on the other, they had low expectations. Inconsistency was also perceived in teachers’ assertion of control in the classroom. Researchers also examined students’ views on learning and knowledge. Students whose classroom environment was supportive (with authoritative characteristics) expressed a less negative view on learning and knowledge than students who were in classes with a predominantly non-supportive or ambiguous classroom environment. In another study, Turner, Meyer, Midgley and Patrick (2003) researched relationships between teachers’ responsiveness to children’s needs and learning outcomes, and students experiencing unpleasant emotions with regard to school. The study results showed the authoritarian teaching style (especially a teacher’s lack of warmth in their attitude to students and students’ low autonomy regarding schoolwork) is related to students’ negative emotions about learning and avoidance behaviour in their attitude to schoolwork.

To sum up, like parents, teachers also create contexts in which students develop social and academic competencies. As studies show that the authoritative parenting style gives the best support for a child’s development in the home environment there is also evidence that characteristics of the authoritative teaching style help students in the teaching context.

Below we focus on students’ engagement and students’ self-determination. These two student outcomes are significantly correlated to teachers’ teaching style (e.g. Roorda, Koomen, Spilt, & Oort, 2011; Deci & Ryan, 1987) and thus can presumably be impacted by teachers’ carefully planned interventions in the classroom. Both outcomes have also been recognised as preventive factors for ESL (e.g. Doll & Hess, 2001).

Teaching style and students’ engagement in school

Students’ engagement in school is probably one of the most important outcomes of an appropriate teaching style and positive student-teacher relationship (Roorda, Koomen, Spilt, & Oort, 2011) especially regarding students at risk for ESL. Research shows that ESL is the outcome of a long process of disengagement with measurable indicators that are present already in the early grades of schooling (e.g. Barclay & Doll, 2001; Barrington & Hendricks, 1989). The concept of engagement has emerged as a critical theme in the process of understanding students’ exit status from school (Doll & Hess, 2001; Finn, 1993) and there is scientific evidence showing correlations between school disengagement and ESL (e.g. Finn & Rock, 1997; Lamb, Dwyer, & Wyn, 2000; McMillan & Marks, 2003; Willms, 2003). Students’ disengagement from school has been found to be a major cause of deviant behaviour at school, truanting, and low academic achievement (Lamb, Walstab, Tesse, Vickers, & Rumberger, 2004).

Key ingredients of student engagement include student participation, identification with school or social bonding, academic performance, and personal investment in learning (Finn, 1993; Maehr & Midgely, 1996). Researchers view engagement as a multidimensional construct, although many studies investigate only one dimension. Fredericks, Blumenfeld and Paris (2004) classified 44 engagement studies within behavioural, emotional and cognitive categories. Behavioural engagement is defined as student participation in academic, social and extracurricular activities. Students show emotional engagement when they have positive attitudes and reactions to school, teachers, learning and peers. Cognitive engagement is defined as students’ personal investment in learning in a focused, strategic and self-regulating way. Fredricks et al. (2004) conclude that all three categories represent equally important dimensions of engagement and that more multidimensional research must be conducted. Research using this model has suggested that all three types of engagement cover different aspects of the student experience important for school success and personal development (Blumenfeld et al., 2005).

A student’s school engagement includes both academic and social integration within the school (You & Sharkey, 2009). When students are fully engaged in learning they achieve better academic outcomes (Finn & Rock, 1997). Students who show a stable level of school engagement over the course of their schooling are less likely to leave the school before completing it (Janosz et al., 2008). The lack of attendance is a sign of a general disengagement from school, ultimately leading to ESL (Jimerson et al., 2000; Janosz et al., 2008). In one study (Archer & Yamashita, 2003) former students were asked why they had dropped out of school. Their decision to leave school was mostly based on their self-concepts, explaining that they felt “not good enough” to continue and that they “knew their limits”. Thus, it appears that through perceived failure in school students become so disengaged from the educational process that they believe that their ‘place’ lies elsewhere. However, it is important to note that early school leavers are a heterogeneous group and there is a variety of reasons why they leave school.

Roorda, Koomen, Spilt and Oort, (2011) used a meta-analytic approach to investigate the associations between affective qualities of teacher-student relationships and students’ school engagement and achievement. The analyses included 99 studies, referring to students from preschool to high school. Separate analyses were conducted for positive relationships and engagement, negative relationships and engagement, positive relationships and achievement, and negative relationships and achievement. The results of the meta-analysis show that associations of both positive and negative relationships with engagement were medium to large, whereas associations with achievement were small to medium.

The results of the research presented in this chapter show that the teacher-student relationship has an important impact on students’ engagement in school.

Teaching style and students’ self-determination

Self-determination is another important outcome of a positive student-teacher relationship and teaching style. Different studies show the impact of teaching style on students’ self-determination. Environments that support students’ needs for competence and self-determination are autonomy-supportive environments (authoritative teaching style), whereas those that neglect and frustrate these needs are controlling environments (authoritarian teaching style) (Deci & Ryan, 1987; Reeve et al., 1999). When students have autonomy-supportive teachers (Deci, Schwartz, Scheinman, & Ryan, 1981; Deci, Spiegel, Ryan, Koestner, & Kauffman, 1982) or when students perceive their teachers to be relatively autonomy-supportive (Grolnick & Ryan, 1987; Rigby, Deci, Patrick, & Ryan, 1992), they show relatively high levels of self-determination (Deci & Ryan, 1985; Vallerand et al., 1997), competence (Deci, Nezlek, & Sheinman, 1981; Ryan & Grolnick, 1986), and valuing of school and school work (Ryan & Connell, 1989). When supported and nurtured in the classroom, these motivational resources provide students with the motivational foundation they need to become highly engaged in school and committed to graduating and not at risk for ESL (Vallerand et al., 1997). According to self-determination theory, students become engaged in school-related activity when school activities are interesting, relevant to their everyday lives, and affirm and value their competencies. Perceptions of self-determination and competence build students’ internal motivational resources that support their engagement and persistence in school. The important role teachers play in helping students develop these internal motivational resources occurs through the provision of autonomy-supportive classrooms, their supportive teaching style – authoritative teaching style and their responsiveness to students’ individual needs, ideas etc.

Teaching style impact on ESL

Different characteristics of the authoritative teaching style (such as warmth, openness, support, supervision etc.) have been shown to help students at risk for ESL stay more engaged in school and thus be less prone to dropping out. For example, Fallu and Janosz (2003) showed that warm relationships with teachers decreased the ESL risk of at-risk students whereas conflictual relationships had negative consequences for all students in the classroom (also for students not at risk for ESL). Students who experience a warm relationship with their teacher are 16% less likely to leave school than students who report a negative relationship (Rumberger, 1995). Crosnoe, Kirkpatrick, Johnson and Elder (2004), Murray and Malgrem (2005) as well as Pianta and Stuhlman (2004) showed that a positive teacher-student relationship acts as a factor promoting school achievement which has also been proved to be a preventive factor for ESL (e.g. Garnier, Stein, & Jacobs, 1997; Battin-Pearson et al., 2000; Fortin, Marcotte, Diallo, Potvin, & Royer, 2013). Crosnoe et al. (2004) reported that a positive relationship with teachers helps boost achievement and lowers disciplinary problems among all students. In other words, the authoritative teaching style helps establish a positive student-teacher relationship which has been shown as a protective factor against ESL.

Further, a non-supportive classroom environment helps increase the risk for ESL (Lessard, Poirier, & Fortin, 2010). According to results from different studies, non-supportive teacher behaviour characterised by conflicts may lead to behavioural problems and school failure (Hamre & Pianta, 2001; Malecki & Demaray, 2002), which are the two variables directly linked with ESL (Newcomb et al., 2002). For example, conflicts with teachers were reported by dropouts as one of the reasons motivating their decision to leave the school setting before obtaining their diploma (Lessard, Fortin, Marcotte, Potvin, & Royer, 2009).

Within schools, teachers have a strong influence on the long-term academic trajectories of their students (Slaughter-Defoe & Rubin, 2001). Different studies show (e.g. Vallerand & Senecal, 1991; Poirier, Lessard, Fortin, & Yergeau, 2013) that early school-leavers were more likely to perceive their teachers to be controlling, unsupportive and uninterested in them. However, the causal direction is not entirely clear as presumably early school-leavers are more likely to have on average lower motivation and less likely to elicit teachers’ enthusiasm for their efforts (Poirier et al., 2013).

Development of teaching style

Studies show that teaching styles develop through teachers’ work experience (Barnas, 2001). Results of some studies which mainly focused on fostering students’ autonomy show teachers can learn how to foster students’ autonomy and integrate it into their daily practice (Reeve, Bolt, & Cai, 1999; Reeve, Jang, Carrell, Jeon, & Barch, 2004).

The development of one’s teaching style is an ongoing process based on teachers’ professional growth and students’ characteristics. Before teachers can attempt to develop more flexible teaching styles, they must be receptive to the idea of change, beginning with a change in their beliefs about the students’ role in the learning environment (Heimlich & Norland, 2002). It is the teacher’s responsibility to recurrently analyse their teaching style, reflect on it and implement necessary changes. Constant reflection on one’s own teaching practices, classroom activities and problem-solving approaches in the classroom are the basic teaching style monitoring approaches. Moreover, they also include a reflection on one’s own beliefs about teaching and learning, the teacher-student relationship, expectations about one’s own job etc.

Besides writing reflections on a specific classroom situation, teachers can also help themselves develop their teaching style by keeping a diary about their work and then analysing it to reflect on their professional development (Loughran, 2002). Videotaping own lessons from time to time also helps teachers become aware of some behaviours that may cause unwanted student reactions in the classroom. It also helps to ask a colleague teacher or the head teacher to observe a lesson and discuss their observations with you (Loughran, 2002).


In the article we addressed the relationship between teachers’ teaching style and students’ learning and social outcomes. Different studies show that teachers’ behaviour in the classroom, their beliefs about teaching and learning – their teaching style – affects students’ perceptions of their self-efficacy, competency, their attitude and the values of school and school work, their engagement in school, their self-determination etc. In most studies, teachers’ warmth, openness, autonomy support and their responsiveness to students’ needs and ideas have been shown to be the most important dimensions of the teaching style that influences students’ self-efficacy, self-determination and helps students stay engaged in school and develop the internal motivation to finish it. These dimensions correspond with the authoritative parenting style, according to Baumrind (1967). On the contrary, the authoritarian teaching style which consists of excessive control and non-responsiveness to students’ needs, interests and ideas creates an environment in which students develop low self-efficacy, they may perceive school as an environment not suitable for them and are more prone to leave it before they complete their education.

What is important for teachers to know is that they can help their students develop the right motivation to finish their educational programme. When teachers create a warm and autonomy-supportive classroom environment, they provide a climate that nurtures students’ motivation directly, indirectly also affecting students’ achievements and persistence (e.g. Moos, 1978; Ryan, Stiller, & Lynch, 1994; Wentzel, 1997; Barnas, 2001; Walker, 2008; Wentzel, 2002). Moreover, focusing on teachers’ teaching style can work as an effective ESL intervention and prevention strategy (Fallu & Janosz, 2003) to be considered and presented to teachers and other school professionals.

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