Home Articles Reader Opinion Editorial Book Reviews Discussion Writers Guide About TCRecord
transparent 13

How Do Teachers Support Studentsí Motivation and Learning in Their Classrooms?

by Lynley H. Anderman, Carey E. Andrzejewski & Jennifer Allen - 2011

Background/Context: Despite the importance of studentsí active engagement for learning, little is known about how teachers create environments that are supportive of studentsí positive motivational and learning-related beliefs, particularly at the high school level. Furthermore, most of the studies that have described teacher practices in relation to studentsí perceptions of their classroom context have focused on elementary and middle school populations; much less is known about creating supportive contexts for high school students. We conceptualized supportive instructional contexts as multidimensional, developing a profile of student perceptions that would define a classroom that would promote and sustain studentsí motivation and learning, based on the literature on classroom motivation. This profile included perceptions of the motivational climate, the social climate, and the academic climate of the classroom.

Purpose and Research Questions: The goal of this study was to identify high school teachers who were perceived by their students as creating classroom contexts that were particularly supportive of studentsí motivation and learning, and to describe their practice. The analysis was guided by these questions: How do effective high school teachers create classroom contexts that students perceive as supportive of their motivation and engagement? What underlying commonalities describe these teachersí instructional practices? A secondary question focused on whether there were any discernible differences between the contexts of high school science and social studies classes, or associated with teachersí gender.

Participants: Students (N = 2,864) in Grades 9Ė12 from three high schools and 4 of their teachers (2 science and 2 social studies), identified based on studentsí survey reports.

Research Design: Teachers were identified for observation based on studentsí reported perceptions of the instructional contexts of their classes. Observation field notes were analyzed thematically to develop a grounded model of teachersí instructional practices.

Conclusions/Recommendations: Analysis of the field notes suggested a model that consists of three core themes: supporting understanding, building and maintaining rapport, and managing the classroom. Within this framework, a number of the teacher practices described served more than one of these three functions, and some, such as teacher movement and the use of varied participation structures, served all three. All the observed characteristics of practice were consistent across subject area domains, and differences in relation to teachersí gender were evident only in terms of teachersí use of humor in the classroom.

A primary, and perhaps essential, component of effective teaching is the creation of an instructional context that supports students’ ongoing motivation and learning. Despite the importance of students’ active engagement for learning (see Fredericks, Blumenfeld, & Paris, 2004, for a review) and evidence of the importance of students’ perceptions of their classroom contexts (see Meece, Anderman, & Anderman, 2006; Midgley, 2002), however, little is known about how teachers create supportive contexts—contexts that promote and sustain students’ positive motivational and learning-related beliefs—particularly at the high school level. As Turner and Meyer (2000) have noted, there is a need for more research that describes the “how and why of learning, motivation, and social processes” (p. 82) within the context of classrooms (see also Blumenfeld, 1992a). Thus, the aim of this study is to describe the instructional practices of high school teachers identified by their students as providing classroom contexts that support their adaptive learning, motivation, and social integration in class.

In the present study, we conceptualized supportive instructional contexts as multidimensional. Based on previous classroom research (e.g., Meece, 1991; Patrick, Anderman, Ryan, Edelin, & Midgley, 2001; Turner & Meyer, 2004), we developed a profile of student perceptions to “define” a classroom that theory suggests should support students’ motivation and learning. We then used direct observations of classroom teaching to document patterns of instruction delivered by teachers who most closely approximated the student profile. This profile included students’ perceptions of three contextual features—the motivational climate (operationalized in terms of achievement goal structures), the social climate (operationalized as perceived social support from the teacher), and the academic climate (operationalized as the degree of perceived press for understanding) of the classroom. Figure 1 depicts the profile. We now discuss each feature in turn.

Figure 1. Ideal and actual teacher profiles


Note. The solid line represents the ideal profile for mastery goal structure (MG), academic press (AP), teacher support (TS), and performance avoidance goal structure (PG). Dashed lines represent mean standardized ratings for the observed teachers.


Goal orientation theory focuses on the purposes students perceive for engaging in achievement-related behavior and the meanings they ascribe to that behavior (Midgley, 2002). A mastery goal orientation refers to wanting to gain understanding, insight, or skill, with learning being valued as an end in itself. Students’ individual-level mastery goal orientations have been associated with a range of positive academic and affective outcomes, including the use of appropriate learning-related strategies, academic self-efficacy, and positive school-related affect (see L. H. Anderman & E. M. Anderman, 2009, for a review).

In contrast, a performance goal orientation refers to wanting to demonstrate one’s competence to others in relation to an externally defined standard, particularly in relation to other students’ abilities. A performance approach orientation focuses on the goal of demonstrating one’s ability compared with others; a performance avoidance orientation focuses on the goal of not appearing to lack ability (A. J. Elliot & Harackiewicz, 1996; Middleton & Midgley, 1997). There has been considerable controversy in the goal orientation literature regarding the potential outcomes for students when they adopt a performance approach orientation (e.g., Harackiewicz, Barron, Pintrich, Elliot, & Thrash, 2002; Midgley, Kaplan, & Middleton, 2001). One possible explanation for the mixed evidence on performance approach goals may lie in developmental differences in students. That is, several authors have noted that performance approach goals seem to have negative outcomes for students at the elementary and middle school levels that are not evident, or are even reversed, with college student populations (e.g., Anderman & Wolters, 2006; Kaplan, Middleton, Urdan, & Midgley, 2002; Meece et al., 2006; Midgley et al., 2001). Somewhat surprisingly, however, there has been much less attention to goal orientations in high school populations, and it is less clear, therefore, what might be hypothesized for this age group (cf. Morrison, 2006). In contrast, there is general consensus about the maladaptive effect of a performance avoidance orientation (J. Elliot, McGregor, & Gable, 1999; Wolters, 2004). Students’ individual-level performance avoidance goal orientations have been associated with avoidance behaviors, such as academic self-handicapping and avoidance of help-seeking and challenge, and with lower grades (see E. M. Anderman & Wolters, for a review).

In terms of motivational contexts, goal orientation theory assumes that students’ individual-level goal orientations reflect, at least in part, the orientations that are emphasized in their classes and schools (e.g., Ames, 1992; Midgley, 2002). These class-level orientations are often referred to as goal structures. The theoretical association between goal structures and individual goals has been confirmed in several empirical studies (e.g., E. M. Anderman & Midgley, 1997; Kaplan & Maehr, 1999; Wolters, 2004).

Consistent with findings related to individual-level goals, researchers working within goal orientation theory have argued that a classroom-level mastery goal structure provides a supportive motivational context for all students (e.g., Ames, 1992; E. M. Anderman & Wolters, 2006; Meece et al., 2006; Midgley, 2002). Furthermore, although less research has investigated the effects of an explicit emphasis on performance avoidance goal structures, there is some evidence that motivationally supportive classrooms are characterized by a combination of high mastery structure and a low incidence of avoidance behaviors (Turner et al., 2002). In the current study, therefore, we defined a supportive motivational climate as one in which students perceived both a relative emphasis on a mastery goal structure and a relative deemphasis on a performance avoidance structure. Given the lack of clear findings in relation to performance approach goal structures at the high school level, we decided not to include this orientation in our definition.

Goal orientation theory is particularly well suited to the study of motivational contexts in that several goal theorists have suggested specific instructional practices and policies that can communicate a mastery goal structure. Ames (1992) synthesized these suggestions into a framework using the acronym TARGET, which consists of the categories of practice related to tasks, authority, recognition, grouping, evaluation, and time (see also Midgley, 2002). Despite the availability of this framework, however, relatively few classroom-based studies have provided a direct examination of teachers’ instructional practices associated with students’ perceptions of a mastery goal structure. Meece (1991) examined differences in fifth- and sixth-grade science teachers, who had already been identified by their principals as exemplary teachers, whose students reported differing levels of personal mastery goal orientation. Meece reported little difference among teachers in terms of the cognitive demands made on students or in teachers’ questioning patterns. She did find, however, that students were more likely to report a personal mastery orientation when teachers used an active instructional approach that emphasized meaningful learning, supported both student autonomy and collaboration, and emphasized the intrinsic value of learning.

In a more recent study, Patrick et al. (2001) used students’ survey-based reports of the mastery and performance goal structures of their classes to identify four 5th-grade teachers who represented differing profiles of mastery and performance goal structures. Those researchers then used direct classroom observation to describe instructional practices, based on the TARGET framework, that were associated with each goal structure. Similar to Meece’s (1991) findings, these researchers reported that teachers perceived as high in mastery structure promoted active learning. High mastery goal structure teachers also emphasized effort and the expectation that all students could be successful. In contrast, teachers perceived as emphasizing a performance goal structure emphasized the formal assessment of students’ work and students’ relative performance and potential for achievement to a much greater extent than did those perceived as low in performance structure. In addition to those instructional behaviors suggested by the TARGET framework, Patrick et al. also found differences in terms of the social climate of classes in their study. Teachers perceived as high in mastery structure encouraged task-related peer interactions and demonstrated warm, positive teacher–student relationships, coupled with high expectations for students’ learning. This pattern of positive interpersonal interaction was not evident in those classrooms perceived as low in mastery goal structure (see also L. H. Anderman, Patrick, Hruda & Linnenbrink, 2002).

Turner et al. (2002) used discourse analysis to examine instructional differences among teachers categorized in terms of students’ perceptions of a mastery goal structure and self-reported avoidance strategies in sixth-grade mathematics classes. In that study, perceptions of the performance goal structure of classes were not significantly associated with students’ use of avoidance strategies. It is important to note that, as with the Patrick et al. (2001) study, the measure of performance goal structure in use at that time did not differentiate between approach and avoidance tendencies. Thus, it is not clear to what extent the instructional practices described in those studies would characterize contexts that clearly emphasize avoidance tendencies. Nevertheless, Turner et al.’s findings did reveal distinctive patterns of instructional discourse in classes characterized as high mastery structure/low avoidance behaviors and low mastery/high avoidance. Teachers whose students reported more instructional and motivational support communicated an emphasis on building understanding, and demonstrated that being unsure, learning from mistakes, and seeking help are inevitable parts of learning. Turner et al. also found that a high mastery/low avoidance environment included dimensions that go beyond the strictly cognitive domain. That is, they found that supportive classrooms included teachers’ “supporting effort and evoking humor, giving personal attention and encouragement, and providing a context for peer support” (p. 103). Thus, both of these classroom-based studies, conducted at the middle grades level, support the importance of the interpersonal climate of the classroom (see also Patrick, 2004).


The second dimension of a supportive classroom included in the present study refers to the social climate of the classroom. The understanding that perceived teacher support and positive teacher–student relationships are important for students’ motivation and learning is not new (e.g., Fraser & Fisher, 1982; Skinner & Belmont, 1993). Furthermore, as noted earlier, several researchers working within achievement goal theory have suggested that aspects of the classroom social climate may be integral to the creation of a mastery goal structure (L. H. Anderman et al., 2002; Patrick, 2004; Turner et al., 2002). That is, it may be that motivational and social support co-occur in supportive classrooms, promoting students’ willingness to take academic risks and tackle challenging tasks (Turner & Meyer, 2004). In the current study, therefore, we included students’ perceptions of teachers’ social support as a further important dimension of a supportive classroom context.

Although research has established associations between teacher support and positive student outcomes (e.g., Birch & Ladd, 1996), much less is known about what patterns of teacher behavior lead to that perception in students. This is particularly true in terms of high school classrooms, because the majority of classroom-based studies of teacher–student relationships and instructional contexts have been conducted in late elementary or middle school settings. In general, these studies describe teachers who communicate a combination of interpersonal warmth and caring for students, humor and enthusiasm for their lesson content, and respect for their students’ intellect and ability to achieve (a concept similar to Wentzel’s 1997 notion of perceived pedagogical caring). The tendency to focus on younger populations probably reflects both the importance of social relationships in early adolescence and concerns related to the developmental needs of students in middle-grades schools (see Patrick, Anderman, & Ryan, 2002, for a review). Nevertheless, as Fredericks et al. (2004) noted, we should expect both the nature of student engagement and the contextual factors that support such engagement to change with development. Thus, it is not clear what characteristics of instructional behavior might be perceived as communicating social support by older adolescents in a high school setting.


The third dimension of a supportive classroom refers to the academic climate, particularly in terms of supporting students’ active learning and interactions with content. Once again, this dimension may interact with the motivational and social dimensions of the context. As noted earlier, several researchers have found that teachers’ emphasis on active, meaningful learning and encouragement of effort and positive expectations contribute to creating a motivationally supportive context (Meece, 1991; Patrick et al., 2001; Turner et al., 2002). These emphases, however, should also be expected to help sustain students’ success with their academic tasks and to support positive affective responses to the classroom.

Instructional contexts characterized by intellectual challenge and the promotion of student thoughtfulness are described in the research literature as evidencing press for understanding (Middleton, 2004). Such press is defined as students’ perceptions that they are required to engage in higher order thinking skills and to demonstrate their understanding. Students’ perceptions of the press for understanding have been associated with their self-regulation and self-efficacy and inversely with avoidance behaviors (Middleton & Midgley, 2002), and, when accompanied by good instructional practices, with greater student thoughtfulness (Blumenfeld, 1992b). Thus, in the current study, we included high levels of perceived press for understanding as the fourth indicator of a supportive classroom context.

In terms of teachers’ roles in promoting a climate of press for understanding, several researchers have described instructional behaviors linked to perceived press. These include focusing attention on key points, checking for and probing students’ understanding, asking for clarification and explanations, and ensuring widespread responding (e.g., Blumenfeld, 1992b; Meece, 1991; Turner & Meyer, 2004).

Once again, the interdependence of the academic, interpersonal, and motivational dimensions of classrooms is suggested. Middleton (2004) argued that strong academic demands in the absence of both personal and academic support may create a type of academic press that can have negative motivational and learning consequences. He contended that “personal and academic support and rigorous expectations for learning and instruction are complementary demands. Teachers do not have to make the choice between supporting students and being demanding” (p. 226). This compatibility between academic challenge and demonstrated caring on the part of teachers was the direct focus of Turner and Meyer’s (2004) case study of one math teacher’s classroom discourse. They described motivational instructional strategies as including a focus on helping all students to learn and supporting them in meeting challenges, both “as learners and as people” (p. 356). Similarly, we assumed that supportive instructional contexts in high school classrooms would be characterized by a combination of motivational, interpersonal, and cognitive dimensions.


Instructional contexts in high school classrooms are inevitably characterized by subject area domain differences. Different school subjects have been described as representing different communities, with their own “histories, pedagogical traditions, and status” (Grossman & Stodolosky, 1994, p. 182). Thus, it may be that the pattern of instructional practices that supports motivation and learning in one domain may not be evident in other subject areas. Many of the studies reviewed here have been conducted within either science or math classes. To explore possible domain differences, we included science classes to allow comparison with earlier studies, whereas we selected social studies classes to provide a potential contrast. Not only might social studies classes be expected to provide a contrast to science settings, but, as noted by Levstik (2002), the field of social studies is “remarkably underresearched” (p. 96) as a curriculum area in general. This lack of a substantial research base on social studies instruction includes a lack of attention to students’ motivation and learning in those classes.

In summary, the goal of this study was to identify high school teachers who were perceived by their students as creating classroom contexts that were particularly supportive of students’ motivation and learning, and to describe their practice. We used a multidimensional definition of supportive contexts, creating an ideal profile that included high levels of mastery goal structure, social support for students, and academic press, coupled with low levels of performance avoidance goal structure. We then used direct classroom observation to identify commonalities in the instructional contexts created by those teachers. Within this larger goal, we also were interested in whether there were any discernible differences between the contexts of high school science and social studies classes.



This study was an exploratory, multiple-methods study employing purposeful sampling methods (Patton, 1990) for identifying practicing high school teachers who displayed supportive instructional profiles, as judged by students. The study was completed in three high schools located within a single school district in a moderately sized city in a Southeastern state. Teachers in this study were identified based on their students’ reports of several characteristics of the instructional contexts that the teachers created in their classes, collected in the spring semester 2006. Direct observations of teachers’ practice were conducted in the spring semester 2007.


In collaboration with the school district, surveys were administered by school personnel to all assenting students in Grades 9–12 who were in attendance on the day of survey administration. Students identified themselves using a district-assigned personal identification number. Students were reassured that all responses would be kept confidential and that their answers should reflect their honest opinions. School district personnel scanned the raw data into SPSS data files, which were then provided to the research team.

In two schools, students were directed to write the name of one teacher from a current social studies (history, geography, civics) class and to respond to all items in relation to that particular teacher. In the third school, students were directed similarly to identify and then respond to items in relation to a current science teacher (earth science, biology, chemistry, physics). This resulted in sample sizes of N = 1,864 and 1,000 for social studies and science samples, respectively.

All survey items were responded to on a 5-point Likert-type scale, anchored 1 (not at all true for me) to 5 (very true for me). Students also self-reported their gender and ethnicity.

Three of the student survey measures were taken from the Patterns of Adaptive Learning Survey (PALS; Midgley et al., 2000). These measures have been used extensively with students from the late elementary school level to the high school level and have demonstrated sound psychometric properties across samples (see Midgley, 2002; Midgley et al., 1998).

Mastery Goal Structure

Measures of classroom goal structures reflect students’ perceptions of the purposes for engaging in academic work emphasized in their classes. Students’ perceptions that their teacher communicated an emphasis on a mastery goal structure in their classes were measured using the Mastery Goal Structure scale from the PALS (Midgley et al., 2000). The measure consisted of six items, such as “In my class, it’s important to understand the work, not just memorize it.” The internal consistency of the measure was acceptable, with Cronbach’s alphas of .85 (science sample) and .86 (social studies sample).

Performance Avoidance Goal Structure

Students’ perceptions that their teacher communicated an emphasis on a performance avoidance goal structure were measured using the Performance Avoidance Goal Structure scale from the PALS (Midgley et al., 2000). The measure consisted of five items, such as “In my class, it’s important that you don’t make mistakes in front of everyone.” The internal consistency of the measure was acceptable, with Cronbach’s alphas of .80 (science sample) and .81 (social studies sample). As noted earlier, we did not include a measure of perceived performance approach goal structure because of the lack of consensus surrounding this variable in the literature.

Perceived Academic Press

Academic press refers to students’ perceptions that their teacher promotes their understanding of content and higher level cognition through their instruction. These perceptions were measured using the Perceived Academic Press scale from the PALS (Midgley et al., 2000). The measure consisted of seven items, such as “When I’ve figured out how to do an assignment, my teacher gives me more challenging assignments to think about.” The internal consistency of the measure was acceptable, with Cronbach’s alphas of .85 (science sample) and .84 (social studies sample).

Perceived Teacher Support

Students’ perceptions of interpersonal support from their teacher were measured using a scale adapted from the Social Support Questionnaire-6 (SSQ6; Sarason, Sarason, Shearin, & Pierce, 1987). Items were adapted slightly to refer specifically to a teacher, for example, “My teacher accepts me totally, including both my worst and best points.” Because this measure was adapted from its original form, we conducted principal components analysis to examine the underlying structure. This analysis of the adapted measure resulted in the extraction of a single factor (Eigenvalue = 3.67), which accounted for 61.2% of the total variance. All factor loadings exceeded .60. Internal consistency was acceptable, with Cronbach’s alphas of .89 (science sample) and .87 (social studies sample).


Teachers were identified for possible observation by examining the mean scores on students’ responses on the four survey measures. All survey scales were examined for outliers, which were removed. Given that students were asked to select a teacher on whom to report, within the specified subject domain, there was considerable variability in the number of student reports per teacher. To avoid using mean scores that were unduly influenced by extreme individual scores, we required a minimum of 10 survey reports for a teacher to be considered for observation. Within this constraint, teachers’ mean scores (on a 5-point scale) ranged from 3.08 to 4.21 (mastery goal structure), 2.80 to 3.64 (performance avoidance goal structure), 2.86 to 4.00 (academic press), and 2.41 to 3.76 (teacher support).

The means for mastery goal structure, performance avoidance structure, academic press, and teacher support were entered into a matrix and examined for patterns that most closely matched the desired profile of high mastery goal structure, academic press, and support, along with low performance avoidance goal structure. In addition to mean scores, the standard deviations were examined to select teachers for whom there was considerable agreement among student reports. Three PhD-level researchers and two doctoral students, including the first and third authors, examined the teachers’ profiles and reached consensus about which teachers would be invited to participate in the study. Although the patterns of scores for these teachers do not provide a perfect replication of the ideal profile created, they do represent high and low scores on the respective measures, relative to the larger sample of scores obtained.

An attempt was made to include two teachers from each of the three schools. These 6 teachers were initially contacted via e-mail after permission was obtained from the school principals. All teachers agreed to participate in the study and signed the institutional review board-approved consent form before the first observation. Two of the teachers originally observed are not included in the analysis reported here. In one instance, this was due to an incomplete set of observation notes that resulted from one observer losing a set of field notes before they were transcribed. In the second instance, the observation notes revealed that there were several adult teaching professionals present in the classroom, including a student teacher, an interpreter for a hearing-impaired student, and a teacher aide, in addition to the targeted teacher. These circumstances confounded the data on the teacher’s instructional and interpersonal behaviors and interactions with students to an extent that we could not confidently report on his practice.


The data presented represent 2 social studies teachers (1 male and 1 female) and 2 science teachers (also 1 male and 1 female), all of whom worked in urban/suburban public schools. The two science teachers worked in the same high school; one of the social studies teachers worked in each of the two remaining schools. All four teachers were Caucasian and held master’s degrees. They ranged in age from 28 to 59 years, and in teaching experience from 6 to 36 years. Information regarding teachers’ personal characteristics and mean scores on students’ survey responses is shown in Table 1. The participating teachers’ profiles also are presented graphically in Figure 1. All teachers’ names are pseudonyms.

Table 1. Profiles of Teacher Characteristics and Students’ Perceptions

Teacher Name





Age (years)















Teaching experience (years)





Highest degree

Master of education

Master of science

Master of education

Master of arts

Area of specialization



Social Studies

Social Studies

Class observed

11th grade Chemistry

9th grade Earth Sciences

Advanced Placement U.S. History

9th grade World Civilization

Number of survey observations





Student survey means (SD)

Mastery goal structure

.47 (.72)

.46 (.76)

.40 (.84)

.31 (.82)

Performance avoidance goal structure

-.03 (.96)

.15 (1.06)

-.14 (1.00)

.59 (.89)

Academic press

.52 (.81)

.48 (.91)

.78 (.81)

.12 (1.13)

Teacher support

.01 (.91)

.40 (.99)

.34 (.81)

.74 (1.03)

Note. Student survey data were standardized within subject area domain.


Observer Training

Observations were conducted by a group of five graduate students who were completing PhD degrees in either educational or counseling psychology. Prior to the beginning of data collection, a larger group of observers received group training and practice in observing and recording classroom behaviors. Training began with readings and discussion about conducting classroom observations. In addition, observers were provided with a reading list that included a number of observational and multiple-methods studies and theoretical background for the study.

Training continued with group members observing videotapes of classes in the two subject area domains under study, social studies and science, at different grade levels. Observers were told to focus on teacher behaviors, particularly in relation to the following classroom features: the nature of tasks, autonomy support, recognition, grouping and participation structures, interpersonal relationships and social support, press for understanding, encouragement of help-seeking, and the provision of support for learning. In addition, however, observers were asked to record student behaviors and comments and other aspects of the class that may be salient for students’ motivation and learning of academic content.

In early training sessions, group members wrote running field notes using a standard format on relatively short observations. Observers then read and discussed what they had written to establish a shared understanding of the task. Group members then proceeded to observe over longer periods, across sessions. Training field notes were compared and discussed to reach consensus on what was being observed and recorded. Training continued for eight sessions, for a total of 15 hours. Following the penultimate training session, all observers were required to type up their field notes, and these were read and annotated by the first author and another faculty member associated with the project to provide feedback on the quality of notes provided. The current analyses are based on observations conducted by five observers, including the third author, selected from the original, larger group that received training.

Data Collection

All schools in the district utilized a similar modified block schedule, with each class session lasting approximately 95 minutes. Data consisted of three classroom observations for each of the four participating teachers, conducted by two observers simultaneously in each instance. This resulted in a total of approximately 285 minutes of observation by each observer, per teacher. Each observed class period, therefore, was documented in two running records resulting in a total of 24 observation accounts, equating to a total of approximately 37 hours of classroom observation. Participating teachers selected the class period to be observed and the dates of the observations. All the observations were conducted in March, April, and May of 2007.

The overall research question guiding our inquiry was, How do teachers who have positive motivational profiles support students’ motivation and learning in their classrooms? It follows, then, that observers documented as much teacher behavior as possible, including both actions that teachers made to initiate interaction, and teachers’ reactions to students. In an effort to accurately capture as much teacher behavior as possible, observers positioned themselves as far apart from one another as the layout of the classroom permitted. The pair of records for each observation was compared to check for observer consistency. Although the details of the accounts were occasionally different, there were no cases of contradictory observation notes. In other words, the two observers’ accounts served to verify each other in every instance.

Data Analysis

The observational data were analyzed by the first and second author. Several passes were made through the data. First, we each open coded the observation records within each participant. This pass through the data was guided by the question, What do these teachers do that creates a supportive motivational and learning climate in their classrooms? We then met to discuss emergent themes based on our separate reading of the data. This conversation resulted in an elaborate axial coding scheme that consisted of nine themes and 20 subthemes (see the appendix). Our second pass through the data was guided by this scheme. Having individually completed this second stage, we met to check for coder consistency. Inconsistencies were rare and were the result of one coder applying a code to a section of the observation record to which the other coder had not attached a code. There were no instances of coders applying different codes to the same segment of observation text. All the inconsistencies were discussed and reconciled.

Having completed our second pass through the data, we drafted profiles of each of the participating teachers based on the nine themes in the axial coding scheme. Through our collective attempts to draft these profiles, we recognized that there were three different core ideas emerging from the data. We also recognized that these core ideas often overlapped, which made sorting the data into mutually exclusive codes challenging. One core idea involves the enacted pedagogical strategies that support student understanding of course content. The second includes teachers’ efforts to build and maintain positive rapport with their students, and the third is made up of methods that teachers implemented to manage their classrooms effectively. Identifying these three core ideas better enabled us to make sense of the data and to code the observations more systematically. We then made a third pass through the data, centering on these questions: How are these teachers managing their classrooms? How are they building positive relationships with their students? What strategies are they using to facilitate student learning?


Based on the analysis described in the preceding section, we developed a grounded model (see Figure 2) for understanding how the teachers in our study created and maintained supportive motivational and learning climates in their classes. This model contains 19 themes related to one or more of the three cores themes (supporting understanding, building and maintaining rapport, and managing the classroom). In our coding of the data, we repeatedly found that some classroom practices and interactions could not be assigned a single code. This discovery proved to be very important in the development of our model, which allows some themes to be located at the intersections of the three core themes. Thus, teachers accomplished their three primary tasks using a range of observable behaviors, and some of these behaviors helped teachers accomplish more than one task. We also found that student engagement resulted when teachers successfully managed these three tasks.

In the following section, we discuss these findings, organized according to the model beginning with supporting understanding and moving clockwise around the model (see Figure 2). That is, we describe findings related only to supporting understanding first, followed by those practices that lie at the intersection of supporting understanding, and building and maintaining rapport, then those that reflect rapport only, and so on before ending with those practices that lie at the intersection of all three core themes.

Figure 2. Grounded model of supportive motivational and learning contexts


Supporting Understanding

Teachers made choices about how to share content with students. This included organizing learning activities, questioning students, and selecting curricular materials. The behaviors associated with supporting understanding follow.

Academic press. One of the student-reported instructional characteristics on which teachers were identified was the perception of academic press (Middleton, 2004). Consistent with student reports, observers saw evidence of press for understanding in teachers’ dialogue with students. This often occurred in the context of instructional conversations wherein teachers posed a question, students responded, and then the teacher followed up with a prompt requesting more detail or an explanation of the response. Teachers also demonstrated press for understanding by ensuring broad responding and participation by students. For example, in Ms. Davis’s history class, she introduced a lesson on challenges to stereotypical images of the 1950s by asking, “What are the ideal traits for the 1950s?” A student replied, “Utopia.” Ms. Davis responded, “What do you mean?” and the student expanded with “happy, peaceful.” Ms. Davis then asked the class for more examples and prompted them to refer to images they had encountered representing the 1950s ideal.

Scaffolding. Closely related to press for understanding was teachers’ use of instructional scaffolding to help students master content. During the observed classes, instructional scaffolding occurred in several different ways, including reframing open-ended questions that students struggled to answer, suggesting problem-solving strategies to help students extract the underlying principle from a class demonstration, and providing advanced organizers prior to class activities. For example, in a lesson about solutes and solvents, students in Ms. Brown’s class wrote messages in “invisible ink” and used Windex to reveal the hidden messages. Following the activity, Ms. Brown said, “OK, we have to talk about how this worked. Let’s see if you know what happened. Is everybody thinking? Let’s go backwards. What is Windex?” Ms. Brown then talked the students through the activity in reverse order, pointing out that “Windex is a slippery cleaner” and turns pink in the presence of a base (the invisible ink). In this way, Ms. Brown scaffolded her students’ understanding of the relationship between the solute and the solvent in the activity.

Emphasis on key concepts and preemptive instruction. When making instructional decisions, it was clear these teachers drew on considerable pedagogical content knowledge, which Shulman (1986) defined as “subject matter knowledge for teaching” (p. 9). Participating teachers engaged in two practices that were directly related to this domain of teacher knowledge: emphasizing key concepts and preemptive instruction.

Teachers emphasized key concepts through repetition and by reminding students about what would be covered on assessments. For example, at the beginning of a chemistry lesson about dilutions, Mr. Adams pointed out key terms that students needed to know about turning stock solutions into working solutions. Similarly, Ms. Brown continually asked students questions about important ideas. In an introductory lesson about work, she said, “Work equals force times distance. I was exerting force, but was anything moving?” Students shook their heads indicating No. “Anything times zero is zero. If I climb on this chair, what do you have to know?” Students replied, “weight times distance.” She then went on to discuss other examples, including that it was more work to move around when she was pregnant because she weighed more and that leaning against a desk was not work unless the desk traveled a distance as a result of the force applied to it.

We used the term preemptive instruction to describe teachers’ efforts to help students avoid common or foreseeable mistakes. Moments of preemptive instruction were particularly salient during science laboratory activities. Just before students began working on an activity about machines, Ms. Brown told students, “Don’t say grams because grams refer to mass. You should use pounds or Newtons instead; they refer to weight.” Likewise, students in Mr. Adams’s class about dilutions completed an activity that required them to use titration techniques. Mr. Adams said, “If you make mistakes it’s because you’re used to seeing and reading the burette this way. So here’s how to read it. Be careful.” He then demonstrated the proper way to read the burette to help students avoid measurement errors.

Supporting Understanding and Building and Maintaining Rapport

As noted earlier, some instructional behaviors that supported students’ content understanding also served to build and sustain supportive interpersonal relationships with students. Behaviors associated with supporting understanding as well as building and maintaining rapport follow.

Encouragement of help-seeking. Each of the four participating teachers explicitly encouraged students to seek help when they needed it. They encouraged students to ask questions, to come to see them before or after school, and to collaborate with their peers. In several instances, teachers offered students more than one option for seeking help. For example, Mr. Adams not only encouraged students to ask him questions but also explicitly told them to talk to their laboratory partners about how they would solve class problems. In addition, Mr. Evans offered instruction on how to properly ask for help. During individual or group work, he repeatedly asked students questions such as, “Anybody need help?” “Anybody need to talk to me about something?” and “How are you doing?”

Enthusiasm. Direct evidence of teachers’ enthusiasm is difficult to capture in handwritten observation notes because enthusiasm is often communicated through tone of voice and physical presence. As such, observers made global comments about each of the four teachers regarding their general enthusiasm for the content. The observation notes also included descriptions of two instances in Ms. Brown’s class when her comments clearly communicated a genuine affinity for the subject matter. While introducing a unit on work, force, and machines, Ms. Brown began by describing a study that found that females are the chief tool innovators in chimpanzee communities, and she went on to emphasize girls’ capability in learning physical sciences. At the conclusion of this discussion, she declared, “No chapter has changed my life more than machines!” Her exclamation clearly suggested excitement about the upcoming topic and a belief that knowledge of machines is inherently useful. Additionally, during a lesson about ph indicators, Ms. Brown mentioned a particular kind of flower for which the color of the blooms differs depending on the base used in the soil. She went on to say, “You can decide what color bloom you want and use the base to get that color bloom. That’s pretty cool, isn’t it?” Again this comment communicated her enthusiasm of the topic and her desire for students to view the content as worthwhile.

Relevance, popular media, and self-disclosure. Participating teachers invested considerable time and energy making their content relevant for students. In particular, teachers talked about everyday applications of the concepts, they connected the curriculum to popular media, and they disclosed how the content was relevant to their own lives. Ms. Brown was particularly committed to showing students how science content related to their daily living, and she made these connections explicit during every lesson. While teaching a unit about acids and bases, she used an example of the way in which too much acid in the stomach is a common cause of stomach upset. She had students complete an activity wherein they tested which brand of antacid neutralized the most acid, and she dispelled the myth about giving someone with an upset stomach soda by explaining that soda will only lead to more carbonic acid in the stomach. In a subsequent lesson, she also discussed the use of acids and bases to clear clogged drains and pipes. She said, “Bases break down oils and fats. In the past, acids were used. The drains were cleared but the pipes eroded.” Ms. Brown routinely used everyday examples to commence a new topic. She prompted students to think about solutes and solvents by asking them to brainstorm strategies for dissolving sugar in tea, and she introduced pulleys by offering a list of examples that students are likely to frequently encounter: flag poles, mechanisms for lifting construction materials to a second floor, and window shades.

To make history content relevant for her students, Ms. Davis skillfully incorporated popular media into learning activities. She used both primary sources from the periods being studied and contemporary news to engage students in the content. During the first observation, students were discussing the roles of racism, classism, and poverty in American society during the 1950s. Ms. Davis brought up a current race-related scandal involving a media celebrity, which was prevalent in the news at the time of the observation. Students discussed the scandal, connected it to the day’s content, and commented on the emotional responses that people have to issues involving race. In another lesson about the 1950s ideal, Ms. Davis had students read a passage entitled How to Be a Good Wife, which was originally published in a 1954 home economics textbook. She used this passage as a springboard for discussion about gender roles in the 1950s and how they have since changed. This conversation led into another about social movements: the women’s rights movement, the civil rights movement, and Native American and Latino movements.

Another tactic that teachers used to make the content relevant and connect interpersonally with their students was self-disclosure. Cayanus (2004) defined teacher self-disclosure as teachers’ talk about themselves including autobiographical stories and personal beliefs. Disclosing both his beliefs and a personal narrative, Mr. Evans shared with his students that he was a Vietnam War veteran. Before reading a poem to the class about a wounded veteran, he said, “I am a vet. This affects me.” He also talked with students about his experience in Vietnam with transporting snipers and how one of those snipers died because another shot him accidentally. He went on to say this is why he “gripes” about the war: “This happens too often and the youth are paying the price. This is a time for diplomats. I encourage non-violence.”

Building and Maintaining Rapport

In addition to these five behaviors that helped teachers accomplish the tasks of supporting understanding, and building and maintaining rapport, two more teacher behaviors were uniquely connected to rapport.

Interest in students. All these teachers expressed an interest in their students that extended beyond the confines of their classrooms. They wanted to know about students’ extracurricular and out-of-school activities, and they expressed concern when students seemed to be distressed or not feeling well. Mr. Adams, in particular, had a ritualized beginning to class that he called “News of Interest”; he allotted time at the start of each class for students to share news and tidbits about their daily lives. Over the course of the three observed classes, students spoke about school-based activities such as the school play, a band competition, upcoming sports events, the outcomes of previous sports events, and homecoming. They also shared information about events in the community including, an international Baptist convention, an international foreign language convention, and an event at the local arboretum. Last, they shared personal news: birthdays, a stolen cell phone, and plans for a spring break in Jamaica.

Humor and teasing. Each of the four teachers in this study used humor to connect with students. Moreover, the use of humor and teasing was the only teacher behavior for which we noticed marked gender differences among the participating teachers. The male teachers were more likely to make jokes targeted at individuals. Their use of humor was characterized by both self-deprecation and teasing of students. For example, when a male student was leaving Mr. Adams’s class to attend a blood drive, Mr. Adams shook his hand and said, “Good luck. It’s usually the tough guys who pass out, so you’ll be alright.” In another instance, a student told Mr. Adams that she pulled a muscle in her toe. She asked, “How do you feel about that?” Mr. Adams replied, “If you pulled a muscle in your jaw, that would be good!” Upon first reading, these and other similar comments seemed rather pointed, but after a closer read, we realized that students responded positively to humor and teasing that had an adolescent tone.

The female teachers, on the other hand, were more likely to make silly comments not directed at any individual, and they made positive jokes about themselves. For example, when students asked her about the noise coming from the next room, Ms. Davis responded, “Maybe a movie,” then jokingly, “maybe aliens coming to suck our brains and lead their nation forward.” Ms. Davis also frequently wrote reminders on her hand. A student asked if her husband wondered why she had writing on her hand all the time. She replied, “No, because he knows that everything I do has a purpose because I’m the ideal wife.” In this comment, Ms. Davis both referred to herself positively and connected her joke to the reading, How to Be a Good Wife, that she and her students had gone over earlier in the period.

Building and Maintaining Rapport and Managing the Classroom

Just as there were behaviors that helped teachers to build relationships and teach content, there were two behaviors that helped teachers to build relationships and manage their classrooms.

Autonomy support. Students in these teachers’ classes experienced some degree of autonomy. They came and went from the restroom without having to disturb the teacher to ask for permission, and they had similar freedom to choose their location in the classroom. On a few occasions, students chose the way they would participate in a learning activity. For example, in Ms. Brown’s class, students self-selected groups for laboratory activities, and in Ms. Davis’s class, students occasionally chose whether to work alone or with a peer.

Discretion. Each of the participating teachers demonstrated considerable discretion when dealing with instances of off-task or disruptive student behavior (which were quite rare during the observation period). They did not call students out publicly, and they attended to student misbehavior without breaking the flow of the lesson. For example, during one lesson, a female student in Ms. Brown’s class put her head down on her desk. Ms. Brown quickly glided to the student and corrected her posture without getting the attention of the class. Following this interaction, the girl did not put her head down again. Similarly, when a female student in Ms. Davis’s class was not participating in a group activity and appeared tired, the teacher accompanied the student out of the classroom to talk in the hall. After approximately one minute, both returned to the class, and the student rejoined her group with a tissue in hand.

Managing the Classroom

In addition to those behaviors that served management in conjunction with other concerns, one characteristic was associated uniquely with teachers’ efforts to manage their classrooms.

Withitness. In the classroom management literature, “withitness” is defined as an awareness of all that is occurring in the classroom, coupled with making this awareness known to students (e.g., Brooks, 1985). This level of awareness was particularly notable in the two science classrooms, where both Mr. Adams and Ms. Brown maintained a high level of oversight of their laboratory activities and materials. In another example, during a lesson on the 1950s ideal, a male student in Ms. Davis’s class placed a piece of fuzz on a female student’s head during whole-class instruction. Without saying anything, Ms. Davis walked over and removed the fuzz. She also gave the male student a stern look without stopping her lecture. This vignette clearly demonstrated that although she was focused on the content of her lecture, Ms. Davis was also well aware of all the events in her classroom. Her actions communicated that she was in tune with students’ behavior and that the male student’s action was unacceptable.

Managing the Classroom and Supporting Understanding

In the classrooms we observed, managing the classroom and supporting understanding were not mutually exclusive tasks. Several behaviors helped teachers accomplish both of these tasks.

Monitoring. When students were working independently or in small groups, each of the teachers was continually engaged in making sure they were learning. They moved around the classroom checking in on students’ progress and making sure students were doing the activity correctly. During the titration laboratory activity, Mr. Adams went around to all the groups, checking on their progress and their titration technique. His pattern was to go from one group to the adjacent group until someone requested his help. Then he would disrupt that pattern and go directly to the help-seekers. Similarly, Mr. Evans continually monitored students’ progress on a mapping activity by walking around the room and asking them how they were doing. Teachers also monitored their students’ understanding of content during whole-class activities. For example, Ms. Brown routinely asked questions to which she expected a choral response from the whole class. During the introductory lesson on work, force, and machines, Ms. Brown repeatedly asked, “Work is. . .?” with the expectation that students would reply in concert, “force times distance.” She generally followed these questions with more specific questions that required students to apply the general concept to specific situations.

Pace. The classrooms of each of these teachers were productive places where students and teachers accomplished a great deal together. It was evident that students did a lot of work, there was very little down time, and teachers insisted on covering class material at a rigorous pace. This insistence was evident in the classroom discourse. Teachers routinely reminded students to be aware of time and use it wisely. During the titration activity, Mr. Adams said to the class, “Everyone is finished with their calculations and is filling burettes, right? Keep working on track with our time.” Likewise, Mr. Evans frequently reminded students about how much time they had to complete a task. He said things like, “You have 14 minutes to work,” and “You have one hour to complete your map.”

Supporting Understanding, Building and Maintaining Rapport, and Managing the Classroom

We conceptualized the final three teacher behaviors as the ones that unify the three major tasks of teaching. Responding to help-seeking represents the integration of interpersonal, behavioral, and cognitive dimensions of classroom life. Each of these teachers also varied the participation structures in his or her class. In one blocked period, these teachers utilized as many as four participation structures: whole class, small groups, pairs, and individuals. Finally, each of the teachers in our study demonstrated a high degree of physical movement around his or her classroom, regardless of the participation structure in use.

Response to help-seeking. Each of the four participating teachers was clearly focused on responding to students’ help-seeking. They were all aware of students’ needs for help, as indicated by asking questions or raising their hands, and they all replied quickly and productively to these student messages. Mr. Evans was quick to respond when students raised their hands, and he often anticipated students’ struggles. Mr. Adams made a habit of repeating students’ questions for the whole class before answering them. This practice indicated his belief that when one student needed help, it was likely that others were struggling with the same concept or task. Ms. Brown used student questions as another opportunity to emphasize key ideas for the whole class. For example, when asked, “Why do these antacids work differently if they are the same [composed of the same base]?” she replied, “It depends on how strong the base is.” She went on to remind students about the differences between acids and bases and to revisit the concept of neutralization. Ms. Davis served as a model for students regarding seeking answers to questions. She readily disclosed when she did not know the answer to a student’s question, and she told students she would find out and share the answer with them during their next class. She even made notes on her hands as a means of reminding herself what she needed to find out before their next meeting. This consistent responsiveness to students’ questions and difficulties served not only to promote understanding of the content and keep students on task but also to communicate respect for students’ attempts at learning and to facilitate positive interactions between teachers and students.

Varied participation structures. All the teachers in this study included at least two participation structures during each observed class. Mr. Adams had a pattern of beginning with whole-class instruction and then moving into a laboratory activity for pairs or small groups of students. Ms. Brown’s and Mr. Evans’s classes had similar structures to those of Mr. Adams. They began with whole-class instruction and concluded with either individual or small-group activities. During the first observed class, Ms. Brown used all three structures, and Mr. Evans used all three during the third observed class. Students were first organized as a whole class, they then worked on an individual activity, and they finished class working in small groups. Ms. Davis’s classes had the most variation in the structure (as many as four changes in one class), and her pattern was to alternate between whole-class instruction and either individual or small-group work. Once again, this pattern of instruction served multiple teaching goals simultaneously by keeping students behaviorally and cognitively engaged with class tasks while also providing contexts for students to interact with their peers and with the teacher.

Movement. Each of the four teachers spent a lot of time during each class period moving around the classroom, establishing proximity, and interacting with all the students. In fact, they were rarely stationary. This was true even when, as was the case in Mr. Evans’s classroom, the physical limitations of the space did not allow him to walk down one side of the room. To document this behavior, we calculated the frequencies of movement recorded in the observation notes. For Ms. Davis, over the course of three class periods, the observer noted 10 instances of “movement,” “walking,” or “circulating.” A search of these terms in the notes related to the other teachers resulted in counts of 11, 18, and 52 instances for Mr. Evans, Ms. Brown, and Mr. Adams, respectively. This constant movement on the part of these teachers seemed a particularly notable characteristic of their instruction. Such movement provided repeated opportunities for teachers to interact with all the students in their classes; these interactions, in turn, created the context for teachers to monitor students’ progress with tasks, support understanding, address misconceptions with regard to content, and build individual relationships with their students.


As noted earlier, our findings reflect three core themes that describe the practice of these teachers, who had been identified as providing students with supportive instructional classroom contexts. These three core themes—supporting understanding, building and maintaining rapport, and managing the classroom—subsumed 19 characteristics and behaviors that were common to all four teachers. In the development of this model, two particularly important findings emerged. First, an important feature of the model presented is that a number of these characteristics and behaviors lie at the intersection of two or more of the core themes, thus accomplishing more than one primary teaching task. Second, we found little evidence of different patterns of teacher practice across subject areas (i.e., science vs. social studies classes) and only one area of difference in terms of teachers’ gender (i.e., in the way in which humor was utilized in the classroom; see the description earlier). In other words, although the specifics of the content of tasks and instantiation of practices may have differed in surface details across these classes, the underlying patterns of practice from these four positively perceived teachers were remarkably similar.


The goal of this study was to describe the instructional practice of high school teachers who were perceived by their students as creating supportive motivational and learning contexts in their classes. This represents an important contribution to the literature on student motivation and engagement, which has tended to document the importance of instructional contexts while providing little description of how these contexts are created in practice (Blumenfeld, 1992a; Turner & Meyer, 2000). One of the most striking findings from our data was that despite considerable differences in the surface details of these teachers, students, and content areas, there were strong similarities in the underlying themes that emerged. Our analysis of the data revealed few underlying differences in teachers’ instructional characteristics based on subject area domains. Instead, although the particulars of content and activities varied markedly, the commonalities across all teachers were most remarkable. Furthermore, although some of our findings replicate those from studies conducted in lower grades classes, our data also highlighted the potential importance of some instructional behaviors not generally discussed in the literature on students’ motivation and engagement, such as immediacy behaviors.

Several of the practices that were common to all the teachers in this study have been associated with supportive motivational and learning contexts in earlier studies with younger age groups. For example, across subject areas and grade levels, these high school teachers supported both student autonomy and collaboration, encouraged peer interactions and positive teacher–student relationships, and exhibited enthusiasm and personal investment in the importance of their course content. They also emphasized student understanding, actively encouraged students to seek help, and demonstrated consistent responsiveness to requests for help. Similar findings have been reported in descriptions of fifth- and sixth-grade classes in which students reported high levels of personal mastery goal orientation (Meece, 1991) or perceived a mastery goal structure (Patrick et al., 2001; Turner et al., 2002). In addition, the teachers in this study probed and monitored students’ understanding of key concepts, emphasized key points in their content, prompted students to explain or justify their responses to problems, and used multiple strategies to ensure widespread participation in activities. Such instructional behaviors have been associated with teachers’ press for understanding (Blumenfeld, 1992b; Meece).

In addition to supporting and extending the findings of those earlier studies, our data revealed several characteristics of teachers’ instructional practice not typically described in the literature on student motivation. The first of these relates to the fact that each of these teachers was highly effective in his or her classroom management. Emmer and Evertson (1981) identified three goals of classroom management: maintaining high levels of student involvement, preventing and redirecting disruptive student behavior, and using instructional time efficiently. Given these perspectives, good classroom management is often implicit. It is evidenced by the presence of engaged teaching and learning and by the absence of undesirable behavior. Furthermore, it is “a condition for student learning, by allowing teachers to accomplish other important instructional goals” (Emmer & Stough, 2001, p. 104).

Each of the teachers in our study illustrated several of Kounin’s (1970) variables associated with good classroom management, including withitness and overlapping (the ability to attend to more than one thing simultaneously), which may be essential components of their abilities to deal with disruptive behavior discretely. They also exhibited smoothness and momentum, which are synonymous with our conception of pace in that they require smooth transitions between activities and timely progress within activities. The fact that effective management of both people and ideas is necessary for the creation of a motivationally supportive classroom should not be surprising, yet this dimension of effective instruction is rarely mentioned in discussions of classroom motivation. Interestingly, Woolfolk Hoy and Weinstein (2006) argued that classroom management is not only a requisite for effective instruction, it is reliant on positive relationships between teachers and students. That is, they suggested that the provision of structure and authoritativeness, and demonstrated caring, both personal and academic, are central factors in students’ identifications of “good” teachers. Similarly, Marzano and Marzano (1993) have argued that the key to effective classroom management is high-quality teacher–student relationships, which are marked by teachers “exhibiting appropriate levels of dominance [and] exhibiting appropriate levels of cooperation” (p. 7; see also Elias & Schwab, 2006). This may be particularly true for adolescents who are likely to “want a close adult relationship outside the home” (Emmer & Gerwels, 2006, p. 414). These arguments support our finding that many of the teacher behaviors we observed served teachers’ efforts to connect with students as well as their efforts to manage their classrooms. Moreover, they point to the importance of high school teachers’ abilities to balance caring about students and the content with controlling the educational environment.

The participating teachers certainly were able to strike this balance. They demonstrated appropriate levels of classroom control by establishing clear expectations and consequences for noncompliance, making learning goals explicit to students, and exhibiting assertive behavior, such as moving confidently around the classroom, using clear and deliberate speech, and responding calmly and decisively to student misbehavior (Marzano & Marzano, 1993). They also exhibited care by showing an interest in students’ lives beyond the classroom, encouraging students to actively and meaningfully engage in learning activities, and expressing genuine enthusiasm for the content and its everyday application. A number of researchers have suggested that positive interpersonal relationships and interactions in the classroom support, and perhaps are integral to, a mastery goal structure (L. H. Anderman et al., 2002; Patrick, 2004; Turner et al., 2002). The current findings highlight the importance of teachers’ skill in classroom management as a further necessary, if not sufficient, component in creating a classroom environment that supports students’ positive motivation.

Taken together, several of the instructional practices demonstrated by the teachers in this study resemble what, in the communication studies literature, is referred to as immediacy behaviors. Immediacy behaviors are those teacher behaviors, both verbal and nonverbal, that reduce the physical and psychological distance between teachers and students (Allen, Witt, & Wheeless, 2006; Witt & Wheeless, 2001). Verbal immediacy behaviors include speaking in the present tense, using inclusive language, laughing and using humor, and self-disclosing. Nonverbal immediacy behaviors include such things as making appropriate eye contact, expressing ideas with physical gestures or facial expressions, moving around the room, and maintaining close proximity (Chesebro & McCroskey, 2001; Teven & Hanson, 2004; Witt & Wheeless). Several scholars, including Chesebro and McCroskey, Christensen and Menzel (1998), and Witt and Wheeless, have found positive correlations between teacher immediacy and students’ motivation for learning, positive affect regarding academic content and teachers, and ability to recall material (see also Allen et al.). Others have demonstrated that students see teachers who engage in immediacy behaviors as more caring (Teven, 2001), more competent and trustworthy (Teven & Hanson), and clearer than teachers who do not (Chesebro & McCroskey). Despite the considerable presence of teacher immediacy as a class of behavior worth investigation in the communication studies literature, immediacy is not a construct studied by most motivational researchers. Early research on teaching, such as Kounin’s (1970) and Doyle’s (1977), identified subtle and sophisticated constructs such as this, but the construct of immediacy extends Kounin and Doyle considerably. Our findings suggest that there is much to be gained from integrating these perspectives to inform classroom practice.

Although the observation data for this study did not explicitly document all these immediacy behaviors, some were recorded repeatedly across all four of the participants. These include teachers’ movement, use of humor, and self-disclosure. One of the behaviors our teachers used that supported their classroom management was their regular physical movement around their classes. This movement enabled continuous interaction with and monitoring of all the students in the class and minimized the likelihood that any individual student would avoid participation in activities. Teachers’ repeated interactions with students also provided a context within which they could foster individual relationships with their students and communicate both interpersonal and pedagogical caring. These relationships with their adolescent students were also facilitated by teachers’ use of both self-disclosure and humor. Cayanus (2004) found a number of positive student outcomes to be related to teachers’ self-disclosure. These include students taking a more active role in class and showing greater interest in class material, gains in students’ affective learning, and increased likelihood that students will seek out communication with their teachers outside of class (see also Sorensen, 1989). In addition, college students’ perceptions of teacher effectiveness and teacher–student rapport have been found to be influenced by teachers’ use of humor (Bryant, Comisky, Crane, & Zillmann, 1980). The use of appropriate self-disclosure and developmentally appropriate humor (including self-deprecation) may be important aspects of establishing warm teacher–student relationships in high school classes. To date, however, very little is known about how teachers use self-disclosure in the classroom. Future research should examine, for example, what types of information teachers disclose and how different types of self-disclosure are perceived by students. Teachers’ self-disclosure in our study not only fostered the interpersonal relationship with students but also was used to support and illustrate the relevance of particular classroom content. Thus, there may be an important distinction between self-disclosure that is used thoughtfully and intentionally in the service of instruction, and that which is more spontaneous.

Although the findings of this study are thought provoking, the nature of the design and data collection approach inevitably results in several limitations in terms of generalizability and recommendations for practice. The four teachers included were all recruited from a single school district and represent only two subject area domains. In addition, teachers selected the specific classes to be observed, which presumably represented their best practice. Thus, the extent to which the characteristics of practice described here would apply in other settings is unclear. Furthermore, the selection of teachers was based solely on students’ survey-based reports. Although many have argued that students’ perceptions are the most appropriate measure of the social context of classrooms, especially in terms of goal structures (e.g., Meece et al., 2006; Midgley, 2002), the inclusion of student achievement data would have strengthened their reports of the academic press in their classes. Although the teachers were deliberately selected as representing an approximation of our a priori “ideal profile” of characteristics, they do not provide a perfect replication of that profile. Rather, ratings represented an approximation of the desired profile relative to the larger sample of scores obtained.

A final important conclusion lies in the necessity of assigning multiple codes to so many of the teacher behaviors we observed. Turner and Meyer (2004) described a similar finding in their description of a teacher who was categorized as both challenging and caring. Those authors found that “motivational” and “affective” statements were “so interrelated that they are difficult to code as either motivational or affective” (p. 356). In the same manner, we found several teacher practices and instances of teacher–student interactions to function equally in the service of promoting understanding, sustaining rapport with students, or keeping students on task and maintaining the flow of lessons. Thus, we agree with Turner and Meyer’s conclusion that motivation and affect are “complementary, if not substantively related” (p. 356) and suggest, in addition, that the three major themes in our data—supporting understanding, maintaining rapport, and managing the classroom—operate synergistically to create contexts that support students’ motivation and learning.

This conclusion also reflects Fredricks et al.’s (2004) conceptualization of student engagement. They suggested that the larger construct of school engagement includes three dimensions: behavioral, emotional, and cognitive engagement. Furthermore, they proposed that the different types of engagement interact and support one another in the service of student achievement. Although the current study was not designed to test Fredricks et al.’s conceptualization, the three major themes that emerged in our grounded model do provide some validation for their ideas. That is, what we have called supporting understanding appears to reflect cognitive engagement; establishing and maintaining rapport is one aspect of promoting emotional engagement; and managing the classroom supports behavioral engagement. Most important, our finding that several teacher behaviors served more than one of those purposes begins to address the question of how contextual factors shape engagement and how those types of engagement interact.


Allen, M., Witt, P. L., & Wheeless, L. R. (2006). The role of teacher immediacy as a motivational factor in student learning: Using meta-analysis to test a causal model. Communication Education, 55, 21–31.

Ames, C. (1992). Classrooms: Goals, structures, and student motivation. Journal of Educational Psychology, 84, 261–271.

Anderman, E. M., & Midgley, C. (1997). Changes in personal achievement goals and the perceived goal structures across the transition to middle schools. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 22, 269–298.

Anderman. E. M., & Wolters, C. A. (2006). Goals, values, and affect. In P. Alexander & P. Winne (Eds.), Handbook of educational psychology (2nd ed., pp. 369–390). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Anderman, L. H., & Anderman, E. M. (2009). Oriented towards mastery: Promoting positive motivational goals for students. In R. Gilman, E. S. Heubner, & M. Furlong (Eds.), Handbook of positive psychology in the schools (pp. 161–173). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Anderman, L. H., Patrick, H., Hruda, L. Z., & Linnenbrink, E. A. (2002). Observing classroom goal structures to clarify and expand goal theory. In C. Midgley (Ed.), Goals, goal structures, and patterns of adaptive learning (pp. 243–278). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Birch, S. H., & Ladd, G. W. (1996). Interpersonal relationships in the school environment and children’s early school adjustment: The role of teachers and peers. In J. Juvonen & K. R. Wentzel (Eds.), Social motivation: Understanding children’s school adjustment (pp. 199–225). New York: Cambridge University Press.

Blumenfeld, P. C. (1992a). Classroom learning and motivation: Clarifying and expanding goal theory. Journal of Educational Psychology, 84, 272–281.

Blumenfeld, P. C. (1992b). The task and the teacher: Enhancing student thoughtfulness in science. Advances in Research in Teaching, 3, 81–114.

Brooks, D. (1985). Beginning the year in junior high: The first day of school. Educational Leadership, 42, 76–78.

Bryant, J., Comisky, P. W., Crane, J. S., & Zillmann, D. (1980). Relationship between college teachers’ use of humor in the classroom and students’ evaluations of their teachers. Journal of Educational Psychology, 72, 511–519.

Cayanus, J. L. (2004). Effective instructional practice: Using teacher self-disclosure as an instructional tool. Communication Teacher, 18(1), 6–9.

Chesebro, J. L., & McCroskey, J. C. (2001). The relationship of teacher clarity and immediacy with student state receiver apprehension, affect, and cognitive learning. Communication Education, 50, 59–68.

Christensen, L. J., & Menzel, K. E. (1998). The linear relationship between student reports of teacher immediacy behaviors and perceptions of state motivation, and of cognitive, affective, and behavioral learning. Communication Education, 47, 82-90.

Doyle, W. (1977). Learning the classroom environment: An ecological analysis. Journal of Teacher Education, 28(6), 51–55.

Elias, M. J., & Schwab, Y. (2006). From compliance to responsibility: Social and emotional learning and classroom management. In C. M. Evertson & C. S. Weinstein (Eds.), Handbook of classroom management: Research, practice, and contemporary issues (pp. 309–341). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Elliot, A. J., & Harackiewicz, J. M. (1996). Approach and avoidance achievement goals and intrinsic motivation: A mediational analysis. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 70, 461–475.

Elliot, J., McGregor, H. A., & Gable, S. (1999). Achievement goals, study strategies, and exam performance: A mediational analysis. Journal of Educational Psychology, 91, 549–563.

Emmer, E. T., & Evertson, C. M. (1981). Synthesis of research on classroom management. Educational Leadership, 38, 342–347.

Emmer, E. T., & Gerwels, M. C. (2006). Classroom management in middle and high school classrooms. In C. M. Evertson & C. S. Weinstein (Eds.), Handbook of classroom management: Research, practice, and contemporary issues (pp. 407–438). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Emmer, E. T., & Stough, L. M. (2001). Classroom management: A critical part of educational psychology, with implications for teacher education. Educational Psychologist, 36, 103–112.

Fraser, B. J., & Fisher, D. L. (1982). Predicting student outcomes from their perceptions of classroom psycho-social environment. American Educational Research Journal, 19, 498–518.

Fredricks, J. A., Blumenfeld, P. C., & Paris, A. H. (2004). School engagement: Potential of the concept, state of the evidence. Review of Educational Research, 74, 59–109.

Grossman, P. L., & Stodolosky, S. S. (1994). Considerations of content and the circumstances of secondary school teaching. Review of Research in Education, 20, 179–221.

Harackiewicz, J. M., Barron, K. E., Pintrich, P. R., Elliot, A. J., & Thrash, T. M. (2002). Revision of achievement goal theory: Necessary and illuminating. Journal of Educational Psychology, 94, 638–645.

Kaplan, A., & Maehr, M. L. (1999). Achievement goals and student well-being. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 24, 330–358.

Kaplan, A., Middleton, M. J., Urdan, T., & Midgley, C. (2002). Achievement goals and goal structures. In C. Midgley (Ed.), Goals, goal structures, and patterns of adaptive learning (pp. 21–53). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Kounin, J. S. (1970). Discipline and group management in classrooms. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston.

Levstik, L. S. (2002). Introduction to the special issue. Elementary School Journal, 103, 93–97.

Marzano, R. J., & Marzano, J. S. (1993). The key to classroom management. Educational Leadership, 61, 6–13.

Meece, J. L. (1991). The classroom context and students’ motivational goals. In M. L. Maehr & P. Pintrich (Eds.), Advances in motivation and achievement, Vol. 7. Goals and self-regulatory processes (pp. 261–286). Greenwich, CT: JAI.

Meece, J., Anderman E. M., & Anderman, L. H. (2006). Structures and goals of educational settings: Classroom goal structure, student motivation, and academic achievement. In S. T. Fiske, A. E. Kazdin, & D. L. Schacter (Eds.), Annual review of psychology (Vol. 57, pp. 487–504). Stanford, CA: Annual Reviews.

Middleton, M. J. (2004). Motivating through challenge: Promoting a positive press for learning. In M. L. Maehr & P. R. Pintrich (Eds.), Advances in motivation and achievement, Vol. 13. Motivating students, improving schools: The legacy of Carol Midgley (pp. 209–231). Oxford, England: Elsevier.

Middleton, M. J., & Midgley, C. (1997). Avoiding the demonstration of lack of ability: An under-explored aspect of goal theory. Journal of Educational Psychology, 88, 710–718.

Middleton, M. J., & Midgley, C. (2002). Beyond motivation: Middle school students’ perceptions of press for understanding in math. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 27, 373–391.

Midgley, C. (Ed.). (2002). Goals, goal structures, and patterns of adaptive learning. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Midgley, C., Kaplan, A., & Middleton, M. (2001). Performance-approach goals: Good for what, for whom, under what circumstances, and at what cost? Journal of Educational Psychology, 93, 77–86.

Midgley, C., Kaplan, A., Middleton, M., Maehr, M. L., Urdan, T., Anderman, L. H., et al. (1998). The development and validation of scales assessing students’ achievement goal orientations. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 23, 113–131.

Midgley, C., Maehr, M. L., Hruda, L. Z., Anderman, E., Anderman, L., Freeman, K. E., et al. (2000). The Patterns of Adaptive Learning Survey (PALS). Ann Arbor: University of Michigan. Retrieved from http://www.umich.edu/~pals/pals/

Morrison, L. G. (2006). How student and parent goal orientations and classroom goal structures influence the math achievement of African Americans during the high school transition. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 31, 44–63.

Patrick, H. (2004). Re-examining classroom mastery goal structure. In P. R. Pintrich & M. L. Maehr (Eds.), Advances in motivation and achievement, Vol. 13. Motivating students, improving schools: The legacy of Carol Midgley (pp. 233–263). New York: Elsevier.

Patrick, H., Anderman, L. H., & Ryan, A. M. (2002). Social motivation and the classroom social environment. In C. Midgley (Ed.), Goals, goal structures, and patterns of adaptive learning (pp. 85–108). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Patrick, H., Anderman, L. H., Ryan, A. M., Edelin, K. C., & Midgley, C. (2001). Teachers’ communication of goal orientations in four fifth-grade classrooms. Elementary School Journal, 102, 35–58.

Patton, M. Q. (1990). Purposeful sampling. In Qualitative evaluation and research methods (2nd ed., pp. 169–186). Newbury Park, CA: Sage.

Sarason, I. G., Sarason, B. R., Shearin, E. N., & Pierce, G. R. (1987). A brief measure of social support: Practical and theoretical implications. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 4, 497–510.

Shulman, L. S. (1986). Those who understand: Knowledge growth in teaching. Educational Researcher, 15(2), 4–14.

Skinner, E. A., & Belmont, M. J. (1993). Motivation in the classroom: Reciprocal effect of teacher behavior and student engagement across the school year. Journal of Educational Psychology, 85, 571–581.

Sorensen, G. (1989). The relationships among teachers’ self-disclosive statements, students’ perceptions, and affective learning. Communication Education, 38, 259–276.

Teven, J. J. (2001). The relationships among teacher characteristics and perceived caring. Communication Education, 50, 159–169.

Teven, J. J., & Hanson, T. L. (2004). The impact of teacher immediacy and perceived caring on teacher competence and trustworthiness. Communication Quarterly, 52(1), 39–53.

Turner, J. C., & Meyer, D. K. (2000). Studying and understanding the instructional contexts of classrooms: Using our past to forge our future. Educational Psychologist, 35, 69–85.

Turner, J. C., & Meyer, D. K. (2004). Are challenge and caring compatible in middle school mathematics classrooms? In M. L. Maehr & P. R. Pintrich (Eds.), Advances in motivation and achievement, Vol. 13. Motivating students, improving schools: The legacy of Carol Midgley (pp. 331–360). Oxford, England: Elsevier.

Turner, J. C., Midgley, C., Meyer, D. K., Gheen, M., Anderman, E. M., Kang, Y., et al. (2002). The classroom environment and students’ reports of avoidance strategies in mathematics: A multimethod study. Journal of Educational Psychology, 94, 88–106.

Wentzel, K. R. (1997). Student motivation in middle school: The role of perceived pedagogical caring. Journal of Educational Psychology, 90, 202–209.

Witt, P. L., & Wheeless, L. R. (2001). An experimental study of teachers’ verbal and nonverbal immediacy and students’ affective and cognitive learning. Communication Education, 50, 327–342.

Wolters, C. A. (2004). Advancing achievement goal theory: Using goal structures and goal orientations to predict students’ motivation, cognition, and achievement. Journal of Educational Psychology, 96, 236–250.

Woolfolk Hoy, A., & Weinstein, C. S. (2006). Student and teacher perspectives on classroom management. In C. M. Evertson & C. S. Weinstein (Eds.), Handbook of classroom management: Research, practice, and contemporary issues (pp. 181–219). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.


Coding Scheme Themes and Subthemes




Movement (engage with all students)





Supporting Learning



Scaffolding (cognitive apprenticeship)


Strategy instruction




Time management instruction


Connect past, present, & future


Humor/teasing (adolescent appropriate)


Interest in students’ lives



Content Relevance



Popular media


Enthusiasm for content

Pedagogical Content Knowledge

Preemptive instruction


Emphasizing key concepts


Encouraging help-seeking


Responding to help-seeking


Encouraging peer help (collaboration)

Autonomy Support


Varying participation structures


Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 113 Number 5, 2011, p. 969-1003
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 16085, Date Accessed: 1/25/2022 2:26:04 PM

Purchase Reprint Rights for this article or review
Article Tools
Related Articles

Related Discussion
Post a Comment | Read All

About the Author
  • Lynley Anderman
    The Ohio State University
    E-mail Author
    LYNLEY ANDERMAN is an associate professor of educational psychology at The Ohio State University. Her research interests focus on student motivation in educational settings and the ways in which it is fostered through instructional practices and supportive interpersonal relationships. Recent publications include a textbook, Classroom Motivation (Pearson); coeditorship of Psychology of Classroom Learning: An Encyclopedia (MacMillan Gale); and a chapter on promoting mastery goal orientations in the Handbook of Positive Psychology in Schools (Lawrence Erlbaum).
  • Carey Andrzejewski
    Auburn University
    CAREY E. ANDRZEJEWSKI is an assistant professor of educational foundations at Auburn University. Her research interests include teacher identity, teacher expertise, and classroom culture. Recent publications include Andrzejewski & Davis (2008), Teaching and Teacher Education, and Andrzejewski (in press), Journal of Dance Education.
  • Jennifer Allen
    University of Kentucky
    JENNIFER ALLEN is a doctoral candidate in counseling psychology at the University of Kentucky and is the recipient of the Helen Thacker Fellowship in Educational and Counseling Psychology. She is currently conducting psychological and learning disability evaluations at a local private practice while working on her dissertation, which focuses on sexual harassment. She has published previously in Violence and Victims.
Member Center
In Print
This Month's Issue