It’s hard to overstate how much difference the right teacher can make in students’ confidence and engagement. Many people know this to be true from anecdotal experience, and now there’s a study out to back this idea up with some hard evidence.

In the study, researchers from Harvard Graduate School of Education and Brown University looked at how teachers with different teaching styles affected upper elementary school students’ attitudes toward and behavior in school.

It turned out that teachers had a large effect whether students felt confident about their ability to perform well in a math class, whether students were happy, and how students behaved in class. Moreover, these differences in student attitudes were linked to specific teaching strategies like providing emotional support to students and keeping an organized classroom.

The study also explored how these factors related to students’ actual achievement on tests.

Interestingly, teachers who were good at improving students’ performance on tests weren’t necessarily good at nurturing students’ happiness and confidence. This latter finding has a couple implications.

First, student test performance is clearly not the be-all and end-all when it comes to evaluating teachers. It’s possible to improve student test performance while students’ confidence, happiness and engagement lags.

Second, this finding highlights the extent to which teaching involves pulling together multiple different skills. Teachers need to have the ability both to improve students’ academic performance and to help students feel good about their ability to tackle academic challenges and about what they’re getting out of school. Teachers who have one of these skills don’t automatically have the other.

The bottom line is that test performance doesn’t measure everything that goes into good teaching. Teachers also make a big difference in students’ attitudes and behavior, which isn’t captured in test scores, and specific teaching strategies can apparently promote students’ feelings of competence and happiness.

Image: Flickr/Paul Hart