Study shows students perform better when professors express confidence in their abilities

Reanna Zuniga

A new psychology research study led by a UT professor finds students may perform better in school if teachers convey both their own high standards and personal confidence in the students’ ability to succeed.

In particular, African-American students significantly improved their grades upon receiving assurance from teachers that they can meet their high standards.

In the first of three studies, 22 African-American and 22 white seventh grade students were instructed to write an essay about a personal hero. In the feedback the students received on those essays, half included teacher reassurance — sentiments such as “I believe you have the ability to do better” — while the other half only emphasized high standards. Among the two groups of students, those who had received assurance alongside emphasis of high standards were significantly more likely to revise their essays.

Assistant psychology professor David Yeager, the lead researcher on the study, said students perform better when they feel their teachers have faith in them.

“It is important that teachers convey both their high standards and assurance when giving feedback,” Yeager said. “It is a way to give students critical feedback but also let them know that you believe in them without being patronizing.”

Yeager said studies have shown that students begin to trust their teachers less in middle school, and the trend is particularly stark in seventh grade and with African-American students. According to a study Yeager cited, the lack of trust African-American students have in their white teachers can be attributed to two factors: discrimination from teachers and the internalized sense students develop that they are being stereotyped.

“Middle school is a crucial developmental stage and it is when issues of trust start to take over,” Yeager said. “Good teachers already use this system of critique, but not enough teachers use it and it’s hard to make changes.”

Sociology junior Jasmine Torain, historian for the Association of Black Psychologist Student Circle, said she agrees that trust is an issue, although she said she never personally distrusted her teachers.

“My teachers were there reassuring me and also pushing me along a good track,” Torain said. “[But] I definitely do believe that the trust reassurance has always been there for white students and not for black students.”

Another experiment in the study involved low-income high school students and reflected similar results — an improvement in grades correlating with teachers’ expressions of confidence in their students.

Wilson Amadi Jr., a biology senior and vice president of the African Students Association, said he was not surprised by the results of the study.

“Teachers [who] set high standards but also reassure the students that they can meet them play a huge part of their school experience,” Amadi said. “Especially for those that come from single-parent households, who may not get that uplifting message that they can achieve higher.”