I'll preface this by saying that I've been considering this question in light of the "Summer of Love" initiative and subsequent blog posts, which are looking at the extent to which comments are "friendly" on Stack Exchange.

Much of the impetus behind the movement is a commitment to treating new members better, and it's safe to assume that a majority of these new members are here for help in the process of learning something (e.g., programming, statistics, new software). Comments can both set the tone while also being a means through which to deliver learning.

The actual Stack Exchange study is measuring the response of a third party to the comments made on the site, but, as more readily available system, I'd like to find out if a teacher who projects a "friendly" attitude positively affects the learning process. Conversely, it's not ideal if a teacher uses "unorthodox" methods to motivate students (e.g., sarcasm), but controlling for all other factors, could these methods actually motivate some students to learn better?

While the analogy between educators, students, and Stack Exchange participants is far from perfect, is there support in the educational psychology literature for the notion that teachers reported by students as "friendlier" (on average) help those students achieve higher levels of performance on standardized tests and other evaluations?

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    $\begingroup$ This would require very delicate controls to disentangle a 'friendly' ranking from a 'good' or 'easy-grader' ranking. Anecdotally, educational psych is bad at doing such carful controls. $\endgroup$ Aug 4, 2012 at 13:07
  • $\begingroup$ @ArtemKaznatcheev Very true. I was going to add in a stipulation that the evaluation of the teacher be done before the grade was received to try to stave off the second confound, but I didn't want to limit the pool of studies someone might have to choose from. $\endgroup$ Aug 4, 2012 at 15:09
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    $\begingroup$ Thanks for your effort, jtth, but this does not answer the question at all. I'm looking for studies with those specific parameters. $\endgroup$ Aug 4, 2012 at 15:34
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    $\begingroup$ I know this doesn't answer the question either, but having had the honor of learning psychological stats directly from Bob Rosenthal myself, I just gotta say he's probably the friendliest teacher I've ever known. To answer anecdotally, I suppose I did pretty well in his classes, but not unusually well. ;) $\endgroup$ Mar 27, 2014 at 12:39
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    $\begingroup$ @ArtemKaznatcheev I would be more concerned about looks and personality effects then grading effects. Being a student currently, I won't lie most students won't rate a hottish teacher distantly provided they don't completely fail you. $\endgroup$
    – William
    Apr 7, 2014 at 19:47

2 Answers 2


There's a different way to treat the question, as being "are instructor evaluations by students an effective way to measure performance?".

There's an obvious moral hazard created by student evaluations where the attempt to incentivize educator's to perform well makes a form of collusion attractive: Students get good grades and teachers are rewarded with good feedback. Other things being equal, that could indicate a lowering of standards rather then improved performance.

It's a bit of a stretch to apply this directly to the context of SE, but bear in mind that if a policy change ("be nice") is intended to improve quality, it's important to monitor quality independently from the supposed surrogate metric. You may find that people report a friendlier environment while overall quality decreases.

The book "How to teach mathematics, 2nd Ed", Steven kranz 1999 devotes a section to the subject of teacher evaluations and cites several studies. I'll describe some of them, with a bias towards those critical of such evaluations. The book is more balanced.

"How'm I doing", Ceci & Williams (1997) laments the lack of experimental data to support the increasing weight given to such evaluations. They do claim studies show a positive correlation between higher grades and higher ratings (your original question), though as I just mentioned you can paint the causation picture in a sinister way. For example, I would imagine bad questions/answers that get bad feedback will elicit complaints of "unfriendliness". Discouraging people from giving negative feedback would reduce those and thus improve reported "friendliness", but quality seems likely to suffer.

Another study described is Ambady & rosenthal (1993) which compared the teacher ratings given by a group after a full term group To those given by a seperate group after viewing a 30 second segment of the teacher's recorded lecture (without sound). The ratings agreed to a high degree which, either way you look at it, suggests that "first impressions" are either a good predictor or strongly bias the final rating given.

The core study detailed demonstrated that a deliberate change in delivery style (enthusiasm) had a significant (statistically and quantitatively) effect on how the teacher's knowledgeability, accessibility, and tolerance were rated. Read the paper for caveats and study design.

"Dr. Jekyll or Professor Hyde?" by Martino is cited (I could not locate a pdf) which contains multiple examples of samples evaluations from students in a course which state completely opposite evaluations. The obvious question being, If A and B have roughly identical interactions with you, yet one claims you're friendly and the other says you're mean, what are you really?.

The book goes on to detail multiple studies that show evaluations do have many good properties such as consistency over time, good correlation with peer evaluation and so on. I suggest you follow up on it to complete the partial and rather biased view I gave.

  1. http://www.amazon.com/How-Teach-Mathematics-Steven-Krantz/dp/0821813986
  2. https://inst.eecs.berkeley.edu/~cs301/sp14/resources/Williams_Howm_I_Doing.pdf
  3. http://ambadylab.stanford.edu/pubs/1993Ambady.pdf

I am answering this in parts, as an overview for issues relating to learning outcomes and perceived teacher friendliness.

To assist, I would categorise friendliness to mean encouragement and rapport (respect may or may not be correlated within this).

Firstly to address integrating theories of teaching and learning.

Theories of learning and theories of teaching often originate and operate independently from one another. This article attempts to contribute to the integration of the two types of theories. First, the cognitive, affective and regulative activities students use to learn are analyzed. Next, different ways in which teachers can regulate the learning and thinking activities of students are discussed, as well as the teaching strategies they can use for that aim. The third part focuses on different ways in which student-regulation and teacher-regulation of learning act upon one another. Congruence and friction between these modes of control are discussed. From this interplay implications are derived for process-oriented teaching, aimed at promoting congruence and constructive friction, avoiding destructive friction and reducing the gap between learning and teaching. 1

Secondly a study that shows the beneficial and cyclic effect of an encouraging teacher/student relationship. (note the reverse is true for students caught within a negative cycle)

On the basis of a new model of motivation, the authors examined the effects of 3 dimensions of teacher (n = 14) behavior (involvement, structure, and autonomy support) on 144 children's (Grades 3–5) behavioral and emotional engagement across a school year. Correlational and path analyses revealed that teacher involvement was central to children's experiences in the classroom and that teacher provision of both autonomy support and optimal structure predicted children's motivation across the school year. Reciprocal effects of student motivation on teacher behavior were also found. Students who showed higher initial behavioral engagement received subsequently more of all 3 teacher behaviors. These findings suggest that students who are behaviorally disengaged receive teacher responses that should further undermine their motivation. The importance of the student–teacher relationship, especially interpersonal involvement, in optimizing student motivation is highlighted. (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2012 APA, all rights reserved) 2

This study examines the effects of positive versus negative verbal reinforcement on different personality types. It would appear that not all people perform best within the cycle of "friendliness".

However, there was a highly significant interaction between these variables; extraverts performed better under positive than negative reinforcement, whilst introverts performed better under negative than positive reinforcement. 3

Which brings me to my last point, which is that motivation appears to be improved by a balance between friendliness creating a tension within the classroom. It also shows that both positive and negative reinforcement are necessary.

• Set a feeling or tone for the lesson. Instructors should try to establish a friendly, open atmosphere that shows the participants they will help them learn.
• Set an appropriate level of concern. The level of tension must be adjusted to meet the level of importance of the objective. If the material has a high level of importance, a higher level of tension/stress should be established in the class. However, people learn best under low to moderate stress; if the stress is too high, it becomes a barrier to learning.

• Positive reinforcement is normally used by instructors who are teaching participants new skills. As the name implies, positive reinforcement is "good" and reinforces "good" (or positive) behavior.
• Negative reinforcement is the contingent removal of a noxious stimulus that tends to increase the behavior. The contingent presentation of a noxious stimulus that tends to decrease a behavior is called Punishment. Reinforcing a behavior will never lead to extinction of that behavior by definition. Punishment and Time Out lead to extinction of a particular behavior, but positive or negative reinforcement of that behavior never will 4

In conclusion
From the available studies, an underlying friendliness, which enables approachability b students, facilitates learning, but a certain level of discipline and the boundary creating an unequal relationship is also necessary. Suggesting that balance is the key and there are no hard and fast rules, as people have varying learning styles.

1 Congruence and friction between learning and teaching Jan D Vermunt, Nico Verloop Leiden University, ICLON — Graduate School of Education, P.O. Box 9555, 2300 RB Leiden, The Netherlands http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/S0959-4752(98)00028-0, How to Cite or Link Using DOI Permissions & Reprints

2 Motivation in the classroom: Reciprocal effects of teacher behavior and student engagement across the school year. Skinner, Ellen A.; Belmont, Michael J. Journal of Educational Psychology, Vol 85(4), Dec 1993, 571-581. doi: 10.1037/0022-0663.85.4.571

3 Effects of positive and negative verbal reinforcement on performance as a function of extraversion-introversion: Some tests of Gray's theory John Boddy, Annabel Carver, Kevin Rowley Department of Psychology, University of Manchester, Oxford Road, Manchester M13 9PL, England http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/0191-8869(86)90111-X, How to Cite or Link Using DOI Permissions & Reprints

4 Carrie Ekey, Literacy Coaches Training, Feb. 2012 PRINCIPLES OF ADULT LEARNING By Stephen LiebSenior Technical Writer and Planner, Arizona Department of Health Servicesand part-time Instructor, South Mountain Community Collegefrom VISION, Fall 1991

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    $\begingroup$ Excellent! This was originally asked during the Stack Exchange "Summer of Love" as a counter to whether being friendlier on the sites would encourage better behavior overall. $\endgroup$ Aug 21, 2013 at 17:26
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    $\begingroup$ Oh, I had written that originally. Oops, it's been too long. $\endgroup$ Aug 21, 2013 at 18:03

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