Teacher support contributes to student motivation and belief in themselves, according to recent research. Illustration photo: Colourbox

Pupils with low grades feel less supported by teachers

A recent study of upper secondary students shows that strong students experience more support from teachers than do students who have lower grades.

Being seen is important. Previous research has shown that having good relationships with their teachers is essential for students’ well-being and development.

Could students’ experience of support from their teachers be connected to how motivated they are about school in general and in their subjects?

Associate Professor Per Egil Mjaavatn, senior lecturer Lena Haller Buseth and Professor Per Frostad at NTNU’s Department of Education and Lifelong Learning set out to investigate this question.

They included thirteen upper secondary schools in Trøndelag county in their survey.

The study results showed that teacher support is important for motivating students and the students’ belief in themselves. Pupils who do well in school feel seen. Students who aren’t doing well feel less seen.

Researcher surprised

Mjaavatn admits that he is surprised at the result.

“I didn’t expect to find such a clear difference. Pupils with lower grade averages experience less support than the stronger pupils. This result showed up consistently in all the grades,” says Mjaavatn.

“It’s important to note that the results reflect the students’ experience of the situation – which may not be the same as what the teachers experience,” he adds.

Gender and field of study made no difference

Approximately 2500 pupils from upper secondary schools in (then) Sør-Trøndelag county participated in the survey, which ran from 2015 to 2018. The pupils responded to a questionnaire, and the researchers conducted eighteen group interviews.

Students were asked how they experience teacher support, both emotionally and academically. The tendency was the same regardless of gender and whether pupils were studying vocational or college track subjects: strong students experienced the most teacher support, the weakest students the least.

The tendency was the same regardless of gender and whether pupils were studying vocational or college track subjects. Illustration photo: Colourbox

Teacher support is linked to motivation. Those students who experience being seen by their teacher are motivated.Feeling support from their teachers also gives students confidence in their own abilities and opportunities.

“Being seen by the teacher contributes significantly to feeling successful. If you’re not seen at school, you don’t have that feeling of success,” says Mjaavatn.

The interviews showed that students value not only academic teacher support, but also empathy and emotional support.

“It’s about being liked and respected. It’s sad if you don’t feel like the teacher likes you,” Mjaavatn says.

Time pressures

According to the study, the feeling of getting too little support from teachers appears to have other ripple effects.

“The high numbers show that students who feel the least teacher support also experience the least support from fellow students and from their parents. And vice versa,” says Mjaavatn.

The researchers believe it is important to focus on the conditions teachers deal with.

Time pressures can be one of the reasons that teachers don’t manage to give all students the same experience of being seen, says Professor Per Frostad.

“This has to do with how schools are organized. Teachers are responsible for providing appropriate instruction to each student. They teach large groups of students who are often at very different academic levels,” says Frostad.

“Giving extra help and support to students who need it is often impossible in practice within the resource framework teachers have at their disposal. This, combined with grade pressure and time pressure, may be some of the reasons why teachers aren’t able to give all students the same experience of being seen,” Frostad says.