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Learning Environments Research

, Volume 11, Issue 1, pp 19–29 | Cite as

Interpersonal behaviour and student outcomes in vocational education classes

  • David G. Henderson
  • Darrell L. Fisher
Original Paper

Abstract

This study centred on students enrolled in Work Studies, a vocational education course offered to post-compulsory (Years 11–12) students in Western Australian high schools. Because of the strong emphasis on the teacher providing pastoral care in Work Studies classes, the Questionnaire on Teacher Interaction (QTI), which assesses students’ perceptions of their teacher’s interpersonal behaviour, was seen as the most appropriate learning environment instrument to use in this study. Following a description of the purpose of this research study during a professional development day, Work Studies teachers were invited to participate in the study. A total of 157 students in nine Work Studies classes completed the QTI and two attitude scales. Work Studies students in the sample had quite favourable views of their course and there were strong associations between certain aspects of teacher interpersonal behaviour and student attitudinal outcomes. Results indicated the pivotal role that teacher interpersonal behaviour can play in such a vocational education course. Gender-related differences between perceptions of students were found to be minimal, but there were differences in the perceptions of university-bound students and other students.

Keywords

Interpersonal behaviour Student outcomes Vocational education 

Introduction

This study centred on students enrolled in Work Studies, a vocational education course offered to post-compulsory (Years 11–12) students in Western Australian high schools. Enrolment in Work Studies is open to all students, regardless of their performances in other subject areas, and offers students the opportunity to prepare for their entry into the workforce by engaging in a wide variety of activities, including preparing a resumé and portfolio, attending a mock interview for an employment position and investigating possible career pathways, as well as spending a period of time in the workforce. Activities in Work Studies classes are strongly aligned with the needs of the individual student, with the role of the teacher being to provide pastoral care and the necessary material resources appropriate to each student. In recent years, increasing numbers of students intending to continue their education at university have enrolled in Work Studies, with a view to gaining experience in the workforce, as well as increasing their chances of gaining part-time employment, and consequently a Work Studies class typically contains students with a wide variety of intentions and aspirations following their graduation from high school.

Past learning environment research studies have focused mainly on students in science, mathematics and computing classes, and there has been very little research involving students in vocational education classes. Hence the perceived need for the current study. One particular focus of classroom environment research has been the investigation of student–teacher interactions based on the seminal interpersonal behavioural research of Leary (1957), who worked in the field of clinical psychology. In an adaptation of the Leary model, Wubbels et al. (1985) mapped teacher behaviour with a Proximity dimension (Cooperation–Opposition) and an Influence dimension (Dominance–Submission) to form eight sectors, each describing different behaviour aspects. Every instance of interpersonal teacher behaviour can be placed within this system of axes (see Fig. 1). A more detailed description of the model is given in Wubbels et al. (1993) and Wubbels and Levy (1993).
Fig. 1

The model for interpersonal teacher behaviour (Fisher et al. 1993)

Wubbels et al. (1985) developed the Questionnaire on Teacher Interaction (QTI) based on this model. Each of the items of the QTI is assigned to one of eight scales: Leadership, Helping/Friendly, Understanding, Student Freedom, Uncertain, Dissatisfied, Admonishing and Strict. Descriptive information and a sample item for each scale of the QTI is given in Table 1.
Table 1

Descriptive information and sample items for each scale of the QTI

Scale name

Description

Sample item

 

The degree to which:

 

Leadership (DC)

...the teacher provides leadership to the class and holds student attention

This teacher knows what is going to happen next in this class.

Helping/Friendly (CD)

...the teacher is friendly and helpful towards students

This teacher helps us with our work.

Understanding (CS)

...the teacher shows understanding/concern/care for students

This teacher trusts us.

Student Freedom (SC)

...students are given opportunities to assume responsibility for their own activities

This teacher allows us to take responsibility for what we do.

Uncertain (SO)

...the teacher exhibits his/her uncertainty

This teacher allows us to tell him/her what to do.

Dissatisfied (OS)

...the teacher shows unhappiness/dissatisfaction with students

This teacher thinks that we cheat.

Admonishing (OD)

...the teacher shows anger/impatience in class

This teacher gets angry quickly.

Strict (DO)

...the teacher is strict with and demanding of students

This teacher is strict.

The original version of the QTI contained 64 items, with 8 items in each of the eight scales of the instrument, and there is a five-point response scale for each item, ranging from Never (scored as 0) to Always (scored as 4). The QTI has been the focus of more than 120 learning environment studies in many countries (den Brok et al. 2002) and has been translated into more than 15 languages (Wubbels et al. 1997).

An Australian version of the QTI, containing 48 items, with 6 items in each scale, has been used in a number of studies involving science classes in Australia (e.g., Fisher et al. 1993a; Fisher and Waldrip 1999; Henderson et al. 2000). The results of these and many other studies confirm the validity of the shorter version of the QTI and its wide applicability in learning environment research.

Because of the strong emphasis on the teacher in providing pastoral care in Work Studies classes, the QTI, which assesses students’ perceptions of their teacher’s interpersonal behaviour, was seen as the most appropriate learning environment instrument to use in this study.

One early use of the QTI in The Netherlands involved investigation of relationships between perceptions on QTI scales and student outcomes (Wubbels et al. 1991). Regarding students’ cognitive outcomes, the more that teachers demonstrated strict, leadership and helping/friendly behaviour, the higher were their students’ cognitive outcome scores. Conversely, student freedom, uncertain and dissatisfied behaviour were negatively related to achievement.

In another study, variations in the students’ appreciation of the subject and their classes could be characterised on the basis of the proximity dimension: the more cooperative the behaviour displayed, the higher were the affective outcome scores (Wubbels et al. 1991). That is, student freedom, understanding, helping/friendly and leadership behaviours were related positively to student attitudes, whereas uncertain, dissatisfied, admonishing and strict behaviours were related negatively to student attitudes.

Subsequent studies over the past 15 years have confirmed that interpersonal teacher behaviour is an important aspect of the learning environment which is consistently related to students’ attitudinal and achievement outcomes (Brekelmans et al. 2002; den Brok et al. 2004; Fraser 1998; Henderson et al. 2000).

Waldrip and Fisher (2003) used this information to identify and describe exemplary science teachers, who were identified as those whose students’ perceptions were more than one standard deviation above the mean on the scales of Leadership, Helping/Friendly and Understanding and more than one standard deviation below the mean on the Uncertain, Dissatisfied and Admonishing scales. The construct validity of the QTI for the purposes of identifying these exemplary teachers was confirmed through interviews with students.

Recent studies involving use of the QTI have included the development of a typology of Australian science teachers (Rickards et al. 2005) and making cross-national comparisons of teacher interpersonal behaviours (den Brok et al. 2006).

Because a number of these previous studies have shown associations between students’ perceptions of their learning environment and their attitudinal outcomes (e.g., Henderson et al. 2000; She and Fisher 2000; Wubbels and Levy 1993), it was decided to investigate students’ attitudinal outcomes in Work Studies classes. Two attitudinal instruments were used, a nine-item Attitude to Work Studies scale, adapted from the Test of Science-Related Attitudes (TOSRA; Fraser 1981), and a 13-item Satisfaction with Work Studies scale, comprising items taken from a Technical and Further Education (TAFE) questionnaire (Director, VET in Schools 2004) and from items developed from interviews with Work Studies students regarding aspects of their learning environment which they considered important. On both the Attitude to Work Studies and the Satisfaction with Work Studies scales, students responded on a three-point scale, where Agree was scored as 3, Not Sure as 2 and Disagree as 1.

Bearing in mind past learning environment studies which consistently have shown gender differences in students’ perceptions of their learning environment (e.g., Fraser et al. 1995; Henderson et al. 2000; Wong and Fraser 1996), students were asked to indicate their gender when responding to the questionnaires.

As noted above, Work Studies classes typically contain students with a wide range of career aspirations, and hence are involved in a wide range of study programs in their post-compulsory years of schooling. Teachers frequently comment that their TEE (university bound) students have a different approach to their Work Studies course from those class members studying mainly Wholly-School Assessed (WSA) subjects, and so this was investigated in the present study by asking students to indicate on their questionnaire whether or not they were studying four or more TEE (university-entrance) courses. This criterion was used as a means of dividing the students into those intending to continue their education at university level and those intending to study at a technical college or to enter the workforce after completing their high school studies. In this way, any differing perceptions between the two groups of students would become evident.

It was not possible to investigate student achievement outcomes in this study because Work Studies students do not complete assessment tasks common to all schools, but students were asked to indicate on their questionnaire their own rating of their achievement in Work Studies on a scale of 1 to 10, where 10 is high achievement and 1 is low achievement. In this way, associations between students’ perceptions of their learning environment and students’ assessment of their own achievement could be investigated.

Methodology

The objectives of this study were to:

  1. (1)

    investigate students’ perceptions of teacher interpersonal behaviour in their Work Studies class using the QTI

     
  2. (2)
    investigate differences in students’ perceptions of their Work Studies learning environment with respect to
    1. (i)

      student gender

       
    2. (ii)

      student career pathways

       
     
  3. (3)

    investigate associations between students perceptions, as measured by the QTI, and students’ attitude to Work Studies

     
  4. (4)

    investigate associations between students’ perceptions, as measured by the QTI, and students’ satisfaction with their Work Studies course

     
  5. (5)

    investigate associations between students’ self-rating of their achievement in Work Studies and their perceptions of their teacher’s interpersonal behaviour.

     

Following a description of the purpose of this research study during a professional development day, Work Studies teachers were invited to participate in the study. Six teachers from two secondary schools administered the QTI, the Attitude to Work Studies scale and the Satisfaction with Work Studies scale to the students in their classes. A total of 157 students in nine Work Studies classes completed the questionnaires. Because previous research has shown that students need quite a long exposure to a teacher’s performance to allow a valid evaluation (Biggs and Chopra 1979), teachers were asked to administer the questionnaires during the fourth term of the year. Data were entered onto Microsoft Word and later transferred to SPSS Version 13 for analysis.

Results

Validation of the instruments

The internal consistency/reliability (Cronbach α reliability coefficient) of QTI scales was calculated, using the individual student as the unit of analysis (see Table 2). The scale α coefficients range from 0.64 to 0.93, confirming the findings of previous studies (e.g., Fisher et al. 1993b, 1995; Waldrip and Fisher 2003) and indicating a satisfactory internal consistency for the 48-item Australian version of the QTI when used with Work Studies students.
Table 2

Internal consistency (Cronbach α coefficient) for the scales of the QTI

Scale

α reliability

Leadership

0.91

Helping/Friendly

0.93

Understanding

0.91

Student Freedom

0.64

Uncertain

0.82

Dissatisfied

0.86

Admonishing

0.80

Strict

0.73

The sample consisted of 157 students in nine Work Studies classes

Satisfactory internal consistency was also found for the Attitude to Work Studies and the Satisfaction with Work Studies scales used in this study, with the Cronbach α coefficient being 0.90 for both instruments.

Gender differences in students’ perceptions of their learning environment

Because previous research has indicated gender-related differences in students’ perceptions of their classroom psychosocial environment, responses of males and females were compared in this study. Gender-related differences were explored using a series of one-way multivariate analyses of variance with the set of QTI scales or the attitude or satisfaction scales as dependent variables. When Wilks’ lambda criterion was found to be statistically significant, the results of a univariate analysis of variance (ANOVA) was examined for each of the scales individually.

Table 3 indicates means and standard deviations for male and female students for each scale of the QTI and for the Attitude and Satisfaction scales. The figures indicate that males and females perceived student/teacher interactions rather similarly, with females perceiving higher levels of Understanding behaviour in their teachers and lower levels of Dissatisfied and Strict behaviours. Female students also reported slightly higher levels of satisfaction with their Work Studies course than did males. These findings are in line with those of previous studies (Castillo et al. 2006; Henderson et al. 2000; Nair and Fisher 2000), indicating that gender differences in students’ perceptions of their learning environments typically are quite small. Indeed, the gender differences evident in the current study are even smaller than those found in other studies involving the QTI.
Table 3

Scale means and standard deviations for male and female Work Studies students’ scores on the eight scales of the QTI and on the Attitude and Satisfaction scales

Scale

M

SD

F

Male

Female

Difference

Male

Female

 

Leadership

2.68

3.03

0.35

0.90

0.74

2.08

Helping/Friendly

2.81

3.23

0.42

1.02

0.85

3.21

Understanding

2.82

3.17

0.35

0.97

0.81

4.41*

Student Freedom

2.30

2.28

−0.02

0.61

0.66

0.77

Uncertain

1.11

0.91

−0.20

0.87

0.72

1.12

Dissatisfied

1.16

0.74

−0.42

0.96

0.73

5.07*

Admonishing

1.36

1.15

−0.21

0.86

0.80

0.22

Strict

1.34

1.07

−0.27

0.81

0.61

5.44*

Attitude to Work Studies

2.05

2.21

0.16

0.59

0.56

0.31

Satisfaction with Work Studies

2.42

2.58

0.16

0.50

0.40

3.93*

Males: n = 76; females: n = 81

*p < 0.05

Differences in the perceptions of students studying four or more TEE Subjects compared with students studying three or fewer TEE subjects

The perceptions of students studying four or more tertiary-entrance subjects (designated ‘TEE students’) were separated from those of students studying mainly Wholly-School Assessed subjects (designated ‘WSA students’) for the purposes of this study. Differences between perceptions in the two groups were explored using a series of one-way multivariate ANOVA with the set of QTI scales or the attitude or satisfaction scales as dependent variables. When Wilks’ lambda criterion was found to be statistically significant, a univariate ANOVA was examined for each of the scales individually.

Table 4 shows means and standard deviations for TEE and WSA students for each scale of the QTI, and the figures indicate that TEE students perceived significantly higher levels of Leadership, Helping/Friendly and Understanding behaviours in their teachers, when compared to the perceptions of WSA students. Furthermore, TEE students perceived significantly lower levels of Dissatisfied, Admonishing and Strict behaviour than did WSA students. Overall, the figures indicate that TEE students perceived their teacher’s interpersonal behaviour in a significantly more positive way than did WSA students. Furthermore, TEE students have more positive attitudes to their Work Studies class and greater levels of satisfaction with their Work Studies class than do WSA students.
Table 4

Scale means and standard deviations for TEE and WSA Work Studies students’ scores on the eight scales of the QTI and on the Attitude and Satisfaction scales

Scale

M

SD

F

TEE

WSA

Difference

TEE

WSA

 

Leadership

3.27

2.76

0.51

0.57

0.86

7.44**

Helping/Friendly

3.47

2.92

0.55

0.60

1.00

17.02**

Understanding

3.44

2.88

0.56

0.61

0.93

12.23**

Student Freedom

2.46

2.25

0.21

0.57

0.64

0.84

Uncertain

0.93

1.08

−0.15

0.76

0.82

0.12

Dissatisfied

0.60

1.03

−0.43

0.90

0.73

5.64**

Admonishing

0.90

1.29

−0.39

0.73

0.89

1.20*

Strict

0.91

1.28

−0.37

0.48

0.75

7.02**

Attitude to Work Studies

2.32

2.08

0.24

0.51

0.59

1.27*

Satisfaction with Work Studies

2.65

2.46

0.19

0.28

0.49

9.35**

TEE: n = 31; WSA: n = 126

*p < 0.05, **p < 0.01

Associations between students’ perceptions of teacher interpersonal behaviour and student outcomes

The investigation of associations between students’ perceptions of their classroom learning environment and students’ affective outcomes has provided a particular focus and rationale for learning environment research (Fraser 1998) and, bearing in mind the central role of pastoral care and the promotion of positive student attitudes in Work Studies classes, it was considered important that students’ affective outcomes be investigated in this study.

Simple correlational analyses were performed separately for each student outcome, namely, Attitude to Work Studies and Satisfaction with Work Studies, to describe the bivariate association between each outcome scale and each scale of the QTI. The data, shown in Table 5, indicate that students who perceive their teachers as showing higher levels of Leadership, Helping/Friendly and Understanding behaviours and who give their students higher levels of Freedom in the classroom have a more positive attitude to Work Studies and have higher levels of satisfaction with their Work Studies course. Conversely, students who perceive their teachers as showing higher levels of Uncertain, Dissatisfied, Admonishing and Strict behaviours have less positive attitudes to their Work Studies course and show lower levels of satisfaction with their Work Studies course.
Table 5

Correlation between QTI scales and students’ attitudes to Work Studies and satisfaction with Work Studies

Scale

Correlation

Attitude to Work Studies

Satisfaction with Work Studies

Leadership

0.66**

0.74**

Helping/Friendly

0.63**

0.76**

Understanding

0.66**

0.74**

Student Freedom

0.30**

0.76**

Uncertain

−0.56**

−0.68**

Dissatisfied

−0.60**

−0.71**

Admonishing

−0.57**

−0.71**

Strict

−0.51**

−0.60**

N = 157

**p < 0.01

Associations between students’ self-rating of their achievement in Work Studies and student perceptions of their teacher’s interpersonal behaviour

Because there are no common assessment tasks to be completed by Work Studies students in different schools, it was not possible to measure student achievement outcomes in this study. However, it was considered that a measurement of associations between students’ own assessment of their achievement in the Work Studies course and students’ perceptions of their learning environment might provide valuable information about the kind of learning environments likely to promote positive student views of their own performances. With this theme in mind, simple correlations (r) between students’ self-assessment of their achievement and each scale of the QTI were calculated. The results, presented in Table 6, indicate that students who perceive higher levels of Student Freedom in their class and Strict behaviour in their teacher are more likely to rate their achievements in Work Studies more highly, whilst those students who perceive higher levels of Admonishing behaviour in their teacher are likely to rate their achievement in Work Studies less favourably.
Table 6

Associations between QTI scales and students’ achievement scores in terms of simple correlations (r) and standardised regression coefficients (ß)

QTI scale

Achievement score

r

ß

Leadership

0.13

 

Helping/Friendly

0.12

 

Understanding

0.15

 

Student Freedom

0.24**

0.29**

Uncertain

−0.01

 

Dissatisfied

−0.10

 

Admonishing

−0.16*

 

Strict

0.01

0.29*

Multiple correlation R

 

0.14*

R 2

 

0.08

N = 157

*p < 0.05, **p < 0.01

Standard regression weights (β) were used to identify which of the eight QTI scales contributed to the variance in student outcomes when the other environment scales were mutually controlled. The beta weights presented in Table 6 suggest that students’ positive ratings of their achievements in Work Studies were particularly evident when the students perceived higher levels of Student Freedom and Strict behaviour in their teacher. The R 2 figure indicates that 8% of the variance in student assessment of their achievement can be explained by their perceptions of their teacher’s interpersonal behaviour.

Discussion

The results of this study provide further evidence of the validity of the QTI when used to measure secondary school students’ perceptions of teacher interpersonal behaviour. This study is unique in that it is the first in which the QTI has been used with students in vocational education classes. The Cronbach α coefficient, a measure of the internal consistency of the QTI, ranged from 0.64 to 0.93 for the eight scales of the instrument, indicating that the QTI can be used with confidence in vocational education classes. Furthermore, a Cronbach α coefficient of 0.90 indicated for the two other instruments used in this study, the Attitude to Work Studies scale and the Satisfaction with Work Studies scale, show that these instruments have satisfactory internal consistency and are also suitable for use in further studies involving students in vocational education classes.

Gender-related differences in perceptions of students in Work Studies classes were found to be very small, with female students indicating a more positive view of their learning environment. Differences between the perceptions of males and females in this study are even smaller than those reported in a number of previous studies involving students in science classes, suggesting that, for this sample at least, males and females view their Work Studies classes very similarly.

Furthermore, as can be seen in Table 3, both male and female students perceived high levels of Leadership, Helping/Friendly and Understanding behaviours in their teacher (scales which past studies have shown to be strongly associated with positive affective and achievement outcomes in students). Conversely, Table 3 indicates that both male and female students perceive low levels of Uncertain, Dissatisfied and Admonishing behaviours in their teacher (scales which past research studies have shown to be negatively associated with desirable student outcomes). Table 3 also indicates that both male and female students have positive attitudes to their Work Studies class and are satisfied with their Work Studies course.

Table 4 indicates that students enrolled in four or more university-entrance subjects (TEE students) had more positive attitudes to their Work Studies class and higher levels of satisfaction with their Work Studies course than did students enrolled in fewer than four university-entrance subjects (WSA students). However, bearing in mind the small number of TEE students (n = 31) in the sample, such results should be treated with caution, and it would be desirable to undertake further research work, by collecting additional quantitative data and by interviewing students, in order to identify some of the reasons for these differences in perceptions. Perhaps university-oriented students have more positive attitudes to post-compulsory school in general, and perhaps the assessment process for the Work Studies course, centring as it does on written reports, appeals more to students with aspirations towards university studies.

The results of this study indicate strong associations between Work Studies students’ perceptions of their teacher’s interpersonal behaviour and students’ affective outcomes (see Table 4). Specifically, the more Leadership, Helping/Friendly and Understanding behaviour that the students perceived their teacher to exhibit, and the more Student Freedom that they perceived, the more positive were students’ attitudes towards their Work Studies course and the more satisfied the students were with their course. Conversely, students who perceived higher levels of Uncertain, Dissatisfied, Admonishing and Strict behaviours in their teacher were more likely to show less positive attitudes to their Work Studies course and to feel less satisfied with the course. Considering the central role of teacher pastoral care in vocational education courses such as Work Studies, perhaps these results are not surprising. But when we consider the results of previous studies, which consistently show associations between students’ attitudinal and achievement outcomes, the role of teacher interpersonal behaviour in promoting desirable student outcomes is seen to be paramount.

Whilst it was not possible to measure student achievement across different classes because of the lack of mandated common assessment tasks in Work Studies, students participating in this study were asked to rate their own assessment in Work Studies on a scale of 1 to 10. The data presented in Table 6 indicate that students who perceived higher levels of Student Freedom in their class and higher levels of Strict behaviour in the teacher rated their achievement in Work Studies more highly, and that 8% of the variance in students’ assessment of their achievement could be explained in terms of their perceptions of their teacher’s interpersonal behaviour. These figures suggest that Work Studies teachers who do allow freedom within the classroom, yet do impose guidelines and are demanding of their students, are more likely to promote students’ higher ratings of their achievements in the course.

Overall, this study has shown that the Work Studies students in the sample had quite favourable views of their course and that there exist strong associations between certain aspects of teacher interpersonal behaviour and student outcomes. Such findings point to the pivotal role that teacher interpersonal behaviour can play in such a vocational education course. Gender-related differences between perceptions of students were found to be minimal, but the differences in the perceptions and attitudes of TEE students and WSA students are quite striking and are worthy of further investigation, through the collection of both quantitative and qualitative data.

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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2007

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Rossmoyne Senior High SchoolRossmoyneAustralia
  2. 2.Science and Mathematics Education CentreCurtin University of TechnologyPerthAustralia

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