How classroom behavior influences student perceptions of authority

January 26, 2016

Do students perceive you as an authority or expert in your discipline? Is this perception reflected in your course evaluations?

Berk (2013) summarizes a large literature on course evaluations that support the conclusion that students are not qualified to evaluate a professor’s knowledge or content expertise, the choice of teaching methods, the course design, or the quality of course materials, assessment methods, or grading practices (p. 22). However, student perceptions of a professor as an authority in the discipline influence the ratings students give when they respond to questions in a course evaluation survey (Middendorf & McNary, 2011).

Middendorf and McNary (2011) identify classroom behaviors that contribute to student perception of the instructor as an authority. Instructors who engage in these behaviors receive higher ratings in class evaluations. Middendorf and McNary also identify instructor behaviors that undermine student perceptions of disciplinary expertise. These behaviors are associated with lower ratings on class evaluations. Some behaviors may be unconscious and difficult to modify. However, if instructors know how specific behaviors are related to student perceptions, they can identify a few behaviors that promote positive perceptions that they might deliberately adopt. Similarly, instructors might learn to modify or avoid detrimental habits that produce negative perceptions.

Middendorf and McNary (2011) describe an observation rubric that focuses on specific behaviors that either enhance or detract from student perception of an instructor’s authority. Attention to these behaviors can improve how students perceive and evaluate faculty. Moreover, because these behaviors generalize to other professional public interactions (e.g., making a presentation at a professional conference), faculty can improve how their professional peers evaluate their authority.

Behaviors to cultivate: Behaviors that enhance perception of a speaker as an authority

  • Smile
  • Make eye contact with students (or members of the audience at a conference)
  • Move around the room
  • Listen carefully to students or audience questions
  • Use humor
  • Make encouraging statements to students

Behaviors to avoid: Behaviors that create doubts about a speaker as an authority

  • Apologize unnecessarily. Not knowing the answer to every question does not require an apology. Do not apologize if you do not have a ready answer to a question. Instead, simply say that you will research the question and answer the question in the next class. (And do so.)
  • Do not humiliate or put students down. Treat all students with respect and civil behavior.
  • Do not accept weak answers or non-responses to questions you pose to initiate class discussion. Wait for a response. Ask for additional detail or evidence to strengthen a weak response.
  • Do not allow students to interrupt, but avoid engaging in monologs or non-stop talking. Create pauses that give students opportunities to ask questions without interrupting you in mid-sentence or mid-idea. Make sure the pauses are long enough to allow students to frame a question.
  • Do not encourage students to challenge or complain publicly. Should a student raise a complaint, ask the student to discuss these issues with you after class or during office hours. Create opportunities for students to give you feedback privately (e.g., with an anonymous survey or minute paper). Share the general comments with the class and explain what you can and cannot modify and why.


Berk, R. A. (2013). Top 10 flashpoints in student ratings and the evaluation of teaching. Sterling, VA: Stylus.

Middendorf, J., & McNary, E. (2011). Development of a classroom Authority Observation Rubric. College Teaching, 59, 129-134. doi:10.1080/87567555.2011.580690

02/02/2016 gb