Parenting and Teaching: What's the connection in our classrooms?

Part two of two: ideas for becoming an authoritative teacher.

By Douglas A. Bernstein, PhD

A plan for authoritative teaching

The cornerstone of authoritative teaching is treating students as responsible adults. This means giving them clear and comprehensive information about your course, including your teaching philosophy and rules, what you will be covering, how you will cover it and an outline of their rights and obligations. It also means keeping your end of the bargain and holding students responsible for keeping theirs.

First day of class

Establishing your role as an authoritative teacher begins on the first day of class. When you distribute your syllabus, describe it as a contract between you and your students and review it in detail. This review can serve as an introduction and illustration of your teaching methods and goals.

For example, if one of your goals is to promote independent learning, critical thinking or teamwork, highlight the fact that your lectures will be frequently supplemented (perhaps sometimes even replaced) with class discussions and group activities in which everyone is expected to take an active part. If advance reading or other preparation is required to participate in and benefit from these discussions and activities, let students know that, but you don’t have to repeatedly remind students to complete assigned readings or award points for doing so. Just make the assignments, explain their importance and let students who fail to complete them discover and deal with the consequences.

When reviewing course requirements and how final grades will be determined, give students a chance to ask questions. Present course information and answer questions in a friendly, matter-of-fact manner, without apology. Further, be honest about the amount of work that will be required to do well in your class. Support their confidence by noting that success in the course is common among motivated students, but don’t underplay the effort that will be necessary. In particular, let students know that there will not be enough class time or lab time to address all the concepts, theories, applications and other information that you expect them to learn. Spell out the implications of this fact, namely that though you will spend your class time teaching, the responsibility for learning lies with the students, not you, and that much of this learning will have to take place independently or in student-organized study groups. The opportunity for students to display that learning will come through the writing assignments, quizzes, exams and other performance measures you provide for them. (You might reinforce the need for independent learning by giving students a low-cost failure experience early in the course, such as a challenging, but droppable, quiz based mainly on material that was not covered in class.) Make it clear that your grading system rewards achievement rather than effort. It is important to be explicit about this aspect of authoritative teaching because, as already noted, many of today’s students expect that working hard to learn things is worth as much as actually learning things (Zinn, 2009).

Spending at least part of the first day of class reviewing the syllabus and establishing expectations has the added of advantage of heading off or at least minimizing many of the student behaviors that professors complain about. Does class attendance matter to you? Should students raise a hand to be recognized before commenting or asking a question? Is eating or drinking in class permitted? How about checking email, texting or web-surfing? Point out your policies and where they appear in the syllabus. Pay special attention to how you will handle requests for make-up exams, questions about the scoring of exam items, requests for extra credit or special arrangements and complaints about grades.1

The more explicit your written rules and policies are, the fewer difficulties you will have later on when you apply them. And don’t assume that students will already know even the most fundamental rules, such as those regarding plagiarism or other aspects of academic dishonesty. For some students, rules that seem intuitively obvious to you may be utterly new to them — especially if they are accustomed to a permissive-indulgent learning environment. If you make it clear through your demeanor that the course is planned as it is for good reasons, and you state those reasons, students are likely to recognize your authority and not try to negotiate with you (Roosevelt, 2009). In fact, students prefer predictability and structure in their courses, and they want that structure to come from you, not from the results of class votes or compromises hashed out in class between the teacher and the class’s most aggressive or demanding members (Scholl-Buckwald, 1985).

Finally, let students know that your office hours, email address and other contact details are listed on the syllabus because part of your job is to answer questions, discuss course material, offer advice, recommend supplemental information sources and provide other kinds of help to those who ask for it.

For the student, entering an authoritative learning environment should be like joining a gym. In exchange for a fee and their agreement to abide by certain reasonable rules and policies, student members gain access to a complete array of exercise facilities, as well as to the help, advice and supervision of fitness experts and the company and support of other members with similar goals. Everything they need to succeed is available 7 days a week, maybe 24 hours a day, and though the least fit members may initially need the most help, the results each person ultimately achieves depends almost entirely on whether, how and how diligently he or she takes advantage of what the gym has to offer.2

1For example, no one likes the hassle of giving make-up quizzes, but whereas an authoritarian teacher might simply punish missed quizzes with a zero, an authoritative professor might not count students’ one or two lowest quiz scores. This policy recognizes the realities of student life while greatly reducing the demand for make-up quizzes and the need to adjudicate student excuses.

2This analogy was suggested to me by Alison Hagood during a discussion at the 2009 National Institute on the Teaching of Psychology, St. Pete Beach, Florida.

Real and imagined obstacles to authoritative teaching

Many teachers are attracted to the idea of creating an authoritative classroom environment filled with opportunities for active learning, but some don’t think they can do so because they have too many students and/or because most of those students are not interested enough or motivated enough or academically prepared enough or mature enough to successfully tackle active, independent learning challenges. Further, this kind of teaching requires students (and teachers) to work harder, so some teachers are concerned that students who are unhappy with added learning responsibilities will punish the teacher with negative course evaluations.

However, many and perhaps most students who encounter an active-learning classroom organized by an authoritative teacher will eventually be glad to have had the experience. Some will even thank you for it, though perhaps not immediately. Here is part of what a student wrote to me a few years after enrolling in my honors Introductory Psychology course at the University of Illinois: “When I took your class, I hated you, and I hated the way you made us work like dogs. But by the end, even though I only got a B, I felt proud because this was a major accomplishment. It was the first time I realized that I have what it takes to do just about anything I set my mind to. Now that I have nearly completed medical school, I realize how valuable your course and your teaching methods were. I am sorry I was such a pain in the ass.”

Perhaps it reflects confirmation bias, but to me the message in this letter is that students — all students — should be challenged to learn things for themselves and in the process stretch themselves to explore the limits of their academic ability. Authoritative teaching can help them to do this. So instead of planning courses based on what we think our students can handle, and thus allow them to remain in their educational comfort zone, consider pushing them beyond it. Consider helping them discover what they are capable of doing instead of letting them do what they have always done. In classes large or small, live or online, most students will rise to the challenges we set for them (Timpson & Bendel-Simso, 1996).

What about those who can’t, or don’t want to, handle the workload your course requires? Let students know on that first day that if they think your course is not for them they can drop it, but invite them to come and see you. If they do, treat them as responsible adults. Talk to them about their career plans and their motivation to achieve their goals. Perhaps they should consider a different course, a different major or even a different life plan. The fact is that not everyone has to major in your discipline, or even go to college, to have a good life, and not everyone who enrolls in college belongs there. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, of the 30 job categories projected to grow at the fastest rate over the next decade, only seven require a college degree, and among the 10 fastest growing categories, only two require a postsecondary degree (Steinberg, 2010). In fact, about 66 percent of all jobs in the U.S. are open to those without a bachelor’s degree (Symonds, Schwartz, & Ferguson, 2011).

True, among people over 25, the median annual income of college graduates is about 65 percent higher than that of those who graduated only from high school, and their lifetime income will be about $1 million more (Baum, Ma, & Payea, 2010), but part of the difference is accounted for by the fact that many people whose formal education stopped after high school do not have the capacity or motivation to be successful at higher-paying occupations that don’t require a bachelor’s degree. The story is different for people who choose a path to success that includes training of some kind but does not require four years of college. Many plumbers, electricians, carpenters, beauticians, salespeople and chefs, for example, earn more than many college graduates in their age group and — especially if they own their own businesses — may enjoy greater autonomy.

Indeed, many students enter higher education only because they don’t know what else to do, because their families have pushed them toward a certain career or because of more general societal pressure to obtain a college degree. This lack of direction probably contributes significantly to the fact that average graduation rates in the United States now hover around 56 percent at 4-year institutions and around 30 percent at community colleges (Carey, 2008; Symonds, Schwartz, & Ferguson, 2011). As a matter of fact, the United States has the highest college dropout rate of any country in the industrialized world (Symonds, Schwartz, & Ferguson, (2011). Sadly, many dropouts come to think of themselves as failures when the truth is they simply made a bad career choice. Some of them might have been more motivated, and happier, in a high-school or postsecondary vocational or career-oriented associate of arts program of some kind.

Concluding thoughts

Students differ greatly in terms of academic preparation, study skills and level of interest in learning and though it makes sense to plan courses with these background factors in mind, authoritative teachers don’t let pessimistic expectations about students’ abilities and motivation create self-fulfilling prophesies. They maintain their standards. They do not cut back on active learning methods, water down course content or reduce demands for student achievement, and they certainly don’t make such adjustments on an individual basis.

For one thing, fairness demands that all students be required to meet the same standards. It is obviously necessary (and legally required) to alter assessment procedures or other aspects of a course for students with documented physical or cognitive disabilities, but caving in to individual students’ requests for special treatment based on their perceived learning styles or assessment preferences is inappropriate and counterproductive. Authoritative teachers can better promote their students’ success — in higher education and in their future occupational and personal lives — by helping them understand that to survive, thrive and prosper in the real world, they will often have to adjust to the needs and demands of that world, which at the moment happens to include the requirements of their courses. Students will never find out how much they can accomplish unless they are required to try, so teachers do them no favors by making their academic lives too easy.


Baum, S., Ma, J., & Payea, K. (2010). Education pays 2010: The benefits of higher education for individuals and society. New York: The College Board Advocacy and Policy Center.

Carey, K. (2008, April). Graduation rate watch (Education Sector Report). Washington, D.C.: Education Sector.

Roosevelt, M. (2009, February 18). Student expectations seen as causing grade disputes. The New York Times, p. A15.

Scholl-Buckwald, S. (1985). The first meeting of the class. In J. Katz (Ed.), Teaching as though students mattered: New directions for teaching and learning (pp. 13-21). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Steinberg, J. (2010, May 16). Plan B: Skip college. The New York Times, p. WK1.

Symonds, W. C., Schwartz, R.B., & Ferguson, R. (2011). Pathways to prosperity: Meeting the challenge of preparing young Americans for the 21st century (PDF, 2.41MB). Report issued by the Pathways to Prosperity Project, Harvard Graduate School of Education.

Timpson, W. M., & Bendel-Simso, P. (1996). Concepts and choices for teaching: Meeting the challenges in higher education. Madison, WI: Magna Publications, Inc.

Zinn, T. E. (2009). But I really tried! Helping students link effort and performance. APS Observer, 22, 27-30.

About the Author

Doug BernsteinDoug Bernstein received his bachelor's degree in psychology at the University of Pittsburgh in 1964 and his master’s and PhD in clinical psychology at Northwestern University in 1966 and 1968, respectively. From 1968 to 1998, he was on the psychology faculty at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where he taught graduate and undergraduate classes ranging from 15 to 750 students and served both as associate department head and director of introductory psychology. He is now professor emeritus at Illinois and courtesy professor of psychology at the University of South Florida. In 2013, he stepped down after 30 years as chairman of the National Institute on the Teaching of Psychology. He also founded the APS Preconference Institute on the Teaching of Psychology. His teaching awards include the University of Illinois Psychology Graduate Student Association Teaching Award and the University of Illinois Psi Chi award for excellence in undergraduate teaching, both in 1979; the Illinois Psychology Department's Mabel Kirkpatrick Hohenboken Teaching Award in 1993; and the Distinguished Teaching in Psychology Award in 2002. He is a fellow of the Association for Psychological Science, and he has co-authored textbooks in introductory psychology, abnormal psychology, clinical psychology, criminal behavior and progressive relaxation training, and, with Sandra Goss Lucas, wrote "Teaching Psychology: A Step by Step Guide."