A Preliminary Test of a Theory of Instructional Communication

Kristin Marie Valencic, James C. McCroskey, and Virginia P. Richmond


A general theory of instructional communication is advanced. A study is reported which provides a preliminary test of the theory advanced. This study examined the relationship between instructors' temperaments and students' cognitive learning. Participants included 52 college instructors and 626 students. The instructors completed a measure of extraversion. Students completed a measure of their perceived cognitive learning in the instructor's class. Results indicated a significant relationship between the instructor temperament trait of extraversion and student reports of cognitive learning. Instructors who reported themselves as more extraverted had students claim that they learned more with that teacher than students reported with more introverted instructors. It is suggested that the two variables studied represent the beginning and ending of a chain of variables relating to the origins and outcomes instructional communication behaviors.

Since the inception of Instructional Communication as a recognized scholarly area within the field of Communication in the early 1970s, researchers have sought to determine the role of communication in producing desired or unintentional outcomes (usually learning) in teaching and training contexts. Both rhetorical (one-to-many/influence) and relational (one-to-one/interpersonal) models have been employed in this research. Much of this research has focused on what teachers might do in terms of communication behavior that might impact student learning.

While scholars have been reluctant to propose a general theory of instructional communication, we believe that an implicit theory has provided the foundation for much of the research that has been published to date. It is the purpose of this report to outline the essence of that theory and present a preliminary test of it.

A General Theory of Instructional Communication

There are three essential components of instruction: course content, pedagogy, and instructional communication. While some instruction is "off-the-cuff" with little advanced planning, most is not. Prior to the actual teaching or training of the instructor, careful planning involving many important decisions usually is conducted. This involves determining the general curriculum of the area of study, determining the content which will be addressed in an instructional event (a course, a unit, a workshop), and determining the way the content will be communicated. In some cases the teacher or trainer will be solely responsible for many of these decisions, in other cases most of these decisions(particularly those dealing with curriculum and content) will be made by others, with or without input from the teacher/trainer.

We believe that most decisions in most instructional contexts regarding instructional communication are made by the actual instructor. Different instructors, dealing with the same curriculum and the same content, may choose to communicate with their students differently.

Given the above, this theory places the instructor at the beginning of a causal pattern. The way they communicate is projected as a major factor in student learning. Students' previous learning, their intelligence and other abilities, their temperament and personality, their trait motivation to learn, and their initial affect for the content to be studied are other causal factors in this process. These and other student factors, as well as other factors in the instructional process which are beyond the control of the instructor, produce the error component of this theory. That is, regardless of how the instructor communicates, students will vary greatly in the achievement of the intended (and unintended) outcomes of the instruction. Thus, this theory of instructional communication is not expected to predict all of the variance in instructional outcomes--it only seeks to predict that for which the instructor's communication is responsible.

Step One--Instructors' Communication Choices

This theory of instructional communication begins with the instructor's communication choices. These choices may be conscious (such as whether to use mediated technologies) or unconscious. We believe many of the actual communication choices are unconscious--the degree to which the instructor is immediate with student, the use of assertive and/or responsive communication behaviors, use of techniques to make the instruction clear and understandable for the student. However, such choices may be made consciously by instructors who have instructional communication training or have developed an understanding of such elements in another way. 

To the extent that such choices are made unintentionally, other factors are involved. This suggests other causal factors are operative. We believe these factors primarily involve the temperament and personality of the teacher. While these elements are not critical element of this theory, it is important that we consider them.
Communicator traits, including temperament and personality, have long been the subject of communication research, as well as research in psychology and psychobiology. For most of the past century, some psychologists have suggested that personality is a learned orientation. Others have suggested that these traits are genetic in origin. Over recent decades, scholars have debated about the diversity of personality traits. Most scholars now agree there are between three and eight dimensions of personality, normally referred to as "temperament." Three of these temperament dimensions have been determined to be genetically based (Gray, 1990, 1991). In 1990, Eysenck concluded that extraversion (E), neuroticism (N), and psychoticism (P) are the genetic bases of individuals' behavior. The three components measure the degree to which a person is cooperative and sociable (E), fearfully avoids (N), and is hostile or aggressive (P).

A number of recent studies employing the communibiological paradigm have determined that Eysenck's temperament variables are highly associated with several communication orientations/behaviors. These include nonverbal immediacy (Cole, 2000), socio-communicative orientation/style (Cole & McCroskey, 2000), shyness (McCroskey, Heisel, & Richmond, 2001), verbal aggressiveness (Beatty & McCroskey, 1997), communication apprehension (Beatty, McCroskey, & Heisel, 1998), and a wide variety of others (McCroskey, Heisel, & Richmond, 2001).

Eysenck's instruments in these studies are used as surrogate measures of neurobiological functioning, hence represent genetically-based brain systems. Relationships between the temperament measures and the measures of communication orientations (apprehension, shyness, verbal aggression, etc.) indicate the degree to which temperament and communication orientations stem from a common cause--brain systems. Hence, it is important to understand that it is not temperament which causes communication orientations/behaviors. Rather, the same brain systems are the cause of both temperament and communication orientations/behaviors. Psychobiological scholars suggest that the manifestation of temperament traits is primarily through "social interaction," or what would be called in this field "communication."

While there is not unanimous acceptance of the genetic explanation for personality or temperament, for the purpose of this theory it is not essential that we choose one explanation over the other. Whether temperament traits are inborn or learned, they manifest themselves though communication choices. Instructors' communication choices, then, to a large degree are manifestations of their temperament. Hence we should expect instructors' choices for instructional communication to be, at least in part, manifestations of their temperament.

Step Two--Student Perceptions

Perceptions of Instructor Communication Behaviors. Instructor communi-cation behaviors are a causal element in their students' perceptions of the instructor's communication behaviors. While in an ideal world, we might expect these relationships to be perfect, there are also many factors which may cause students to misperceive instructors' behaviors. Students' expectations, students' biases toward the instructor, students' attitudes toward the subject matter, the instructional environment, and many other elements can introduce error in these reports. Research reported by Andersen (1979), however, indicates strong correlations exist between student perceptions of instructor behavior and trained independent observers' perceptions. Thus, while there is error introduced when student perceptions of instructors' communication behaviors are taken as indications of actual instructor communication behaviors, there is evidence of the validity of those perceptions is at least as strong as perceptions of trained observers.

Perceptions of Instructor Credibility. Instructor communication behaviors are a causal element in their students' perceptions of the instructor's source credibility. If the student has been exposed, either in person or vicariously, to the instructor previous to the instruction, of course, their perception of the source credibility of the instructor may have already been established. This may introduce error in our theoretical model. Nevertheless, this theory suggests that the communication behaviors of the instructor will influence the students' perceptions of the source's credibility. 

An alternative to this theory is that the causal path will be from instructor choices of communication behaviors, to student perceptions of those communi-cation behaviors, to student perceptions of the instructor's credibility. This suggests, of course, that the perceptions of source credibility would be considered to be a third step in the theoretical process. Subsequent research is needed to determine which causal path is correct or whether there is more than one path in operation.

Step Three--Instructional Outcomes

Instructor communication behaviors are a causal element of instructional outcomes. The theory predicts that instructional communication behaviors will influence student evaluations of the teacher, their affective learning, and their cognitive learning. Once again, there are many factors which may have direct impact on instructional outcomes. These have been noted previously. Thus, it should not be expected that instructional communication behaviors can predict all of the variance in these outcome variables.

This theory predicts a direct impact of instructor communication behaviors on instructional outcomes. However, it may well be that this influence passes through students' perceptions of those behaviors and/or students' perceptions of the instructor's source credibility. Research is needed which tests these alternative causal paths. 

A Preliminary Study

This study was designed to test the instructional communication theory which we advanced above at an extreme level. That is, only the extremes of the model were included--Instructors' self-reported temperament and student reports of their cognitive learning. All of the mediating variables discussed above were ignored. This produced a design that would nearly maximize the likelihood of rejection the general theory rather than confirmation the theory. The only non-conservative choice in the design was the use of extroversion to represent instructor temperament. Extroversion was chosen because it has been the element found to be associated with the most communication variables in previous research (McCroskey, Heisel, & Richmond, 2001). Since the design of the study employed a "by class" design involving only 52 instructors, the power of the test to find statistical significance for very small effects was low. Similarly, the decision to use cognitive learning as the outcome variable was influenced by the fact that this is the outcome variable for which the least variance has been accounted for among the outcome variables in previous research, but one that is considered by most instructional communication scholars as a very important outcome.

It should be recognized therefore, that given the number of steps in this theorized causal chain, much error can be introduced from the starting point to the outcome. Hence, the results of this study are a very conservative estimate of the impact of the first step on the last. However, if our theoretical base is correct, it still should result in a significant positive relationship. Hence, a single hypothesis was advanced: 

H1 Student-perceived cognitive learning is positively correlated with self-reported teacher extroversion. 



Participants included 52 instructors and 626 undergraduate students at a large Mid-Atlantic university. Class size ranged from five to twenty-five and involvement in the study was voluntary and anonymous. Participants provided data in accordance with the university's Institutional Review Board.

Data Collection

The instructor of each class was asked to complete a measure of extraversion, while the students in each class received a questionnaire asking them to rate their perceptions of their own cognitive learning. Surveys were administered by the same individual for all classes. All classes completed questionnaires within a two week time period between midterm and finals.


Cognitive Learning. Cognitive learning was measured by a self-report instrument which required students to respond to two items (Richmond, McCroskey, Kearney, & Plax, 1987). The first item asked students, "On a scale of zero to nine, how much did you learn in this class, with zero meaning you learned nothing and nine meaning you learned more than in any other class you've had?" The second items asked, "How much do you think you could have learned in this class had you had the ideal instructor?" By taking the score from the first item and subtracting it from the second item a "Learning Loss" score was created. This score represented the criterion variable in the present study. Since higher scores on this measure indicate more loss of learning as a function of the instructor, a negative correlation between this score and temperament indicates a positive relationship. Results of studies using this instrument have obtained test-retest reliability estimates of from .85 to .88 (McCroskey, Sallinen, Fayer, Richmond, & Barraclough, 1996; Richmond, Gorham, & McCroskey, 1987; Chesebro & McCroskey, 2000). The validity of this instrument in terms of association with cognitive recall of learned information has been established (Chesebro & McCroskey, 2000).

Extraversion. Extraversion of teachers was measured using the ten-item instrument developed by Eysenck and Eysenck (1985) and employed a three point response format (1 = Strongly disagree, 2 = Neutral/Undecided, 3 = Strongly agree). Only one of the extraversion items was reverse coded, primarily because the set of items was derived from factor analysis and nine of the highest loaders were phrased such that agreement indicated extraversion. Eysenck and Eysenck's (1985) extraversion measure has been used extensively and its validity and reliability are well established. Cronbach's alpha has been found to range between .80 and .82 in most studies. It was .78 in the present study. The validity of this instrument was established by Eysenck by correlating it with activation of brain systems.

Data Analysis

Since the design of this study involved individual instructors and collections (classes) of students, responses from students in each class were aggregated to generate a mean learning loss score for each class. Thus, there were 52 class means which could be correlated with 52 teacher extroversion scores. A simple Pearson correlation was computed to test our hypothesis.


Our hypothesis predicted the teacher extroversion would be positively related to student-perceived cognitive learning. The obtained correlation between teacher extroversion and student-perceived learning loss was -.27. In this case, the negative correlation indicates increased extroversion is associated with more cognitive learning (less loss). Our hypothesis was supported.


While a correlation of the magnitude observed here certainly cannot be considered large, it is important to recognized the complex process which we have theorized would produce such an effect. We believe this is an extremely conservative estimate of the true association between an instructor's temperament and learning outcomes. 

Since our hypothesis based on our projected causal pattern was confirmed, there is reason to believe this pattern exists in college classrooms. However, it certainly does not prove the whole theory to be correct. Future research needs to test this theory at each step so as to determine the existence and size of the relationships theorized. Ultimately, research is needed which is designed to permit formal causal analyses which can enable a full evaluation of the theory.


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Copyright (c) K. M. Valencic, J. C. McCroskey, V. P. Richmond. Publication Date, 1/1/2005