Having reviewed strategies and examples of autonomy-supportive teaching practice in 3.1, you may well ask whether teaching for student wellbeing is just the same as effective or good teaching. In many ways, autonomy-supportive teaching and effective teaching do overlap significantly.

In his influential book, “What the best college teachers do”, Ken Bain identifies six common characteristics that are shared by recognised excellent teachers across various disciplines. These are outlined below.

We found that the best teachers usually have a strong faith in the ability of students to learn and in the power of healthy challenge, but they also have an appreciation that excessive anxiety and tension can hinder thinking.
Ken Bain, p.2005, p.96

What do effective teachers do?

How teachers design curriculum and what they do to facilitate learning inside and outside the classroom has a powerful affect on student motivation and the approaches they adopt to learning (see read more). As outlined below, the common practices of effective teachers also supports the mental wellbeing essentials of autonomous MotivationBelonging, positive RelationshipsAutonomy, and Competence.

Effective teachers, Bain explains, “know how to simplify and clarify complex subjects, to cut to the heart of the matter with provocative insights, and they can think about their own thinking in the discipline” (p.16). Students develop a deeper understanding of the subject when teachers help them to find connections with, and apply the concepts and skills they are learning to, their lives and work. In addition, deep learning is fostered when students become aware of their own relevant prior knowledge, misconceptions, beliefs and values – and to unlearn, as needed (Angelo, 2012).
Excellent teachers adopt an inquiry-based approach to their teaching, and ask fundamental questions such as:

  • What should students be able to do as a result of my teaching?
  • How can I best help and encourage them to develop those abilities?
  • How can I help students understand the quality and progress of their learning?
This means helping students to set and maintain realistically high and personally meaningful learning goals and expectations for academic success, and encouraging them to invest adequate time and effort in their academic work (Angelo, 2012). It also means looking for and appreciating the individual value of each student, and their different needs. Effective teachers recognise that no single approach can work for every students and adopt a variety of approaches to cater for the diversity among students (Bain, 2005). They also help students to learn how to study effectively, so that they become increasingly self-directed learners.
This involves stimulating students’ interest in the subject by getting them to confront complex questions or important problems, and do authentic tasks that challenge them to grapple with new ideas, rethink their assumptions and examine their existing views. It also means creating an environment in which students feel they have some control over their learning, where they are encouraged to work collaboratively, where they feel their work will be considered fairly and honestly, and an environment in which they make mistakes, fail and receive feedback before any summative assessment (Bain, 2005).
Student appreciate teachers who are relatable, approachable and who display openness about their own experiences in the discipline. This may include openly discussing their interest and curiosity in the subject, as well the challenges and frustrations they have experienced in grappling with complex ideas. Bain’s research identifies “a strong trust in students” as being a quality reflected by highly effective teachers. These teachers believe that their students want to learn and assume until proven otherwise, that their students have the ability to learn (Bain, 2005).
Excellent teachers have a systematic approach to assess their own efforts in teaching, often by looking at student learning and the extent to which the objectives have been met. In other words, they consider assessment of student learning and evaluation of their teaching as being close related. Early on in the course good teachers try to find out as much as possible about their students, to explore their ambitions and approaches to learning, as well as what existing skills and mental models they brought with them. Throughout the course, they continue their efforts in getting to know their students — to find out how they are progressing and what changes could be made to better support their learning (Bain, 2005).

These six common practices of effective teachers lead to enhanced student engagement in learning and support the mental wellbeing essentials, particularly Motivation, Competence, and Autonomy. 3.5 Good Practice Examples provides examples of strategies used by educators to enhance feelings of Belonging and positive Relationships.

Research snapshot 3.2: Student motivation, learning and wellbeing

For university educators, there is strong incentive to consider the psychological impacts of teaching practice: learning outcomes are also improved when the importance of student mental wellbeing is recognised. Key points from the literature:

  • The social dimensions of a learning environment influence the motivation that students experience – autonomous or controlled (Black & Deci, 2000).
  • Students who have autonomy-supportive teachers show educational and developmental benefits including: greater engagement, higher quality learning, enhanced intrinsic motivation, enhanced well-being, and higher academic achievement (Su & Reeve, 2011)
  • Students’ autonomous motivation has been shown to be enhanced when learning tasks are optimally challenging – that is, when tasks stretch students but are within their range of competence (Deci & Ryan, 2000; Pintrich, 2003b); when learning tasks are designed around students’ interests (Schraw & Lehman, 2001); and when students are able to collaborate on tasks with others (Su & Reeve, 2011).
  • Teachers can also support autonomous motivation by taking the perspective of their students, offering opportunities for choice, being receptive to students’ questions and ideas, and making learning relevant to students’ lives and work (Wijnia, Loyens & Derous, 2011).