CAMBRIDGE, England — Students are more likely to stay in school if they receive encouragement from their teachers more than anyone else, a new study finds.

Researchers at The University of Cambridge discovered that a teacher’s praise has the greatest influence on whether less advantaged children continue their education past the age of 16.

The study is the first to look at the long-term implications of how the rapport between students and teachers affects university attendance.

A new study finds that a teacher’s encouragement has the greatest influence on less-advantaged students who opt to stay in school.

“Teachers are often relegated to course deliverers and classroom managers in the policy discussions around further education. However, it’s clear that teachers have more forms of influencing inequality than is currently appreciated,” says study author Dr. Ben Alcott, of Cambridge’s Faculty of Education, in a university news release.

“When people speak of a positive school experience, they frequently cite a personal relationship with a teacher, and the encouragement they were given,” he adds. “Our research helps quantify that impact and show its significance, particularly for addressing social mobility. The importance of that teacher-student connection can get lost in the midst of exam statistics or heat of political debate.”

Alcott and his team studied 4,300 adolescents in England over a period of seven years starting at the age 13, having them complete a questionnaire about their schooling each year. In their final year of compulsory education (students in England may leave after they turn 16), the questionnaires asked whether a teacher had encouraged the children them to stay in school full-time.

He found 74% of students who received encouragement were more likely to remain in school, compared to 66% for students who did not receive a boost from their educators. He also saw a 10% increase in tenth graders continuing on to college as a result of teachers’ encouragement.

Alcott compared the educational and socioeconomic histories of the students and their families to compare results among children from similar backgrounds and focus on the influence of teacher encouragement.

The greatest impact was seen for students who had parents with lower levels of education, as well as students with average academic achievement. Children with parents who had completed higher education were less likely to report teacher support as a reason to continue on.

Interestingly, he found students who had a parent with a college degree were actually 7% more likely to receive encouragement from their teachers than students who did not; while students who did not have a parent with a college degree were a third more likely to receive no encouragement from their educators.

“These results suggest that teachers themselves and the relationships they develop with students are real engines for social mobility,” says Alcott. “Many teachers take the initiative to encourage students in the hope they will progress in education long after they have left the classroom. It’s important that teachers know the effect their efforts have, and the children likely to benefit most.”

The study was published in the journal Research in Higher Education.

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