How do Australian students see their teachers?

Sue Thomson

In a year that has seen a great deal of disruption to classes, the relationship between students and their teachers has become far more important. Data from the OECD Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) gives us some insights into this relationship, as most students that were surveyed for PISA 2018 were in the final years of their secondary schooling in 2020.

An important facet to this discussion is the impact of disruption on different types of students and, in particular, this article examines differences between advantaged and disadvantaged students in Australia. A primary goal of every Declaration on Schooling up to and including the most recent Mpartntwe Education Declaration (Council of Australian Governments Education Council, 2019) has been that “The Australian education system promotes excellence and equity”, and commits that “governments and the education community must improve outcomes for educationally disadvantaged young Australians … such as those from low socioeconomic backgrounds” (p. 17).

What is disadvantage in PISA?

The primary measure used by the OECD to represent socioeconomic background in PISA is the index of economic, social and cultural status (ESCS), which was created to capture the wider aspects of a student’s family and home background. The ESCS is based on three indices: the highest level of the father’s and mother’s occupations, which is coded in accordance with the International Labour Organization’s International Standard Classification of Occupations; the highest educational level of parents in years of education; and home possessions. The index of home possessions comprises all items on the indices of family wealth, cultural resources, and access to home educational and cultural resources and books in the home. The ESCS is then split into quartiles: the highest are what are referred to as “advantaged” students, and the lowest quartile as “disadvantaged” students. While it is acknowledged that there are many exceptions to this characterisation, generally there is a strong correlation between socioeconomic background and achievement in PISA (Table 1).

Table 1 Average score by socioeconomic group, PISA 2019


Reading literacy

Mathematical literacy

Scientific literacy








Disadvantaged students







Advantaged students







So, how does this play out in the classroom, and in particular, how do student perceptions of the level of support and the quality of feedback they received from their teachers at that point of time influence how students adapt to the current learning environment?

Teacher support

The teacher-student relationship plays an important part in creating a positive learning environment. When teachers show care and concern for their students, it is more likely that their students will likewise show care and concern in a manner that is reflected in a supportive classroom environment (Lei, Cui & Chiu, 2018; Klem &  Connell,  2004).  Support  from  teachers  is  associated  with  higher  achievement  (Košir  &  Tement,  2013;  Malecki  &  Demaray,  2006), and can have a moderating effect contributing  to  the  success of students from disadvantaged backgrounds (Becker & Luther, 2002).

PISA investigated student perceptions about the extent of the support they receive from their English teachers (or language of instruction teachers in non-English speaking countries). Teacher support was measured by asking students how frequently the following behaviours occurred (every class, most classes, some classes, never or hardly ever) in their English classes:

  • The teacher shows an interest in every student’s learning.
  • The teacher gives extra help when students need it.
  • The teacher helps students with their learning.
  • The teacher continues until the students understand.

On average, Australian students were generally very positive about their teachers. Australian students reported an aggregate score on the teacher support index that, while lower than that of students in the UK, was similar to that of students in New Zealand, Singapore and Finland, and higher than that in the United States, Ireland and most of the East Asian countries.

 However, students in disadvantaged schools did not report the same level of perceived support from their teachers as did students in advantaged schools (Figure 1). The largest difference lay in students’ perceptions that the teacher shows an interest in every student’s learning, with positive (every class, most classes) responses given by 76 per cent of disadvantaged students and 83 per cent of advantaged students. For each of the other teacher support items, there was about a five percentage point difference between the proportion of advantaged and disadvantaged students who said the behaviours occurred in most or every English class.

Figure 1. Levels of perceived teacher support by student socioeconomic background

Teacher feedback

Teacher feedback is also critical to students’ success. Teacher feedback is an essential part of the learning process that provides students with information about their performance or understanding (Hattie & Timperley, 2007). Feedback is associated with stronger performance and higher levels of motivation (Hattie, 2009).

 Teacher feedback was measured in PISA by asking students how frequently (every class or almost every class, many classes, some classes, never or almost never) the following behaviours occurred in their English/language of instruction classes:

  • The teacher gives me feedback on my strengths in this subject.
  • The teacher tells me in which areas I can still improve.
  • The teacher tells me how I can improve my performance.

 While Australia’s score on the teacher feedback index was much higher than the OECD average and that of Japan, Finland and Ireland, among many, it was significantly lower than the average score in the United Kingdom, New Zealand and Singapore. Figure 2 shows students’ positive (every class, most classes) responses to the three teacher feedback items for Australia, the OECD average and the United Kingdom, who achieved the highest score on the teacher feedback index among OECD countries.

Figure 2. Levels of perceived teacher feedback: Australia, United Kingdom and OECD average

Australian teachers seem to be perceived to be relatively good at telling students how they can improve their performance, as the difference between teachers in Australia and the UK is smaller on this measure than on the other items in the scale.

Interestingly, there were some gender differences on this scale, with male students reporting higher levels of feedback than female students. The explanation for this extra support likely rests in the fact that students were asked to report the frequency of teacher feedback received in English classes, a subject in which traditionally females significantly and substantially outperform males. While the differences were fairly minimal on the teacher gives me feedback on my strengths in this subject (50% of female and 53% of males said this happened in most or every English class), they were larger for the teacher tells me in which areas I can still improve (54% of females and 60% of males) or for the teacher tells me how I can improve my performance (53% of females and 59% of males).

The logic of higher levels of teacher feedback being reported by groups with lower achievement fails, though, when examining the differences between Australia’s socioeconomic groups. Instead, far more support is perceived to be offered to students in the advantaged group, which would in effect boost their already substantially higher performance (Figure 3). The differences between socioeconomic groups, which ranged from 8 to 9 per cent, were substantially larger than the gender differences (3 to 6 per cent).

Figure 3. Levels of perceived teacher feedback by student socioeconomic background

Reasons for these differences?

Unfortunately, data from point-of-time studies such as PISA are unable to provide us with answers to questions such as “why do we see these differences?” However, there are further data analyses that can be done that may help shed light on this question.

More than one quarter (28%) of disadvantaged students also attend disadvantaged schools, compared to just 8 per cent of advantaged students. Table 2 shows a very brief overview of some of the differences between advantaged and disadvantaged schools from PISA 2018.

Table 2 Principal’s views on hindrances to providing instruction (Australia)



Disadvantaged schools (%)

Advantaged schools (%)

Percentage of students in schools whose principal reported that the school’s capacity to provide instruction is hindered at least to some extent by:

Lack of teaching staff



Inadequate or poorly qualified teaching staff



Teacher absenteeism



Teachers not well prepared



Lack of educational material



Inadequate or poor educational material



Lack of physical infrastructure



Lack of student respect for teachers



From Australia’s participation in the OECD’s Teaching and Learning International Study (TALIS) in 2018, we also know that Australian teachers in schools with a higher proportion of disadvantaged students spent less time on actual teaching and learning than their colleagues in more advantaged schools. The difference in Australia (of 9.8 percentage points) is the highest in the OECD, and equates to about 6 minutes per hour. With over 1,000 hours of face-to-face time at school, this is substantial. They also spend more time on individual planning or preparation of lessons, and more time counselling students. Given the compounding effect of these problems, as well as the increased workload they have, it’s perhaps not surprising that teachers in disadvantaged schools in particular are somewhat overwhelmed by their job.


Whilst overall the level of support and feedback provided to Australian students from teachers is good, the findings from this report that disadvantaged students perceive lower levels of support and feedback compared to advantaged students is very concerning.  The large achievement gaps (approximately three years of schooling) between students from advantaged and disadvantaged socioeconomic groups will only ever be breached if extra support is provided to those who really need it. With disruptions to the 2020 school year likely to have a stronger negative impact on disadvantaged students, providing increased support for these students is more critical than ever before. 


Becker, B. E., & Luthar, S. S. (2002). Social-emotional factors affecting achievement outcomes among disadvantaged students: Closing the achievement gap. Educational Psychologist, 37(4), 197–214.

Hattie, J. (2009). Visible learning: A synthesis of over 800 meta-analyses relating to achievement. Abingdon, England: Routledge.

Hattie, J., & Timperley, H. (2007). The power of feedback. Review of Educational Research, 77(1), 811–12

Košir, K. & Tement, S. (2013). Teacher-student relationship and academic achievement: a cross-lagged longitudinal study on three different age groups. European Journal of Psychology of Education. 29(3), 409–428.

Malecki, C., & Demaray, M. (2006). Social support as a buffer in the relationship between socioeconomic status and academic performance. School Psychology Quarterly. 21(4), 375–395.


Dr Sue Thomson is Deputy CEO (Research) for the Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER). She provides senior leadership to research staff under the umbrella of Educational Monitoring and Research, across ACER’s ten Australian and international offices. She has led Australia’s participation in TIMSS since 2001, PISA since 2003 and PIRLS since Australia joined the study in 2011. This has involved extensive analysis and reporting on all studies, including full National Reports and shorter briefing papers exploring particular issues. She is an associate Editor of the Australian Journal of Education, and a regular columnist for ACER’s Teacher magazine.

This article appears in Professional Voice 13.3 The new basics.

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