Saturday, 16 June 2012

Students Behavior in Classroom


Why is Civility in the Classroom Important?

     Some of the social goals of the college experience are the building of social relationships, enhancing the art of communication, and developing respect for other people; all of these skills are developed to some degree in the classroom (Kirk, 2005).  These are important factors for success in the world of work, family, and community, as well as emotional and mental health and well-being.  Civility in the classroom is necessary for optimal learning.  “Students who frequently observe classroom incivilities may spend less energy thinking critically during the class and be less engaged with the course material afterward” (Hirschy & Braxton, 2004, p. 72).  Collaborating with students in the process of defining what is appropriate and inappropriate in the classroom helps students explore their own feelings and experiences of how the behaviors of others affect their learning experience and vice versa.  Morrissette (2001) points out that "…students are short-changed when lectures are needlessly derailed by disruptive and inappropriate behavior" (p. 4).
     Student incivilities are not the only behavioral issues that disrupt learning; faculty behaviors have a direct effect on student learning as well.  Braxton and Bayer (2004) offer an "analytic schema" that reflects how "deviant faculty behavior affects one's teaching performance and classroom environment [and] student learning," while "deviant student behavior affects faculty member's classroom performance [and] other students' learning opportunities" (p. 5).   Braxton and Bayer (1999) highlight the reciprocal effect that faculty and student misconduct have on one another and how this impacts faculty and student performance.  In this reciprocal process, respect, courtesy, and appropriate behavior runs in the directions of the relationships of student to faculty, faculty to student, and student to student.  Incivility has been defined as "the intentional behavior of students to disrupt and interfere with the teaching and learning process of others".
"Is it My Imagination or Are Students Behaving Worse These Days?"
     Although the topic has not been researched thoroughly, there is a slow rumble among faculty that students are behaving worse today than they have in the past.  Some place the blame on stereotyped factors about the "Millennial Generation," those students graduating from high school in 2000 and beyond: parents were too lenient or too overprotective; little discipline in the elementary or secondary schools due to part apathy and part fear from teachers; a generation of high tech, low attention span, immediately-gratified young adults.  Boice (1996) indicates that his five-year study of classroom civility showed incivility is “more common than uncommon … occurring in more than two-thirds of the courses I tracked,” and was observed much more often in the classes of professors whom students perceive as “distant and demanding".
  Consequently, faculty may have the experience of facing behaviors linked to a diagnosed mental or emotional illness in students who would have previously been unable to attend college.  These students face unique challenges in adjusting to the college or university setting (Berman, Strauss, & Verhage, 2000).  This is not to say that professors should expect poor behavior from these students, or even to expect less of them in terms of appropriate behavior.  Hernandez and Fister highlight the importance in distinguishing between rebellious or emotional behavior: “Rebellious disruptive behaviors seem to be intentional, defiant, annoying, and disrespectful,” and “ [While] emotionally disruptive behaviors may also have annoying or disrespectful qualities, these behaviors seem to be unintended and to be precipitated by underlying emotional distress”.
     Kounin (1970) lists several reasons that professors may not address uncivil behavior, including lack of appropriate skills and administrative support, apathy among colleagues when faced with similar issues, and fear of losing control or appearing inept when faced with disruptive student behavior.
     Civility issues have also been said to arise from the mindset of "student-as-customer" that is common in the business of higher education today.  In this frame, students are the paying customer and their right to act in ways that might be considered uncivil (but not harmful to others) is more important than the professors' right to discipline.  All of these factors have some degree of irrationality and some degree of truth and will be discussed further.
Student Incivility Issues
     The following is a list of some commonly observed student behaviors perceived as disruptive or uncivil:
·         Limited attendance, tardiness, and leaving class early     
·         Participation (too much or too little)
·         Eating in class
·         Cell phone and pager use                                               
·         Inappropriate computer use
·         Disrespectful interactions (with professor or other students)
·         Interrupting the professor or other students
·         Chatting among students
·         Reading newspapers or non-class material
·         Sleeping in class
·         Derogatory comments toward other students related to race or culture; vulgar language or gestures
·         Preparing for the end of class before the professor is finished. (Kirk, 2005).
     Another area in which problem behaviors can arise involves team projects, a popular teaching concept in today's college classroom.  “Using teams in the classroom allows students to develop skills in leadership, communication, negotiation, and decision-making” (Kirk, 2005, p. 147).  To make team projects as meaningful as possible, it is important to understand which behaviors can cause disruptions.  The most common complaints arising out of team projects is the teammate who does not complete his or her share of the work or who does their share poorly.  As with other academic expectations, setting clear standards for behavior and participation for team projects and enforcing these promptly will eliminate many problems.  One suggestion is to have students provide peer and self evaluations at the midpoint of a project so problem behavior can be addressed and corrected before the team breaks down. Another might be to have the team turn in a “progress report” at midpoint that identifies each member, their tasks, team progress, and individual progress, and to use this at the end of the project for peer review as well.  Including civil behavior as a graded part of the team project will encourage that behavior and help students develop successful team skills (Kirk, 2005).
Faculty Incivility Issues
  Students who misbehave create a chaotic environment; faculty who do not have standards for acceptable civil behavior or who do not take immediate and consistent action to enforce set standards contribute to the chaos.  Braxton and Bayer (1999) cite seven "inviolable norms" that students may observe regarding faculty behavior, including "condescending negativism, inattentive planning, moral turpitude, particularistic grading, personal disregard, uncommunicated course details, and uncooperative cynicism" (p. 21).
     Morrissette (2001) suggests "uncivil student conduct in the college/university classroom can be reduced and/or eliminated when faculty assume a proactive stance, reflect on their contributions to hostile interactions, and employ practical prevention strategies" (p. 4).  In addition, there are certain expectations that students rightfully have of professors and the classroom experience.  These include:
·         Clear expectations from the first day of class
·         A commitment to stick to the syllabus and schedule as much as possible
·         A respectful, caring attitude toward students
·         Staying on task, being organized, and knowing how to use equipment in the classroom
·         Avoiding favoritism
·         Knowing the subject material and keeping up-to-date on changes or new material
·         Making subject presentation interesting and as interactive as possible
·         Understanding diversity issues (knowing the students and their cultural differences)
·         Providing reliable contact information and being conscientious about maintaining availability at the times indicated
·         Being reasonably prompt in responding to student e-mails or phone calls (letting students know what reasonably prompt means)
·         Encouraging students to give feedback on what is working well and what is not (during the course rather than just at the end). (Kirk, 2005)

Survey of Observed Classroom Behavior at the University of Arkansas
     The purpose of the survey on classroom behavior is to establish classroom environments that enhance student learning and to identify behaviors that inhibit student learning.  To gauge the types of disruptive behaviors and the intensity of their effects on peers and professors at the University of Arkansas, surveys were developed that reflected observed behaviors from three perspectives: student to student, faculty to student, and student to faculty.  The research findings shared the classroom behaviors perceived as most disruptive within the university community based on survey results.  A pre-packaged presentation will be developed to assist faculty with establishing classroom standards of behavior at the beginning of each semester
Methodology
     A survey research tool was developed with the assistance of the Survey Research Center (2006).  The Survey Research Center developed the survey for distribution online and collected and analyzed the results.  Surveys were sent to 1,219 students representing a random sampling of the population, including undergraduate and graduate students.  This first survey addressed fourteen observed behaviors of students by fellow students as well as observed behaviors of faculty by students.  A letter informing students of the survey was sent in advance of their distribution.  This was followed by four e-mail contacts to allow for ample opportunities to participate in the collection of student experiences.
     A second survey was distributed to all faculty to obtain information on observed uncivil behaviors of students in the classroom.  The process for distributing and collecting the response was the same as for students: one pre-survey letter, followed by four e-mail contacts with survey site information and instructions.
   The behavior most commonly indicated as very disruptive to both faculty and students was verbally abusive or disrespectful comments students make toward themselves or others, as well as vulgar or insulting language or gestures.  A significant portion of students found lack of personal hygiene very disruptive.  Chatting, whispering, or talking in class was indicated as moderately disruptive to an average number of both students and faculty.  Preparing to leave before class ends, leaving or otherwise interrupting class before the end, and the use of electronic devices during class was considered disruptive to both faculty and students, however, faculty rated these behaviors as more disruptive than students.  Students interrupting their classmates or dominating class discussions was rated as disruptive to many students, but this was not considered as disruptive to faculty.  Sleeping, eating, or reading newspapers or magazines in class was not rated as disruptive by the majority of students.  Regarding the behaviors rated on the surveys overall, faculty judged the surveyed behaviors slightly more disruptive than students. 
     Several comments, both by students and faculty, indicated that “disruptive” did not accurately represent their feelings on the behaviors outlined.  Suggestions that might have more accurately captured perceptions included using identifiers such as disrespectful, rude, disgusting, or inappropriate.  Also, some faculty indicated some difficulty in rating behaviors due to the absence of an indication of frequency.  These faculty indicated that they did consider many of the identified behaviors disruptive when they occurred or if they were to occur, but indicated that they had never experienced these behaviors in their classes, had only experienced the behaviors rarely, or had classroom directives or rules that prohibited such behaviors.
     Students rated the following faculty behavior regarding preparation and classroom environment as very important: explain assignments and expectations clearly, teach using appropriate and current knowledge of subject matter, be approachable and open to receiving questions and concerns, be prepared for class, be respectful toward students, strive to make learning innovative and interesting, maintain a classroom environment conducive to learning, provide reliable contact information and responses, and provide prompt feedback on work completed.  Students indicated that an absence of these behaviors and actions did or could lead to an increase in disruptive behavior due to boredom.
     An interesting outcome occurred in the “comment” section of the faculty rating of student behavior.  Many faculty emphasized that they experienced little or no disruptive behavior because they took preventive measures to avoid these issues.  These measures included relaying clear expectations and consequences to students at the beginning of each semester verbally and through the syllabus, as well as providing immediate feedback and consequences when such behavior did occur.  This falls in line with the research found in the literature review for this paper; prevention is the best deterrent and clear communication is necessary for both faculty and students to maintain a civil classroom atmosphere. 
     Female faculty identified several behaviors as mildly more disruptive than male faculty; these included students chatting, whispering and/or talking in class, one or more students dominating classroom discussions, reading newspapers or magazines or sleeping during class, preparing to leave and leaving or interrupting before class is over and, disruptive behaviors affecting the teaching experience.  Male faculty identified eating in class as mildly more disruptive than perceived by female faculty.  Faculty of color indicated the behaviors of eating, reading newspapers or magazines, and chatting, whispering and/or talking in class mildly more disruptive than white faculty perceived them; the opposite was true for the students dominating classroom discussion.  While this survey provided rich descriptive data to capture student and faculty perceptions on what is disruptive behavior, the survey did not ask questions to provide insights to the effects of frequency of behaviors, or of cause as to why one group perceives certain behaviors as more disruptive than others.  Further research is needed in those areas to provide a more complete picture.
     Other demographic factors such as students’ race or gender, class size, number of hours students worked per week, and class load for students and faculty showed no statistically significant relevance in relation to disruptive behaviors.  Again, this survey only addressed descriptive data and not frequency of behaviors.
Recommendations to Address Classroom Incivility
     Several approaches may be taken to decrease incivility in the classroom.  One effective and innovative step toward the reduction of classroom incivility is to hold frank discussions regarding civility issues with students and faculty.  An example of this would be to have discussion or focus groups that include students and faculty to identify disruptive or uncivil behavior and how it affects the classroom setting and the learning experience.  This gives a chance for all perspectives to be heard, for topics of disagreement to be discussed, and for students to have the opportunity to participate in the reasoning and consensus process.  Civility is a sister to ethics, a topic that is hotly debated (and often rationalized for personal gain) in business, government, and personal lives today.  Engaging students and faculty in conversations regarding the "why" of civility can help to lead to a buy-in of civil behavior.  Faculty may help this process by following several suggestions for effective student/faculty communication: model the use of civil language and behavior; acknowledge cultural differences and practice empathy; teach the "language of disagreement" (such as respectful listening and the avoidance of negative or threatening language); and engage students in the discussion of uncivil behaviors and collaborate with them to develop solutions (Heinemann, 1996). 
     Before writing up a syllabus or contract that includes behavioral expectations, professors must determine what is of personal importance regarding civil behavior.  It is not helpful, nor will it likely be effective, to set expectations on behavior without relevant rationale.  Explain to students why certain behaviors are not acceptable to the professor and to students.  It is just as important to list behaviors the students can expect from the professor and why.  Caboni, Hirschy, and Best (2004) highlight the importance of reflecting on “such student characteristics as gender, race or ethnicity, class standing, and membership in a social fraternity or sorority” as acceptable behavior may vary among these groups and peer pressure has a strong effect on how students perceive incivility (p. 61). 
     If using a behavioral expectation contract, review it with students and ask for signatures of acceptance and understanding; if they refuse, the rules are still in effect.  This is an effective way to handle the syllabus as well, whether behavioral expectations are included or not.  Having students sign an "I read and understand…" agreement will help to avoid the "I didn't know…" syndrome (Kirk, 2005).  Several professors at Western Illinois University developed a contract, used it with their classes, and then surveyed the students to evaluate its effect; 57% stated the contract and its resulting outcome on dissuading disruptive behavior was helpful (Bartlett, 2004, p. 1).   
     Establish the "class culture" the first day of class (informal, formal, lecture, interactive, combination, etc.).  Settle issues such as how to address the professor and students, what the behavioral and academic expectations are, how failing to meet these expectations will be addressed, and other items in that first class period.  Attempt to use uncivil behavioral situations as a teaching experience.  For example, discuss how cell phone usage during class distracts students and the professor and how talking about personal business in a public setting is inconsiderate and unacceptable in the workplace.  Morrissette (2001) advises the use of peer evaluations and reframing potential conflicts as a way to increase student involvement in the process of defining and setting standards for appropriate behavior and teaching conflict resolution.
     It is important for professors to document repeated disruptive behaviors.  If a student’s disruptive behavior progresses to the point of violating the student code of conduct or requiring outside intervention, written proof will need to be provided.  Resources that are helpful for professors when faced with a disturbing or complex incident include talking with seasoned professors who can provide impartial guidance, utilizing the services of an ombudsperson (or judicial office if necessary), and/or reviewing professional material relevant to the situation.  Hirschy and Braxton (2004) suggest that “On-going training should be available to assist instructors and staff in identifying and addressing disruptive behavior when (or shortly after) it occurs” (p. 73)
     Large classes present unique civility issues and solutions.  Students may feel that their attendance is unimportant or less important in large classes but studies repeatedly show that attendance is a good predictor of grades (Kirk, 2005).  Several suggestions might be helpful for problem behavior in large classes.  One would be to make attendance count as part of the final grade.  This can be achieved by having students sign in with their name and another individual identifying factor or using material outside of the text or from guest speakers on tests. 
     Because large classes are primarily lecture oriented, it can be challenging to keep students’ attention.  Students indicate that certain faculty behaviors increase the likelihood of keeping attention.  These include: moving around the classroom, asking questions, providing anecdotal material that has personal relevance for students, having a sense of humor, and making the learning as interactive as possible (Kirk, 2005).  It can be helpful and informative to invite students to give feedback two or three times during the semester (this could be an attendance taker as well). 
     In large classes, it is tempting to ignore behavioral problems because of the sheer number of students and the amount of time it could take to address them.  The trade-off in ignoring these behaviors is that the professor is penalizing students who truly want to learn, as well as indicating that behavior is not relevant and that students and the classroom environment are not respected (Kirk, 2005).  As outlined above, setting clear expectations for civil behavior in the first class, verbally and in writing, and addressing behavioral problems as soon as they arise, lets students know civil behavior is important and relevant, both in and out of class.    
     Civility must matter to students if it is to be made important in the classroom.  Perlmutter (2004) emphasizes that "… offering practical reasons for being civil is not enough.  We have to win students' hearts as well as their minds" (p. 2).
     There are several ideas about why faculty avoid addressing or correcting uncivil behavior in the classroom.  These include:
·         Not being taught skills in this area
·         Not feeling secure that their actions will be supported by superiors
·         Feeling guilty about disciplining students when they remember their own behavior in the classroom (this might be especially relevant for newer and younger professors or teaching assistants)
·         Observing apathy among colleagues in this area
·         Feeling embarrassed about not being able to control a class or a student
·         Believing it takes time away from teaching
·         Fear of losing control in front of students or with a student
·         Believing students should know how to behave by the time they get to college
·         Wanting to be liked (wanting to get good evaluations) (Kirk, 2005)
     It would be ideal if these issues were addressed in detail in graduate classes, as well as in an orientation setting for new professors, and in continuing education or seminars that focus on effective teaching practices.  One venue for this lies in the programs provided by the teaching and faculty support centers.  Initial presentations on the subject of classroom civility sparked interactive discussions and helpful suggestions among faculty, along with the desire to further address the issue. Another idea might be to identify several professors known for excellent classroom environments and asking them to be available for consultation for those who are struggling in one or several areas.  This might work best if the consultation is set up in an anonymous fashion.
     Knowledge of cultural and gender differences in perceived and real acceptable behaviors must be gained to address civility issues in a way that is relevant to, and effective with, all students. There are several venues in which cultural differences are explored on campus, but it may be helpful if this subject is addressed in the classroom with respect to civility.  Also, teachers who fall into a minority category (if they have a majority class makeup) are more likely to face power struggles with students and it is wise to address this at the beginning of the semester when discussing expected behavior.  Alexander-Snow suggests that "a powerful teacher is attuned to the classroom dynamic or teaching situation and employs immediacy behaviors such that all participants feel valued and empowered".
     The University of Arizona created a humorous but meaningful video on the subject of classroom civility.  Discussion among University of Arkansas faculty and staff indicates that a tool like this would be helpful and would provide civility information to students in a manner that is interesting and conducive to further discussion.  Further inquiry into the production of such a video will be conducted.
Conclusion
     Student learning may be impaired in an environment that is interrupted by uncivil or disruptive behavior.  Both faculty and students suffer consequences when this behavior is left unchecked.  The University of Arkansas survey results indicate that the behaviors most commonly perceived as disruptive include verbally abusive or disrespectful comments students make toward themselves or others, as well as vulgar or insulting language or gestures.  These behaviors are not acceptable in the classroom and would not be acceptable in the workplace as well.                                                                                                     
     Faculty have the ability and responsibility to set clear expectations for civil student behavior in the classroom as well as consequences for disruptive behavior, along with   ensuring courses are interesting and engaging.  Students have the responsibility to treat faculty and each other with respect and dignity and the right to be protected from uncivil behavior in the classroom.  Proactive planning in form of written and oral communication on the first day of class, along with an interactive discussion about the reasons for classroom civility, will establish the class culture from the beginning.  Prompt attention in addressing civility issues will indicate the importance of creating a safe and productive learning environment.  Civility, both inside and outside the classroom, should be an important standard as college students move through the education experience and prepare to enter the workforce and new social environments.

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