Conditions Associated with Classroom Conflict

Students can and do regularly disrupt the classroom. Sometimes they are openly hostile, challenging the teacher’s authority and objecting to course requirements and classroom policies. More often, the conflict grows out of their inattentiveness and passivity. They arrive late, leave early, talk during class, and don’t even bother to hide their boredom.

Faculty researchers (reference below) wondered whether characteristics of courses and instructors might be associated with conflict. They also wondered whether instructors’ preparation and caring attitude toward students related to the presence or absence of students’ disruptive behaviors. And they were curious as to how instructors went about resolving conflict and whether they perceived the techniques they used as being successful.

To find answers to these questions and to document whether the differences between hostile and inattentive conflict were real, they surveyed a national sample of psychology professors. Faculty who completed a 71-item questionnaire were asked to answer while thinking about a single course they had taught recently in which they experienced a high level of student conflict.

Analysis of the survey results documented a number of important findings. First, the hypothesis about there being two different kinds of conflict was confirmed. Second, “we found that the amount of conflict that faculty reported was actually unrelated to many characteristics of courses or instructors.” (p. 183) In other words, things like the instructor’s gender, race, age, years of teaching experience, full-time versus part-time status, and class size did not relate to the amount of reported conflict. These findings are at odds with some previous research that has documented that students tend to challenge the authority of female professors and faculty of color more often than they challenge white male faculty. Other research results do not find correlations between instructor characteristics and such things as student ratings of instructor effectiveness.

However, these researchers did find some interesting correlations between instructional methods and conflict. For example, “the use of lecture correlated directly with inattentive classroom conflict. On the other hand, using discussion or active learning related inversely with inattentive classroom conflict.” (p. 182)

Hostile conflict—as in challenging, open resistance—was found to be related to “whether faculty expressed care toward students, communicated respect, behaved sensitively, and remained warm and engaged.” (p. 184) Faculty who did not approach students in these ways reported higher levels of conflict. And these faculty behaviors were also found to be most effective at reducing conflict. The researchers describe these methods as “working alliances” and report results that suggest faculty build them when they attend “to the emotional bonds that exist in the classroom,” when they promote “a common sense of purpose when teaching,” and when students are treated respectfully despite agreements. (p. 185) Even though more than 61 percent of this sample reported that they ignored conflict and the behaviors associated with it, this strategy was related to poorer outcomes.

In sum, based on these findings, faculty are well advised, yet again, to take seriously their relationships with students. In this case it seems that an ounce of prevention may well be worth the pound of cure.

Reference: Meyers, S.A., Bender, J., Hill, E.K., and Thomas, S.Y. (2006). How do faculty experience and respond to classroom conflict? International Journal of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education, 18 (3), 180–187.