March 29th, 2012

Students on Incivility in the Classroom

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We know from the literature, and more directly from conversations with colleagues, that most college teachers are concerned, annoyed, frustrated, and occasionally angered by the way students behave in the classroom. But are these behaviors of concern to other students in the classroom?

A survey of more than 3,600 students at a public university in the Midwest provides an answer to that question. After reviewing previously published work on incivility in the classroom, faculty researchers identified 23 uncivil classroom behaviors. The list is included in the article. Students were asked, “To what degree do you consider the following behaviors to be uncivil?” Respondents ranked each behavior by using a five-point Likert-type scale, with 1 being not uncivil and 5 being extremely uncivil.

Four of the 23 behaviors had means above 4.0. They were continuing to talk after being asked to stop (4.50); coming to class under the influence of alcohol or drugs (4.45); allowing a cell phone to ring (4.14); and conversing loudly with others (4.09). Nonverbally showing disrespect for others followed closely, with a mean of 3.94. The two behaviors ranked lowest were nose blowing (1.72) and yawning (1.88). Just above them was eating and drinking, with a 2.03 mean.

Some of the midrange behaviors, those not of great concern to students in terms of classroom civility, still do compromise the climate for learning in the classroom and therefore must be of concern to teachers. Examples include using a PalmPilot, iPod, or computer for nonclass activities, with a 3.25 mean; getting up during class; leaving and returning (2.99); doing homework for other classes (2.88); and reading nonclass material (2.70). Although students may not consider these behaviors seriously uncivil, they are behaviors indicative of a lack of engagement with the content of the class.

Students were asked to respond to a second question that inquired about the frequency with which the behavior was observed. As might be guessed, texting topped the list, with a 4.00 mean. It was followed by packing up books before class is over (3.76), yawning (3.47), and eating and drinking (3.39). Those behaviors observed least often included coming to class under the influence of alcohol or drugs (1.65), continuing to talk after being asked to stop (1.97), nonverbally showing disrespect for others (2.04), and making disparaging remarks (2.06).

A Pearson product moment correlation calculated between the mean ratings of the degree of incivility of student classroom behaviors and the means ratings of the frequency of these behaviors was significant at minus 0.46. “This negative correlation demonstrates that the most egregious classroom behaviors are perceived to be occurring less frequently.” (p. 17)

The faculty researchers make this observation in their discussion section. “Whatever approach an individual faculty member or administrator takes, the rationale for addressing the behavior can be squarely located not in the individual’s personal preferences or idiosyncrasies, or even in the perceptions of faculty generally, but in the perceptions of students. Faculty or administrators can have greater confidence that they are indeed addressing classroom behaviors that may interfere with learning.” (p. 17) Said more succinctly, when it comes to classroom incivility, students and faculty are pretty much on the same page.

Reference: Bjorklund, W. L. and Rehling, D. L. (2010). Student perceptions of classroom incivility. College Teaching, 58 (1), 15-18.

Reprinted from The Teaching Professor, 25.1 (2011): 4.