May 7th, 2012

Disposition Development: A Neglected Voice for the Pursuit of Excellence among College Students


Have you ever wondered what motivates students to come to class without reading and studying the assigned chapter? You are not alone! Faculty members across the nation are becoming increasingly challenged by students’ lack of dispositions that enhance learning. Every discipline has learning standards and achievement expectations that help drive students’ success. However, such expectations do not equal success. It is the motivation to pursue excellence, a work ethic that reflects the determination to solve problems, the attention to the smallest details, and the desire to be the very best that distinguishes students who make a difference in their given professions.

Unfortunately, many students miss class, come in late, fail to read and study assignments, text message during lectures, and do not value the body of knowledge shared in class. Such behaviors are influenced by dispositions detrimental to not only their learning, but also to their profession. Faculty members must pay significant attention to those student behaviors critical to the pursuit of excellence and those behaviors that sabotage learning.

Disposition Awareness
Many faculty members assume students enter the college classroom with the disposition to be successful. The reality is many students enter the classroom lacking the dispositions to be successful or make the necessary improvements to positively impact their learning outcomes. Although it’s easy to identify such problems, it is harder to address them. Faculty must find ways to influence students’ thoughts that impact their behaviors and achievement of the body of knowledge and skills sets prescribed by the discipline.

Students’ awareness of disposition development is the first step. They must learn that dispositions involve habits of thinking which influence their actions and behaviors. Explicit instruction about specific dispositions becomes a critical part of such awareness. Students need to know how dispositions, such as initiative, diligence, integrity, responsibility, and determination, influence their actions and behaviors in the classroom and how those actions and behaviors impact their level of achievement and pursuit of excellence.

Developing and Valuing Dispositions
Movement of students from an awareness level to a level where their thoughts become actions requires development. Faculty members must organize not only instruction that addresses the body of knowledge and skill sets, but also the dispositions that help the students’ pay attention, work hard, take risks, and go beyond the expectations. This explicit instruction should naturally integrate with the existing course content and support students’ valuing the dispositions, just as they value their content knowledge. More importantly, faculty must help students reflect on their commitment to transform disposition deficits into disposition strengths. This valuing of dispositions is a necessary part of disposition development. As such, disposition development should become an integral part of the faculty members’ roles and responsibilities; a part that includes explicit discussions and assignments that represent the awareness, development, and valuing of dispositions.

Assessment of Disposition
Formal and informal ways to measure student performance is a commonly accepted practice. We use tests, quizzes, projects and papers to measure the level or depth of knowledge. However, measuring dispositions is uniquely challenging because it is influenced greatly by the social and cultural context in which one lives. In fact, the difficulty in assessing dispositions is what keeps many faculty members from engaging in dialogue about disposition development or assessment.

One solution to consider is a multi-tiered system to include students’ self- assessment and a formal assessment administered by faculty. This allows for students and faculty to reflect on the dispositions that are strengths and dispositions that impair students’ learning and pursuits beyond the classroom. Assessment is an important part of the process. Some would argue the most important factor to consider.

In summary, students’ attention to dispositional development will enhance learning. Such learning should translate into more knowledgeable and skillful practitioners. Those students who internalize or value their dispositional development will more likely reach an optimal level of development. The students will also become more cognizant of the impact the dispositional development has on their pursuit of excellence post-graduation. Subsequently, it becomes critical that faculty take an active role in promoting disposition development and that the voices expressed about professional development no longer be neglected.

Dr. Candice Dowd Barnes is an assistant professor at the University of Central Arkansas. Dr. Janet Filer is an associate professor at the University of Central Arkansas.

11 comments on “Disposition Development: A Neglected Voice for the Pursuit of Excellence among College Students

  1. There is a lot of insight in this article regarding the problem, but how about a proposed solution? "One solution to consider is a multi-tiered system to include students’ self- assessment and a formal assessment administered by faculty." Can you elaborate on this?

  2. I was looking for a proposed solution, too. I thought, "That's so true. What do I do about it?"

  3. I agree……as a matter of fact I began a microeconomics class last fall with a section on metacognition and how to study hoping to help………..I got slammed in my student evals for my 'poor' attitude toward my students…….they did not appreciate my attempt to move them out of their comfort zone it appears………..this article looks like another 'new words' for the same old problem. MOTIVATION 🙁

  4. It would be helpful to have the references used by the authors for this article so the dispositional theories being alluded to can be identified for further exploration. Motivation within higher ed is not a new topic. There are already suggestions for how to address issues related to disposition within the motivation literature. We coudl also look to resources about the affective domain in relation to learning outcomes.

  5. When apparent lack of pursuit of excellence happens in preclinical classes of medical students, it is truly a worry. These students are training to beresponsible for our health; one would hope future physicians would exhibit more outward signs that they care about mastery of the material. However, many medical students exhibit the same behaviors described in this article. Unlike undergraduate courses, medical classes are taught in blocks incorporating a variety of subject materials taught by a variety of instructors and individual instructors have very little input into students' preclinical assessment.

  6. Perhaps the assessment of disposition should take place during the admissions process. I do not see the development of disposition as a faculty responsibility. I see it as a parental responsibility. Institutions of higher education have a fiduciary responsibility to students and therefore, should only be admitting those who are READY, i.e., mature enough and disposed, to begin his/her college education and are able to complete said education and succeed in his/her chosen field. Students who exhibit the kinds of behaviors and scholarly habits described in this article did not develop them the moment they walked onto a campus. These are behaviors and habits such students developed under the tutelage of their parents. Faculty have no roll remediating poor parenting.

  7. The pursuit for excellence is mainly an "inside-out" process not an "outside-in" process. Thus the challenge before the teacher is "how do I invoke the aspiration for excellence" in my students?

  8. This past year I co developed a course in our nursing program and we introduced Marzano and Kendall's taxonomy. It includes the self system and metacognitive systems. I developed some rudimentary questionnaires to begin to engage the students in examining these before and after they began working on each unit. Anecdotal input from the students as the year progressed suggests they began to see the role they played in their learning. The course has to do with teaching patients, and the idea was that if the students could learn to see the relationship and importance of understanding the self and metacognitive systems, that they would likewise consider and engage these same systems in patients when they teach them.

  9. At the beginning of each term that i teach (first day of class), i spend ca. an hour talking to students about their careers as nurses. i take a seat among the students, ask a basic question: Why are you here? Then i ask them to jot down their answers on a poster size sheet, introducing themselves, what is their perspective about how and why they want to be Nurses. I keep the posters in my office, and during the course progress, i remind them of their improvement or lack of, citing their initial commitment. My grade scale is very simple, i tell them: "A" for awesome and that is it. Any grade below that does not fit in my book. i have to stop and counsel them as to why they received less than an "A'. If they are not disposed to succeed from day one, and start playing with their ipods, get low grades and socialize in class, i politely tell them to rethink the first question of the term.

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