This article was interesting to me because it says so much about professionalism for our teacher education candidates.
Written by: Christy Price in The Teaching Professor, August 1, 2010
In my workshops and presentations to faculty on engaging Millennial learners, I have been surprised how frequently the topic turns to student incivility. It seems everyone can tell a story of flagrant student disrespect. I have trouble relating to these experiences. In any given semester, I have approximately 200 students, and the vast majority of them are extremely cooperative, conscientious, and excited about their learning. In my 18 years of teaching, I have experienced what I would describe as uncivil student behavior in class on only two occasions.
Maybe I’ve just been lucky, but perhaps not? What if there were a formula for preventing or at least minimizing student incivility? Well, pull out your highlighter because, in my research on Millennial learners, I think I may have stumbled upon some answers.
Step 1: Shift your paradigm to prevention.
The first tip: don’t take these behaviors personally. One of my colleagues has suggested the word incivility implies a specific choice or intention on the part of the student. Perhaps it would behoove us to describe these behaviors as “unproductive to the learning environment,” since students often cluelessly exhibit them without realizing how their behavior is perceived and impacts the learning environment. In addition, many faculty are concerned with very specific student types such as the belligerent student, the Neanderthal who makes offensive comments, the know-it-all, the verbal dominator, the class-skipper, the perpetually late, the early leaver, the talker, the texter, the sleeper, the newspaper reader, the Web-surfer, the unprepared, or the student who demands special treatment. We may find ways to successfully respond to and alter each specific behavior, but if we really wish to create a learning environment, we need to focus on holistic measures as opposed to fragmented reactions to specific infractions.
Step 2: Practice verbal judo—producing closeness as opposed to distance.
Recently a colleague relayed a story in which she asked her students to define multicultural education. One student replied, “It is a Marxist plot to undermine public education.” Many of us might be quick to attack this perspective; however, we need to practice what I call “verbal judo.” We need our body language, tone, and words to send a message that de-escalates conflict. The Millennial learners I interview regularly describe antagonistic professorial responses to what they perceive as accidental or minor infractions. There’s a lesson to learn here: never be defensive, reactionary, or express a strongly negative emotional tone with a student. I frequently hear professors describe with bravado interactions in which they criticize, humiliate, deride, and belittle the very people they are charged to teach, develop, and inspire. Every interaction we have with students produces either closeness or distance. The more we engage in distance-producing interactions with students, the more we can expect noncompliance and unproductive student behaviors in return. We may win small battles, but we set ourselves up for losing the war as we lessen our overall ability to assist students in achieving the intended learning outcomes of our courses.
Step 3: Clearly communicate course policies and assignments with rationales and consistently administer consequences.
An ounce of prevention will avert a ton of student angst if we provide rationales and consequences for assignments and policies. If we don’t want students to challenge our grading procedures, a detailed rubric along with the reason for each assignment will clarify what students need to do and go a long way toward preventing student grade challenges after the fact. For example, if we have a policy that students lose points for late assignments, we should provide a policy rationale like this on the course syllabus and assignment rubric: “In order to be fair to students who work to turn in assignments on time, late papers will lose 5 percent for each class day they are late.”
Step 4: Design courses and utilize methods with the prevention of incivility in mind.
I have encountered professors who exhibit a wide range of attitudes and responses regarding specific behaviors such as texting in class. On one end of the spectrum are professors who don’t care if students text and successfully ignore such behaviors; on the other end are those who are disturbed beyond belief, who respond to texting with extremely punitive methods.
It has become painfully apparent to me that our methods play a powerful role in contributing to or averting unproductive student behaviors in the classroom. For example, I recently used my clicker response system to gather feedback from students regarding texting. Of the 77 students polled, 18 percent said they never text in their classes. This was a shockingly low number from my perspective. As for the 63 texters, 87 percent strongly agreed or agreed with this statement: “I text more in classes in which the professor’s main method is lecture and less in those classes where the professor uses a variety of methods such as discussion, group work, cases, and video or multimedia.”
If you peruse the literature on college student incivility, you will find a great deal of evidence that supports these recommendations. Communicating clearly and providing a rationale for class policies, creating closeness as opposed to distance when interacting with students, and using engaging methods will not only lessen student incivility, but will help us achieve our ultimate goal of helping student learn while they are in college.
A condensed version of this article was previously published as an E-xcellence in Teaching column on the PsychTeacher listserv coordinated by the Society for the Teaching of Psychology. It will appear in a collection of essay that maybe found at http://teachpsych.org/resources/e-books/e-books.php.
Contact Christy Price at email@example.com.