How is university different from school, Miss?

November 20, 2008

An apparently growing number of students who address their lecturers as "Sir" or "Miss" may reflect a failure among school students to adjust to higher education.

Philip Frame, a national teaching fellow at Middlesex University Business School, has just embarked on a study to discover why some students choose not to use lecturers' first names after a colleague reported that increasing numbers were adopting forms of address more commonly found in schools.

"I asked them why and they told me it was because it was a sign of respect. But in addressing lecturers in the same way as (they would) a schoolteacher, it seemed to me to indicate that their transition into higher education might not have been as effective as it might have been," said Dr Frame, who is director of work-based learning programmes at Middlesex Business School.

"It suggested (students) saw their lecturer as the fount of all wisdom and (believed that) they could just sit in front of them passively and listen."

Dr Frame decided to conduct a pilot study to explore colleagues' experiences and investigate whether modes of address varied between subject areas.

Dr Frame found that while students of social work and mental health at Middlesex had been advised by their lecturers to use first names in addressing them, the majority of business-studies students used "Dr" or "Sir". One student said: "I believe that there should be that form of respect for lecturers - they deserve it."

However, other students said that being on first-name terms with their lecturer helped to establish "a more comfortable student-teacher relationship", and indicated that their tutor was friendly, open and approachable.

Dr Frame found that most academics preferred students to address them by their first names. It "promotes dialogue without barriers", one said.

Dr Frame now plans to conduct a bigger study.

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