Self-deprecating lecturers contribute to unrest, suggests study

By Scott Jaschik, for Inside Higher Ed

October 14, 2013

Lecturers who want to establish classroom connections with their students receive lots of advice. And some experts have over the years advised the use of “self-disclosure”, telling students stories about themselves using self-deprecating humour as a way to make students feel comfortable and to view the instructor as an ally.

Ignore that advice. That’s the recommendation of a study published in Communication Education, a journal of the National Communication Association.

The study was based on surveys of 438 undergraduates at a US university. The students - from across disciplines - were asked about the class they had attended just before taking the survey. And for that class, they were asked both about their instructors and about whether they engaged in certain “uncivil” behaviours, such as packing up books before class was over or texting during lectures. The researchers then compared attitudes the students had about professors and the student’s behaviours.

The study notes that professors’ styles only go so far in predicting whether students will be posting status updates on Facebook or actually paying attention, but they do matter.

“Although it is clear that a range of factors outside of instructors’ control contribute to uncivil behavior in the classroom - such as societal shifts toward student entitlement and students’ being raised in homes where manners are not adequately taught - results of this study indicate that there are at least some things instructors can do to minimize uncivil behavior,” the study says.

“This model, taking into account only instructor-related factors, explained 20 percent of the variance in self-reported uncivil behaviors among our participants - not a huge proportion, but enough to make a noticeable difference to a frustrated teacher.”

Based on the surveys, the paper argues that students are least likely to engage in uncivil behaviour when they view the instructor as having high levels of “credibility”, meaning that through actions and non-verbal cues, the instructor conveys command of the material and the class, a sense of knowing what should be going on in class, and so forth. When students have that confidence level, they are more likely to pay attention.

But while previous studies have stressed the importance of promoting engagement, this one suggests clear limits to such strategies. When students reported that their instructors engaged in a lot of sharing about their lives - particularly stories about past academic mistakes, even stories designed to stress that everyone has difficulty learning some topics - there is an immediate and negative impact on classroom attitudes. First, the students are more likely to engage in uncivil behaviours. Second, the students are less likely to see their instructors as having credibility, and the declines in instructor credibility are also associated with increases in uncivil behaviour.

The authors note that correlation does not necessarily mean causation. But they add that their study runs counter to some conventional wisdom that is widely embraced by instructors trying to connect with students.

“[I]nstructors who start out revealing negative things about themselves may raise the quotient of incivility in the class,” the authors write. “Tempting as it may be for instructors to attempt to warm up students by being transparent about their foibles and excesses, extensive negative self-disclosure should be engaged in with caution.”

The authors are four faculty members at the University of Central Florida: Ann Neville Miller, James A. Katt, Tim Brown and Stephen A. Sivo.

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