Written by Will Thurston Class of 2019
Although college classrooms may be considered formal learning environments, they are not immune to disruption. Undergraduate and graduate instructors are faced with the same types of student behavior problems that exist in other settings, such as high school classrooms. College students may come in late, text during class, and even openly challenge their professors. Mirick (2006) reviewed research about classroom problems and reactance theory and identified a set of strategies instructors can use to reduce disruption and improve interaction with students.
Reactance theory is based on the idea that individuals have a set of freedoms in mind that they are focused on protecting. For instance, a student may believe he has a certain amount of free time in his schedule, and when his professor gives a surprise homework assignment, he may feel that his freedom is being threatened. His response may involve attempts to regain his freedom, which could include refusal to complete the assignment. Additionally, his reaction may include an increase in classroom incivility, which Mirick describes as being comprised of two primary forms:
• Dissent; or disagreement about instructor decisions or behaviors
• Resistance; or opposition to the instructor’s directions, policies, and decisions
Specifically, classroom incivility may look minor, such as tardiness or texting in class; it also may escalate to disruptive behaviors like sleeping in class, refusal to complete assignments, and open arguments with the instructor. These behaviors can undermine an instructor’s confidence and lead to an environment of anxiety and stress.
In order to reduce these problems, the researcher suggests a set of behaviors which include increasing instructor immediacy (perceived closeness between the instructor and students), legitimacy, and clarity of requests. Additionally, decreasing controlling language and persuasion attempts in favor of emphasizing the student’s power of choice have been shown to reduce reactance.
Instructor immediacy involves practices like moving throughout the room during lectures, learning students’ names and personal details and smiling and making eye contact. These behaviors reduce the perception that the instructor is at a higher level of power than the students, which makes it less likely that students will attempt to resist the instructor’s requests. Professors can increase their legitimacy by explaining the reasoning behind learning certain topics or why class policies have been set. Mirick encourages instructors to consider the nature of their students when establishing legitimacy – for instance, first-year undergraduate students may warrant more explanation as they are not used to the college classroom environment. Clarity of requests simply involves making sure that students understand exactly what is asked of them and the scope of the tasks they are required to complete. This reduces the change that a student will be surprised at the difficulty or effort involved with a task – which can be conceptualized as a threat to that student’s personal freedoms – and so will be less likely to react negatively.
Softening controlling language and using words like might or could is less likely to inspire reactance than words like must or need to. Also, emphasizing suggestion rather than persuasion can give students a better concept of their freedom of choice and lower the chance that they will be prompted to react against instruction. This may involve an explanation of the benefits and consequences of certain decisions, and a clear but polite suggestion on what might be the best course of action.
There are some limitations to this literature review and the ability of instructors to control student reactance. Some unchangeable factors, like race and gender, are associated with higher classroom incivility and cannot be directly addressed by the suggestions in this review. However, the researcher explains that reactance caused by those factors may still be reduced by these practices. More research is needed in classrooms to determine the most effective methods of reducing classroom incivility.
Mirick, R. G. (2016). Reactance theory: A model for instructor communication in the classroom. Scholarship Of Teaching And Learning In Psychology, 2(3), 219-229. doi:10.1037/stl0000063 http://psycnet.apa.org/journals/stl/2/3/219/
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