How to Build Bridges, Not Walls, With Your Fellow Students

How to Build Bridges, Not Walls, With Your Fellow Students

A recent article in the Wall Street Journal, Why Co-Workers Don't Like You, talked about reasons why people are judged in the workplace and includes negativity, poor etiquette, messiness, and not fitting in. These factors contribute to a decline in productivity in the long-run and build walls between employees. As I read this article, I thought about the behaviors in the college classroom that result in negative perceptions and poor communication among students. More importantly, these behaviors are indicative of a larger issue of incivility in the classroom that has become a growing concern for educators and schools. While these behaviors are often addressed by instructors, some schools are developing specific policies to ensure a civil classroom environment.

Incivility in the Classroom

In the Journal of Adult Education, Michael W. Galbraith and Melanie S. Jones provide three definitions of incivility: “Galbraith (2008) suggests that incivility occurs when the rules of conduct are broken by students and teachers. Feldman (2001) defined incivility (2001) as any action that interferes with a harmonious and cooperative learning atmosphere. Ferris (2002) indicates that the lack of decorum, manners, deportment, and politeness indicates the presence of incivility” (p. 2). I’m certain that most students (and educators) can provide a list of incivility examples. Here is a list of broad categories that include the use of technology, poor etiquette and disruptions, and negativity.

1. Using Technology During Class

It is not uncommon to observe students sending text messages during class, multitasking on their laptop as they are taking notes, and on occasion – taking a call. A 2009 study conducted by researchers at Stanford University found “that students who were chronic media multi-taskers were more easily distracted.” Clifford Nass, a communication professor, noted that this distraction has a long-term effect on “students’ concentration and learning.”

Fang-Yi Flora Wei, assistant professor of broadcast communications at the University of Pittsburgh at Bradford, completed a study about the effects of sending text messages during class and reached the same conclusion that “students who send and receive texts during class have a hard time paying attention to lectures and risk not learning.”

Students can become easily distracted and miss learning opportunities if they develop a need to continually check email or social networking websites for updates during class. Some students become so involved in multi-tasking that they continue doing so, even during group activities. In my post, Are Online Students Addicted to Technology?, I discussed Internet addiction, which is viewed as a compulsive behavior. It is easy to tell when students are addicted to the Internet and technology – simply ask students to unplug during class and watch some suffer the pain of withdrawal.

2. Poor Classroom Etiquette and Disruptions

Some of the most common etiquette issues and disruptions that educators talk about at the college where I teach include disrespect by students towards others, interrupting others while they are talking, leaving class early, side talking, sleeping, being tardy to class, and making sarcastic comments. Stephanie Rankin, Assistant Dean of Students at Elizabethtown College, describes the importance of classroom etiquette and indicates that a college is a “relationship institution and classroom etiquette matters,” and it is a “place for manners and treating others with dignity.” While most students demonstrate these qualities towards their instructor, possibly due to a perception of authority, some students disregard giving that same respect to other classmates.

3. Negativity

There’s nothing that puts a damper on the classroom atmosphere more than a student who is negative and has a long litany of complaints – about life, the school, or their classwork. My post, Why a Positive Attitude Matters for Online Students, is relevant for all students, because negativity is generally the result of a poor attitude. Your attitude is also a reflection of your self-image and a negative disposition can quickly derail your efforts to interact effectively with others. To create a positive self-concept about yourself and attitude about learning, look for sources of inspiration and motivation, stay focused on your goals, and visualize completing everything you have set out to accomplish.

How Do Instructors Respond to Negativity/ Incivility?

Cynthia Schubert-Irastorza and Suzanne Evans of National University co-authored a presentation, Successful Strategies for Dealing with Difficult Adult Students, and reminded instructors that “in order to promote learning, faculty members have a responsibility to ensure civil and respectful behaviors in the classroom (Feldman, 2001).” They discussed the need for prevention and intervention strategies. Educator Justin Marquis Ph.D. in his post, Taking Advantage of “Disruptive Technology” in the Classroom, addressed instructors who become a “victim of disruptive technology in the classroom.” To deal with this situation, Dr. Marquis suggested that “while you will never prevent all interruptions, a second, more subtle solution is to embrace this disruptive technology and incorporate it into your teaching.” This is a thought-provoking preventative approach to managing this type of interruption. Instructors must provide the frontline defense for disruptive behaviors and be proactive in promoting classroom civility.

Most instructors will establish ground rules and expectations for class behavior. They are often stated in the class syllabus, along with the school’s code of conduct. When there are disruptive behaviors in the class, instructors often take a heavy-handed approach and come down hard on the offending students, or they may do nothing and believe that the problem will eventually go away. My approach is to treat college students as responsible adults and hold them accountable for their actions, just as they would be held accountable in the workplace, by upholding an expectation of mutual respect in the classroom. I also encourage students to ask questions and develop open communication with them, so they can express concerns and frustrations with me instead of tuning out of the class. I also conduct one-on-one discussions with students when there is a behavioral issue that must be addressed.  
 
How Do Schools Address Civility?

Classroom civility has been such a prominent issue that many schools are starting to respond through projects, policies, and procedures. In the following video, Randall J. VanWagoner, Ph.D., President of Mohawk Valley Community College, discusses the need for civility in the classroom.

Dr. VanWagoner defines civility as courtesy and politeness, civilized conduct, and mutual respect for one another. He indicates that disrespect is common in society and that problem is reflected in the college environment. VanWagoner’s college has started a civility project that focuses on maintaining civility in student to student, student to professor, and colleague to colleague relationships. The college is offering training workshops for students and faculty to identify behaviors, along with ways of including civility into their daily lives to address these issues. VanWagoner concludes that civility will never lose its worth as it benefits all aspects of our lives.

Dr. Dustin Swanger noted in his blog, Civility in a World of the Entitled, that colleges also have to make their expectations of acceptable behavior on campus clear, model that behavior, and enforce these expectations.” He further addressed the relationship of civility in the classroom to civility in society in general, and indicated that “society thrives when everyone demonstrates respect for each other, treats each other courteously, and places the needs of others equal to his own.” This is an excellent observation. In business courses students are often taught about the need for good customer service. They can learn what it means to be empathetic and understanding of customers by being civil to other students in their class.
 
Some colleges are creating and adopting specific sets of policies to address this issue. The Gordon Ford College of Business adopted a Student Civility Code that is referred to as Student Academic Citizenship. This code can serve as a model for other schools to follow as it states:
“We value the inherent worth and dignity of every person, thereby fostering a community of mutual respect. We believe that in order to achieve these ideals, all students are expected, while in the role as student or representative of the university and college, to exhibit and practice civil behaviors that exemplify:
1. Respecting faculty, staff, fellow students, guests, and all university property, policies, rules and regulations,
2. Taking responsibility for one’s choices and actions,
3. Accepting consequences of one’s inappropriate choices and actions,
4. Communicating in a professional and courteous manner in all forms, and at all times, whether verbal, non-verbal or written.”

It will be interesting to follow the effects of these codes after they are implemented by schools, to determine how the codes are upheld and enforced. Since most interactions occur in the classroom, it will be up to instructors to identify and report any violations of the codes.

How Do You Respond?

One of the methods of managing your classroom relationships effectively is to develop your emotional intelligence. In my post, Why Emotional Intelligence is Needed More Than Ever, I indicated that for college students, this is a skill that can enhance your school work and improve your relationships with others. Whether your instructor or school addresses all class behaviors through actions or policies, civility and respect start with you. The goal of acting civilly in the classroom is to promote meaningful communication, avoid interfering with the learning process, and developing skills that are immediately transferrable to all aspects of your life.

Follow Dr. Bruce A. Johnson on Twitter @DrBruceJ or Google+

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