Communication Currents

“And Justice for All”: Fairness in the College Classroom

December 1, 2010
Instructional Communication

Fair treatment appears to be a universal concern, yet little is known about how perceptions of unfairness are fostered in the college classroom through verbal and nonverbal messages. Thus, our study aimed to identify college students' perceptions of unfair behaviors enacted by teachers and students' behavioral and emotional responses to unfairness. Through our study of 138 college students, we found that students expressed multiple fairness concerns in the college classroom: distributive (e.g., students perceived that the outcome or resource given out by the instructor was unfair), procedural (e.g., students perceived their instructors engaged in an unfair course-related process), and interactional (e.g., students perceived their instructors communicated with them or other students in an unfair manner). Our findings show that students perceived procedural unfairness most often.

Naturally, as educators we work to promote fairness perceptions in the classroom. This begs the question of which behaviors stimulate perceptions of unfairness. Students most frequently identified instances of distributive justice pertaining to grades, followed by opportunities to improve grades, instructor attention/liking, and punishment. One student explained that most students got an exam question wrong, despite basing their answers on information communicated during the instructor's lecture, and the instructor still penalized everyone. For procedural justice, grading procedures were identified as the most common form of unfair teacher behaviors, followed by make-up/late policies, scheduling/workload, information for exams, feedback, instructor error, breaking promises, class procedures, and not enforcing policies. One student expressed frustration with the perception that instructors were more lenient in assigning grades to some of his/her classmates than to others. For interactional justice, insensitive/rude comments were the most frequently cited instance of unfairness, followed by implying stupidity, sexist/racist/prejudiced remarks, singling out students, accusing students of wrongdoing, and instructor affect. A student explained that he/she always said “hello” and “Have a nice day” to his/her teacher, but the teacher never responded to those comments, even though he/she responded to similar comments from other students.

Instructors should be aware of how fair their behaviors are perceived by students, as we found that students report a variety of emotional and behavioral reactions to perceived unfairness. Students reported feeling a wide range of emotions including anger, pain, stress, powerlessness, and frustration. Behaviorally, students reported complaining to others, including other teachers and supervisors, communicating hostility toward instructors, as well as withdrawing from the class. Despite perceiving the unfair behaviors, some students reported simply accepting the instructor’s action and doing nothing. This acceptance/inaction is likely due to the power differential that exists between teachers and students. Students may believe they have no choice but to comply or accept the instructor’s behaviors. Clearly, these reactions have the potential to hurt classroom climate, student attention, and ultimately, learning and productivity.

Results of this study allow the general conclusions that students are keenly aware of fairness in the classroom and, importantly, that fairness is a perception fostered through communication. Applying these findings to everyday instructional settings, we suggest the following: First, teacher training programs should emphasize the main types of student fairness perceptions in the classroom and students' reactions. Second, whenever presenting or grading assignments, teachers should think of and incorporate ways in which they can promote perceptions of fair practices. One way to accomplish this may be to have students write their names on the back of assignments so that teachers' assessments of students' work is “blind.” Third, because students recognize and are offended by what they perceive to be insensitive interpersonal treatment from instructors, teachers should communicate with students in a respectful and polite manner. Fourth, instructors should be clear as to what criteria will be used to assess student work. This could include distributing a list of exam objectives or offering specific assessment criteria that will be used to grade student work. Finally, we encourage instructors to solicit students’ opinions regarding how teachers can improve fairness perceptions in the classroom.

Collectively, results of this study are consistent with a line of classroom communication research documenting that students are aware of fairness in the classroom and react to perceived unfairness.  College instructors should continually work to convey messages that foster perceptions of distributive, procedural, and interactional fairness. However, it is important to be mindful that, despite students' concerns, what some students identify as “unfair” may still be in the best interest of students. We encourage instructors to consider students’ fairness concerns, along with their own goals, standards, and personal beliefs, in negotiating their classroom communication practices. Effective instruction involves a balancing act of promoting fairness in the classroom, while maintaining academic rigor. By doing so, instructors may be better able to achieve both the relational and rhetorical goals of instruction.

About the author (s)

Sean M. Horan

DePaul University

Assistant Professor

Rebecca M. Chory

West Virginia University

Associate Professor

Alan Goodboy

West Virginia University

Associate Professor