Communication Currents

Exploring College Student Anti-Citizenship Behavior: An Alternative Form of Classroom Misbehavior

October 1, 2015
Instructional Communication

As anyone who has taken a college course can attest, expectations exist for how students should talk and behave in the classroom. Whether stated in the course syllabus or relayed through day-to-day communication between instructors and students in the classroom, it is common for instructors to expect their students to participate in activities and contribute to discussion, ask appropriate and relevant questions, take notes and pay attention, complete assignments in a timely manner, and communicate in a respectful manner.

At the same time, instructors and students have expectations for how students should notcommunicate in the classroom, namely because these messages and behaviors can be destructive or disruptive to the classroom environment. This type of communication behavior is what my colleagues and I have recently termed studentanti-citizenship classroom behavior, which we consider to be the verbal and nonverbal communication behaviors in which students intentionally engage for a specific reason, regardless of whether it is articulated to their instructors or their classmates, that disrupt the flow or function of the learning environment.

What makes this behavior problematic is that any student in the learning environment can be affected by anti-citizenship classroom behavior—: the student who engages in this behavior, the student who witnesses this behavior, or the student who is the direct target of this behavior. Because of this, when any student engages in anti-citizenship classroom behavior, it somehow affects all students’ involvement in the instructional process.

To examine the influence of student anti-citizenship classroom behavior in the college classroom, in spring 2015, we conducted five focus groups composed of 47 undergraduate college students. We were interested in obtaining answers to two specific questions, the first of which inquired about the types of anti-citizenship classroom behavior college students report using. Our focus group participants reported using four general types of anti-citizenship classroom behavior, which we labeled as participatory, technological, physical, and etiquette.

  • Participatory anti-citizenship classroom behaviorpertains to student attempts to contribute to class discussion, whether through making jokes and sarcastic remarks, dominating class discussion or avoiding class participation, or arguing with instructors.
  • Technological anti-citizenship classroom behavior centers on student use of technological devices such as cell phones, iPads, or laptop computers for non-class purposesduring class time, leading students to listen or watch the activity for extended periods of time, sometimes unconsciously, rather than focus on class.
  • Physical anti-citizenship classroom behavior refers to student movements that draw others’ attention away from class, such as students arriving late or leaving early while the class is in session, packing up belongings, or fidgeting and acting restless during class.
  • Etiquette anti-citizenship classroom behavior encompasses student behavior that deviates from classroom norms and involves a lack of basic courteous behavior, such as having side conversations with each other, eating in class, reeking of alcohol or smoke, and littering.

Our second question asked about the reasons college students report engaging in anti-citizenship classroom behavior. Our focus group participants attributed their reasons for engaging in anti-citizenship behavior to both instructors and themselves.

  • Instructor-attributed reasons focus on how the ways in which instructors communicate with their students contribute to student use of anti-citizenship behavior. These reasons include ineffective teaching style (e.g., presenting monotone lectures, reading directly from the textbook), followed by instructor unprofessionalism, poor classroom management, poor relationships with students, failure to challenge or engage students, and enforcement of mandatory attendance policies.
  • Student-attributed reasons center on the feelings and attitudes participants hold about classroom instruction as well as their own behaviors. These reasons include course apathy, perception that the course is irrelevant, difficulties concentrating (e.g., having ADHD, struggling to focus throughout class), busy schedules (i.e., multitasking), and social reasons (i.e., social inclusion, attention seeking).

We also were interested in whether students considered the presence of anti-citizenship behavior to be detrimental to their learning, their motivation to study, and their satisfaction with communicating with their instructors. To explore this idea, we asked a group of 319 undergraduate students about this relationship. Indeed, we found when students perceive their classmates as engaging in participatory, technological, physical, or etiquette anti-citizenship behavior, they report reductions in their learning, motivation, and satisfaction.

From these findings, we offer four recommendations for classroom instructors. First, because not all students will consider the participatory, technological, physical, or etiquette behaviors to be detrimental to the instructional process, instructors should consider reviewing these types of anti-citizenship behavior with their students beginning on the first day of class and continuing well throughout the semester. By highlighting this behavior and reminding students about its disruptive nature, reducing the likelihood students will engage in this behavior is possible.  

Second, because some students are more likely to engage in anti-citizenship behavior when they perceive their instructors as either lacking the basic pedagogical skills associated with teaching effectiveness or appearing uninterested in getting to know them on an interpersonal level, we propose instructors take a proactive stance toward reducing their students’ tendency to use anti-citizenship classroom behavior by managing their classrooms in a way that promotes student collaboration, facilitates the development of a supportive and connected classroom climate, and emphasizes a shared responsibility between themselves and their students.

Third, it is important to realize the presence of anti-citizenship classroom behavior negatively affects students’ academic performance and can work against instructors’ efforts to help their students to learn. When this behavior occurs, instructors should address it immediately by gently calling the misbehaving student’s attention to the behavior and calmly stating its use is distracting to their classroom learning.

Fourth, we recommend instructors pay attention to their own classroom misbehaviors. By doing so, instructors can prevent their students from becoming apathetic, viewing the course as irrelevant, or labeling the instructor as unprofessional, all of which are reasons that students engage in anti-citizenship classroom behavior.

About the author (s)

Scott A. Myers

West Virginia University