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Study Finds Instructors Should Refrain from Self-Deprecation when Trying to Engage Students

October 9, 2013
New Research

Credibility is Key to Keeping Order in the Classroom

Washington, DC  -  A new study finds teachers need to thread the needle between chilly distance and over-exposure of their own foibles if they want to gain the confidence of their students and avoid disruptions in the classroom. The study, “The Relationship of Instructor Self-Disclosure, Nonverbal Immediacy, and Credibility to Student Incivility in the College Classroom,” was published online today in the National Communication Association’s journal, Communication Education.

“Previous studies have shown that students respond to teacher body language, and that they are less likely to disrupt class if they feel engagement from the professor,” says the study’s lead author, Ann Neville Miller, Ph.D., associate professor of human communication at the University of Central Florida. “But trying to get on students’ level by referring to problems in your personal life or foolish things you’ve done in the past is probably going to make them lose respect.” 

Most important to maintaining control of the class, according to the study, is the teacher's credibility—something that can be earned neither by boring students nor by trying to assume a false intimacy with them.

In their study, Miller and her colleagues interviewed 438 students at a large Southeastern university and asked them for opinions of the instructors whose class they had last attended. They were asked to numerically evaluate their professors on a scale between stiff and friendly and to describe what kind of personal disclosures the instructors made in the classroom. The students also were asked to say how credible they found their professors, and to indicate how often they engaged in behaviors such as texting, making disparaging remarks, or packing up books before class was over.  

The researchers found that, in general, a student's beliefs about an instructor's competence and credibility determined the extent to which the instructor's efforts at personal candor or warmth affected the classroom. If students viewed an instructor as credible, the extent of her personal gestures made little difference to the student's feelings about the class, or his or her tendency to act in an uncivil way. 

While creating a warm environment in the class is important, the authors noted, “it appears that instructors who start out revealing negative things about themselves may raise the quotient of incivility in the class. 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.”  

Instructor self-disclosure did not necessarily reduce student incivility, the authors write. Indeed, the most specific guidance that the study provides for instructors is to avoid negative self-disclosure to their classes. Admitting weakness may sound like a good way to seem relevant or immediate to students, but it can backfire if it makes students think the teacher is ineffective or incompetent, Miller said. 

Communication scholars have found that competence, trustworthiness, and caring are key attributes that listeners seek in a speaker. But student perceptions of caring and trustworthiness may derive less from body language than from the conviction that the instructor knows his or her business, the study's authors found.

 “In other words,” they said, “competence is a sine qua non—if it is not clear that an instructor is competent, students will accord him/her only limited credibility of any sort.” 

About the National Communication Association

The National Communication Association (NCA) advances Communication as the discipline that studies all forms, modes, media, and consequences of communication through humanistic, social scientific, and aesthetic inquiry. NCA serves the scholars, teachers, and practitioners who are its members by enabling and supporting their professional interests in research and teaching. Dedicated to fostering and promoting free and ethical communication, NCA promotes the widespread appreciation of the importance of communication in public and private life, the application of competent communication to improve the quality of human life and relationships, and the use of knowledge about communication to solve human problems. NCA supports inclusiveness and diversity among our faculties, within our membership, in the workplace, and in the classroom; NCA supports and promotes policies that fairly encourage this diversity and inclusion.

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