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The relationship between perceived instructor communicative characteristics and college students' conflict-handling styles.
Article Type:
Report
Subject:
Conflict management (Methods)
College students (Behavior)
Teacher-student relationships (Psychological aspects)
Educational psychology (Research)
Authors:
Zigarovich, Karissa L.
Myers, Scott A.
Pub Date:
03/01/2011
Publication:
Name: Journal of Instructional Psychology Publisher: George Uhlig Publisher Audience: Academic; Professional Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Education; Psychology and mental health Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2011 George Uhlig Publisher ISSN: 0094-1956
Issue:
Date: March, 2011 Source Volume: 38 Source Issue: 1
Topic:
Event Code: 310 Science & research
Product:
Product Code: E197500 Students, College
Geographic:
Geographic Scope: United States Geographic Code: 1USA United States

Accession Number:
261080577
Full Text:
The purpose of this study was to examine student use of conflict-handling styles in regard to four perceived instructor communicative characteristics: clarity, relevance, caring, and verbal aggressiveness. Participants were 286 undergraduate students who (a) completed a series of four instruments in reference to a course instructor and (b) indicated the likelihood of using each of the five conflict-handling styles with the same instructor if a conflict arose. The results indicated that students who perceive their instructors as engaging in clarity, relevance, and caring, but not verbal aggressiveness, are likely to use the collaborating and compromising conflict-handling styles with them. Moreover, it was found that students who perceive their instructors as engaging in verbal aggressiveness and, to a much lesser extent, relevance are likely to use the competing and, to a lesser extent, the accommodating and avoiding conflict-handling styles with them. Future research should consider examining the link between students' communicative characteristics and their conflict-handling styles.

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When student-instructor conflict occurs in the college classroom, students often respond by using one of five conflict-handling styles: competing, accommodating, avoiding, compromising, and collaborating (Jamison & Thomas, 1974).These five styles differ in their amounts of assertiveness and cooperativeness (Thomas, 1976); consequently, the use of each style presents a unique way in which students handle a conflict situation (Jones, 1976; Kabanoff, 1987; Womack, 1988). Students who use the competing conflict-handling style (high assertiveness, low cooperativeness) pursue their own concerns, try to win their own position, and handle situations their own way. Students who use the accommodating conflict-handling (low assertiveness, high cooperativeness) neglect their own concerns by attempting to satisfy others and agreeing with others. Students who use the avoiding conflict-handing style (low assertiveness, low cooperativeness) avoid or delay conflict, do not address their concerns or the concerns of others, place the conflict aside, and fail to take a position. Students who use the compromising conflict-handling style (moderate assertiveness, moderate cooperativeness) negotiate and bargain with others as a way to satisfy the needs of both individuals. Students who use the collaborating conflict-handling style (high assertiveness, high cooperativeness) strive to resolve conflict and attempt to satisfy the needs of all the individuals involved in the conflict.

Because researchers have not examined how students use conflict-handling styles in response to perceived instructor communicative characteristics, the purpose of this study was to examine student use of conflict-handling styles in regard to four perceived instructor communicative characteristics: clarity, relevance, caring, and verbal aggressiveness. Clarity is the process through which instructors stimulate the desired meaning of course content through the use of appropriately-structured verbal and nonverbal messages (Chesebro, 2003) and is achieved by structuring information; providing previews, reviews, and summaries; speaking fluently; and staying on task (Chesebro & McCroskey, 2000, 2001). Relevance consists of explicit instructor behaviors that indicate whether the instructional content satisfies students' personal goals, career goals, or personal needs (Keller, 1983) and can take the form of examples and illustrations, the integration of student experiences to demonstrate course concepts, and the inclusion of current events into course lecture and discussion (Frymier & Shulman, 1995). Caring involves the perception students hold about whether instructors are concerned with students' welfare (Teven & McCroskey, 1997) and consists of instructor empathy, understanding, and responsiveness (McCroskey, 1992). Verbal aggressiveness is a message behavior that attacks a person's self-concept in order to deliver psychological pain (Infante & Wigley, 1986) and can take the form of character and competence attacks, teasing, ridicule, threats, and swearing (Infante, 1987).

These four perceived instructor communicative characteristics were chosen for three reasons. First, these characteristics encapsulate the expectations students have for their college instructors. Students expect instructors to teach clearly, use relevant examples, be caring, and avoid verbal aggressiveness (Becker, Davis, Neal, & Grover, 1990). Second, these characteristics are associated with effective classroom instruction. When instructors are clear, relevant, and caring, students report gains in their affective learning and state motivation; when instructors are verbally aggressive, students report a decrease in their affective learning and state motivation (Chesebro & McCroskey, 2001; Frymier & Houser, 1998;Myers&Knox,2000;Teven & McCroskey, 1997). Third, to be effective, instructors must maintain a cooperative learning and working environment (Flavier, Bertone, Hauw, & Durand, 2002). Because conflict impacts negatively the learning environment (Anderson, 1999) and potentially decreases perceived instructor effectiveness, examining the link between perceived instructor communicative characteristics and students' use of conflict-handling styles is warranted. To explore this notion, the following research question is posed:

RQ1: What relationship exists between perceived instructor communicative characteristics (i.e., clarity, relevance, caring, verbal aggressiveness) and students' likelihood of using the competing, accommodating, avoiding, compromising, and collaborating conflict-handling styles with their instructors?

Method

Participants

Participants were 286 students (162 males, 121 females, three students who did not report their sex) enrolled in two introductory sociology courses at a large Mid-Atlantic university who received minimal course credit for their voluntary participation in this study. The ages of the participants ranged from 17 to 37 years (M= 19.34, SD = 1.71). One hundred and sixty-nine participants (n = 169) were first year students, 87 participants were sophomores, 23 participants were juniors, and five participants were seniors. Two participants did not report their year in college.

Procedures

Data were collected toward the end of the semester. Participants completed an instrument packet containing the Teacher Clarity Short Inventory (Chesebro & McCroskey, 1998),the Relevance Scale (Frymier & Shulman, 1995), the Perceived Caring Measure (Teven & McCroskey, 1997), and a modified version of Infante and Rancer's (1986) Verbal Aggressiveness Scale (Myers & Rocca, 2001). Using the methodology advocated by Plax, Kearney, McCroskey, and Richmond (1986), participants completed the instruments in reference to the instructor of the course they attended immediately prior to instrument completion.

Participants then were asked to imagine that they were having a conflict with the referenced instructor. They were provided with a definition of conflict (i.e., a disagreement or problem with something an instructor says or does) and examples of conflict (e.g., disagreement with an exam/assignment grade, problem with the fairness of assignments required to complete). With the identified instructor in mind, students were asked to indicate on a 7-point continuum ranging from unlikely (1) to likely (7) whether they would use each of the five conflict-handling styles. Each conflict-handling style was represented as a paragraph based on the conceptualization of each style (Rahim, 1983; Thomas & Kilmann, 1974).

Instrumentation

The Teacher Clarity Short Inventory is a 10-item scale that asks respondents to report their perceptions of their instructors' use of clarity behaviors. Responses are solicited using a 5-point scale ranging from strongly disagree (1) to strongly agree (5). The Relevance Scale is a 12-item measure that asks respondents to report their perceptions of their instructors' efforts at making course content relevant. Responses are solicited using a 5point scale ranging from never (0) to very often (4). The Perceived Caring Measure consists of six bipolar adjective pairs that ask respondents to report their perceptions of their instructors' degree of caring. Responses are solicited using a 7-point continuum, with numbers closer to one or seven indicating stronger agreement with an adjective. The modified Verbal Aggressiveness Scale is a 10-item scale that asks respondents to report their perceptions of their instructors' verbally aggressive behaviors. Responses are solicited using a 5-point scale ranging from almost never true (1) to almost always true (5).

Results

Prior to analyzing the data, a reliability analysis was conducted on each of the four instruments. For the clarity measure, a coefficient alpha of .89 (M= 39.18, SD = 6.92) was obtained. For the relevance measure, a coefficient alpha of .91 (M = 30.21, SD = 9.57) was obtained. For the caring measure, a coefficient alpha of .88 (M = 31.13, SD = 7.09) was obtained. For the verbal aggressiveness measure, a coefficient alpha of .75 (M = 8.84, SD = 5.68) was obtained.

Canonical correlation analysis was utilized to answer the research question. The four perceived instructor communicative characteristics (i.e., clarity, relevance, caring, verbal aggressiveness) comprised the first set of variables and the five student conflict-handling styles (i.e., competing, accommodating, avoiding, compromising, collaborating) comprised the second set of variables. The analysis revealed two significant roots, Wilks's lambda = .81, F (20,870) = 2.89,p <.001 (see Table 1). The first root, [R.sub.c] = .34, revealed that instructors who are perceived as engaging in clarity, relevance, and caring, but not verbal aggressiveness, have students who are likely to use the collaborating and compromising conflict-handling styles with them. The second root, [R.sub.c] = .25,revealed that instructors who are perceived as engaging in verbal aggressiveness and, to a much lesser extent, relevance have students who are likely to use the competing and, to a lesser extent, the accommodating and avoiding conflict-handling styles with them.

Discussion

The purpose of this study was to examine student conflict-handling styles in regard to four perceived instructor communicative characteristics: clarity, relevance, caring, and verbal aggressiveness. Two general findings emerged. The first finding was that instructors who are perceived as engaging in clarity, relevance, and caring, but not verbal aggressiveness, have students who are likely to use the collaborating and compromising conflict-handling styles with them. There are two plausible explanations for this finding. The first explanation is that when it comes to choosing a particular conflict-handling style in the classroom, students may allow contextual cues to influence their choice of a style. Some contextual clues identified by Callanan, Benzing, and Perri (2006) include the extent to which the issue is perceived as critical by the other party, the degree of cooperativeness that exists between the individual and the other party, and the perceived organizational power of the other party. College students may consider similar contextual cues, such as the issue that prompted the conflict between themselves and the instructor, whether the instructor exemplifies communicative characteristics that suggest cooperativeness, and the hierarchy that exists in the college classroom. As such, students might be likely to use conflict-handling styles which they consider to be appropriate given these cues, such as the collaborating and compromising conflict-handling styles, rather than the style they would prefer to use, the style they would actually use, or the style they habitually use.

The second explanation is that when instructors are perceived to use effective instructional behaviors (i.e., clarity, relevance, caring), students may be hesitant to choose a conflict-handling style (i.e., the accommodating, avoiding, or competing styles) that could be perceived by instructors to be confrontational, to suggest an indifference or lack of interest in the learning process, or to cause a disruption in the classroom climate, particularly if they like the instructor or the course. Desivilya and Yagil (2005) reported that members of medical teams who associate positive emotions with their team members use the collaborating and compromising conflict-handling styles whereas members who associate negative emotions with their team member use the competing and avoiding conflict-handling styles. If Desivilya and Yagil's findings are applicable to the results obtained in this study, students' likelihood of using the collaborating and compromising conflict-handling styles, then, may be due to the result of the positive affect created by instructors when they engage in clarity, relevance, and caring.

The second finding was that instructors who are perceived as engaging in verbal aggressiveness and, to a much lesser extent, relevance have students who are likely to use the competing and, to a much lesser extent, the accommodating and avoiding conflict-handling styles with them. This finding may be due to the notion that students are less likely to cooperate in a conflict when they perceive their instructor as behaving in a disconfirming manner. Perceived instructor verbal aggressiveness is associated with a host of negative outcomes in the college classroom, including a decrease in student affect and motivation (Martin, Weber, & Burant, 1997; Myers & Knox, 2000), a decrease in perceived understanding (Schrodt, 2003), and a decrease in class attendance (Rocca, 2004). Ultimately, instructors who are verbally aggressive with their students indicate a lack of respect for students and is a behavior which violates students expectations of appropriate instructor behavior (Shelton, Lane, & Waldhart, 1999). When instructors are verbally aggressive, students may be more likely to use the competing conflict-handling style (and to a lesser extent the accommodating and avoiding styles) simply as one way to assert their independence or challenge instructor authority.

As with any study, there are limitations that need to be acknowledged. First, this study relied upon students' perceptions of their instructors' communicative characteristics. As with all perceptual measures, the instruments do not account for actual frequencies of behavior. Additionally, over half (59.1%) of the participants in this study were first year students. It is possible that these students have not experienced conflict with an instructor and they may not actually know how they would handle a conflict situation, which may have made it difficult for these students to imagine a conflict situation and therefore influenced their likelihood to use any of the conflict-handling styles. Second, it is possible that students' communicative characteristics affect their likelihood to use a particular conflict-handling style. Future research should consider examining the link between students' communicative characteristics and their conflict-handling styles.

Nonetheless, this study is the first step in addressing the relationship between instructor communicative characteristics and student conflict-handling styles and indicating that students are more likely to choose cooperative conflict-handling styles (i.e., collaborating, compromising) over uncooperative conflict-handling styles (i.e., competing, avoiding) when faced with classroom conflict. In the college classroom, instructors should continue to display the communicative characteristics that students expect in order to maintain a positive classroom environment and to promote cooperative conflict-handling behaviors.

References

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Karissa L. Zigarovich, M.A., Senior Analyst of Strategic Insights & Research, MTV Networks. Scott A. Myers, PhD, Professor, Department of Communication Studies, West Virginia University.

Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Dr. Scott Myers at smyers@mail.wvu.edu.
Table 1
Canonical Correlation Analysis of Perceived Instructor Communicative
Characteristics and Student Conflict-handling Styles

                                             Canonical Loading

         Variables                           Root 1   Root 2

Set 1:   Instructor Characteristics
         Clarity                               .92     -.17
         Relevance.                            .78      .39
         Caring                                .77     -.12
         Verbal Aggressiveness                -.55      .69
         Redundancy Coefficient               [.58]    [.16]

Set 2:   Student Conflict-handling Styles
         Competing                             .09      .74
         Accommodating                         .09      .55
         Avoiding                             -.23      .33
         Compromising                          .54     -.03
         Collaborating                         .99     -.11
         Redundancy Coefficient               [.26]    [.19]
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