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
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?
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.
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 &
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).
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.
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
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Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Dr.
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Canonical Correlation Analysis of Perceived Instructor Communicative
Characteristics and Student Conflict-handling Styles
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]