Creating a Positive Environment for Learning: Lessons from the Research of Braxton and Bayer

L. E. Olson

For the past several years, I have been systematically reviewing the literature related to scientific norms and how those norms are expressed in practice. In conducting those literature searches, I have occasionally found references to studies examining norms associated with college teaching. In this context, "norms" are considered to be guides to appropriate and inappropriate professional behavior. Although most of the studies focus on the teaching of undergraduate students, the results are fairly generalizable.

Between 1989 and 1995, John Braxton and Alan Bayer surveyed biologists, mathematicians, psychologists and historians (n = 949) at research universities, liberal arts colleges and two-year community and technical colleges . They developed a survey instrument containing126 questions that focused on behaviors involved in course planning, the first day of class, in-class behaviors, course content, assessment practices, faculty-student in class interactions, relationships with colleagues, and out-of-class practices. The behaviors were described and respondents were asked to rate the behavior on a 5 point scale ranging from "appropriate" to "very inappropriate". Questions about institutional teaching objectives and personal and institutional characteristics were also included.

Specific behaviors that had a mean value of 4.0 or greater (i.e. "inappropriate behavior to be handled informally" or "very inappropriate behavior requiring formal administrative intervention") were classified as "inviolable norms". The resulting 33 behaviors were analyzed by factor analysis to identify patterns in the responses. Seven categories were identified that most faculty agreed represented inappropriate and unprofessional behavior: condescending negativism, inattentive planning, moral turpitude, particularistic grading, personal disregard, uncommunicated course details, and uncooperative cynicism.

Specific behaviors that had a mean value between 3.0 and 3.99 (i.e. between "mildly inappropriate, to be ignored" and "inappropriate to be handled informally") were classified as "admonitory norms". Factor analysis of these 53 prohibited behaviors yielded nine clusters: advisement negligence, authoritarian classroom, inadequate communication, inadequate course design, inconvenience avoidance, instructional narrowness, insufficient syllabus, teaching secrecy, and undermining colleagues. These behaviors were considered inappropriate and unprofessional, but didn?t rise to the level of "inviolable" based on faculty responses.

Because six of the seven behaviors in the "inviolable norms" category related to issues involving student welfare, Braxton, Bayer, and Noseworthy conducted a follow-up study to determine whether undergraduate students held similar beliefs regarding the six inappropriate teaching behaviors . The authors chose to survey undergraduate students at class II comprehensive colleges and universities and class I and II liberal arts colleges, all of which were associated with a Protestant religious domination as a stringent test of their hypotheses. The students failed to identify five of the six clusters as representing inviolable norms, although the results were compromised by a low response rate (831/4200 or 19.8%). The only cluster on which there was agreement between the students and the faculty in the initial survey was the cluster representing "moral turpitude". Questions in the moral turpitude cluster referenced sexual relations with an enrolled student, suggestive sexual comments, and teaching while intoxicated.

The largely negative results led the authors to conclude that students would be unlikely to detect, and therefore unlikely to report, incidents of teaching-related faculty misconduct. They therefore propose deterrence rather than detection as the mechanism of social control of teaching wrongdoing and suggest that a possible means of deterrence would be for institutions to develop and promote a statement of Student Rights and Expectations.

The authors conclude by listing potential elements that could be included in such a statement. These elements recast the inviolable norms identified in the 1999 study in positive terms and are presented as "student rights for a positive environment for learning". They include

  1. the right to instruction based on adequate preparation and planning by the instructor;
  2. the right to expect a faculty member to be interested in, and demonstrate commitment to, the role of teaching;
  3. the right to receive substantive course content and the opportunity to attain course objectives as specified by the published course description;
  4. entitlement to a just, fair and nonauthoritarian classroom environment;
  5. freedom to express one?s opinion and to challenge those of the instructor;
  6. the right to confidentiality;
  7. the right to know the system on which one is to be graded and to be fairly rewarded for one?s course accomplishments or mastery of the course material;
  8. entitlement to access to the instructor outside of class time; and
  9. the right of students to evaluate their course and instructor."

Although professional students represent a highly motivated and carefully selected group of "former undergraduate students", they too deserve an environment that is conducive to learning. While the replacement of old Sisson Hall went a long way in that regard, it is still probably useful for faculty to reflect on the above list, which serves as a reminder of good practices as the new academic year begins.