Tackling rudeness in higher education

What can we do about rudeness on campus? Amy Irwin's research highlights a complex and cumulatively important problem

Rudeness, insensitive and disrespectful behaviour that defies social norms, is prevalent in most workplaces – with reports suggesting up to 98% of employees will encounter rudeness at some point in their working lives.

Rudeness is considered to be a relatively low level behaviour (when compared to aggression, bullying and harassment) but it can have long lasting and negative impacts on those who experience the behaviour. These effects can range from reduced work performance and productivity to an adverse influence on mental health.

Like any other workplace rudeness can, and does, occur in higher education. Student rudeness can encompass behaviours such as sleeping in class, chatting, texting and acting overtly disinterested (loud sighs, groans, walking out of class). Staff rudeness might include abruptness, belittling comments and arriving late.

The consequences of this kind of behaviour have been reported to include an adverse impact on student satisfaction, motivation and learning. Students may lose respect for the lecturer or tutor if they fail to curb uncivil behaviours. Staff can also be impacted by rudeness in the classroom, beginning to doubt their teaching ability, losing confidence and suffering from increased anxiety and stress.

Although it is clear that rudeness is an issue that needs to be addressed, it is a complex problem in terms of how it can be addressed appropriately across different teaching contexts. Our new research study aimed to investigate rudeness experienced by UK staff and students during lectures and tutorials.

Our results results draw on responses gathered using a mixed methods approach from 300 UK staff and student participants. The findings revealed clear differences in the experience of rudeness in lectures versus tutorials.

In lectures

Rude behaviours such as walking out during class, talking and ignoring the lecturer were reported as more likely to occur during a lecture than a tutorial. Some behaviours, such as talking, were linked to perceived anonymity:

Because there are so many students in the lectures it feels less personal and so students don’t feel they can be seen by the lecturers’ [Student].

This anonymity appeared to both free students to engage in these behaviours while at the same time restricting staff response, including a wish to not disrupt the class any further:

Minor infractions must be ignored so as to not create further disruption’ [Staff].

Boredom may play a role with students ‘acting out’ using rude behaviours when they become disengaged from the lecture content:

Lectures are quite long and require the student to be in a passive role, they don’t have to do anything other than listen usually – I think this leads to them becoming bored [Staff]

Some students appeared to view lectures as a low priority in terms of content, attendance, or both:

 They do not understand the value of the lecture or the way they can make use of it [Staff]

Absenteeism was consequentially reported as more of an issue for lectures than tutorials, with students considering attendance to be optional. This ties in with research evaluating student motivation, where the authors report that students will skip lectures for relatively trivial reasons such as a busy weekend or bad weather. The authors suggest that students might then gain the lecture material through other means such as lecture recordings and shared class materials, with varying degrees of success in terms of academic achievement.

Based on these findings it would appear that the importance of lectures within the educational program need to be highlighted to students. One method for doing so, which should also reduce student rudeness and enhance engagement, is the continued development and implementation of student centred lecture approaches such as flipped classrooms and active learning activities.

In tutorials

In comparison to lectures rude behaviour was reported as less likely to occur during tutorials, and when it did occur was more likely to be met with an assertive response (such as a tutor calling a student aside to discuss their behaviour). Despite this rude behaviours did still occur, though the types of behaviours, and explanations for why the behaviour occurred, were different. For example, boredom did still appear to play a role, but was linked to a lack of class preparation:

 Lack of interest in the subject or have not prepared so cannot engage with the material/activities [Staff]

Disengagement could also be due to a lack of confidence in student knowledge or opinion, or might be related to the difficulty of the topic area:

The uncivil behaviour is sometimes a mask because they don’t want to show they haven’t read a paper or know the topic [Staff]

One behaviour that was reported to occur more often in a tutorial was dominating a discussion, or talking over someone else. These behaviours were considered to be driven by a lack of social skills related to immaturity or a lack of consideration for other people:

I think they’re not doing it deliberately, but are quite ‘at the centre of their own world’ where their own needs are most important [Staff]

Interestingly some students reported that they felt these rude behaviours should be addressed by other students:

Other students should discuss it with them if possible, I’ve done this myself and it’s usually gone down quite well [Student]

suggesting a degree of ownership of the behaviour of others among class participants.

How to cope

A variety of coping mechanisms were reported by staff within the tutorial setting ranging from using humour to diffuse a situation to having a quiet chat with the students exhibiting the behaviour. Generally it was felt the interactive nature of tutorials, along with the smaller group size, made it easier to address these behaviours directly. It should be noted however that the emotional reaction to these behaviours was higher within a tutorial, compared to a lecture. This suggests that staff should be helped in dealing with these behaviours and should have an appropriate support structure in place to maintain mental health and wellbeing.

In short, rudeness can have a disruptive and adverse impact on both staff and students, and so it should be addressed. The nature of the intervention should be tailored to the context, with appropriate support mechanisms in place for any students and staff negatively impacted by the behaviours.

One response to “Tackling rudeness in higher education

  1. A very nice article with a ‘silent’ though important topic; ‘rudeness’. Thanks for sharing, Amy.

    Agreeing that a few lecturers may not tolerate rudeness at all in their classes so as to help the ‘good’ or well behaved students enjoy every period of the lectures; however, most lecturers just display outstanding understanding, compassion and great sense of humour especially nurse- teachers. Sadly, some students may misinterpret the meekness and the sense of humour of the lecturers for weakness and take these sometimes, for granted. The consequence is that the lecturers get overstretched the more with other implications if not addressed.
    In some cases, students’ rudeness may be linked to other hidden issues such as discrimination, unconscious bias and possibly lack of likeness of particular lecturers/ lectures/activities (which the student is just not capable of managing at that point in time emotionally).

    The lecturer should continue to display compassion, understanding, courage and try to find a balance while also seeking support if it continues as it can truly affect one negatively.
    From experience, the lecturer remaining focused, confident and competent as well as open to constructive criticisms makes a lot of difference. Besides, maintaining professional attitudes, honesty, and seeking help from supportive ‘seniors’ are helpful. Additionally, one’s recalls of those early days teaching assessments’ experience and other ‘old’ teachers’ useful classroom tips and skills) will help one to remain resilient and manage rudeness as well as other poor behaviours better.

    I suggest more emphasis during open days and inductions; possibly more emphasis on the relevance of professionalism and good values as well as need to discipline those who continue to display bad behaviours within Higher Educational settings.

Leave a Reply