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Category: Classroom Management

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Managing student complaints
Students have strong opinions about fair and unfair practices in college courses. Previous research shows that, according to students, fair practices include clarity about grading procedures and course policies, flexibility in scheduling make-up exams and meetings, generosity with feedback, and a reasonable approach to workload in the course. If those policies and practices aren't followed, students often raise the issue of fairness, usually with some emotional intensity. “That grade is so unfair! I worked for hours on that assignment.” Perceptions of fairness, or classroom justice, as it's described in this recent research, relate to three aspects of the education experiences provided in courses. Distributive justice is defined as “perceptions of the fairness of an instructional outcome” (p. 323). Grades are the best example. Procedural justice involves the “fairness of the processes used to distribute resources or outcomes in the instructional context” (p. 323). Here, an example might be the way group work is graded, be it with individual grades, group grades, or some combination of the two. Interactional justice relates to the “fairness and quality of interpersonal treatment of students by instructors when procedures are implemented or outcomes allocated” (p. 323). Does the instructor show respect for students? Is the instructor open to student opinions? Does the instructor answer student questions? Building on earlier research completed by some of this research team, this study investigated “the cognitive, affective and behavioral processes at play in students' perceptions of and responses to classroom injustice” (p. 324). Their almost 400 undergraduate student cohort at three different institutions responded to open-ended queries as well as survey questions. The first question students answered asked them to recall and describe in detail a time when one of their teachers did something they considered unfair: What did the teacher do or say, and why was it unfair? Then students answered 30 questions regarding their emotional response to the unfair treatment and 40 questions that asked about their behavioral response to the event. Almost 55 percent of the unfair incidents involved procedural injustices, almost 30 percent were distributive injustices, and almost 17 percent were interactional. The most common manifestation of instructor unfairness involved grades. The study indicates that “overall, more than half of the unfair behavior students identified concerned grades” (p. 336). It is important to note that these results report student perceptions of fairness. The grades they received in these situations may or may not have been the grades they deserved. In addition to feeling the grade itself was unfair, students described situations in which the grading procedures; the policies for make-up exams, missed deadlines, and attendance; the information provided about the exam; or the feedback were perceived to be unfair. In some cases, when students raised questions about a grade, the instructor made them feel stupid, which was also perceived as unjustified. A detailed table (p. 328) in the article contains examples of 543 injustices these students described, and it's an eye-opening list. Even though they were only asked to describe one, these students often described several different kinds of injustices related to the same event. The strongest emotional response students had to a perceived injustice was anger. However, that wasn't the only emotion they experienced. Perceptions of unfairness resulted in feelings of helplessness, stress, disgust, and humiliation. As for the behaviors students identified as their responses, most often they dissented (complained) to others, such as classmates. The research team notes that talking to others gives students the chance to vent without fearing reprisals from the instructor. However, this response doesn't remedy the injustice or prevent it from happening again. The actions students reported taking were both constructive and destructive. Some asked the instructor for advice on how to improve and others planned to disrupt the class. They reported changing how they approached the class (by studying harder, for example) or deciding that cheating in the course was justified. In sum, the research team says that emotions drive students to behave primarily in ways that relieve their emotional discomfort and secondarily in ways that solve problems. The emotional responses students experienced also involved some physical manifestations. They reported feeling sick or nervous or generally out of sorts about the whole event. Although those responses aren't really behaviors, the researchers considered them as such because they were part of the response. When student reactions to the incident ended up as feelings of disgust, the most problematic responses followed. Students report being most motivated to take action at these times. They said they were more likely to be verbally aggressive and to complain to administrators (department heads, deans, etc.). “When students believe their instructors are unfair, they feel betrayed and violated, which can lead them to lash out by yelling at instructors, attacking their character, or reporting them to external parties” (p. 333). There's no question that when students are dealing with what they perceive to be unfairness, that gets in the way of their learning. Given the importance placed on grades and the many pressures students face to get good ones, the fairness of those grades will continue to be a high priority for students. Faculty are advised to address the problem up front, with clear explanations of the grading procedures and the policies surrounding them. Good communication is key throughout the course, but especially when the inevitable occurs and a student angrily proclaims, “That's so unfair!” Reference: Chory, R. M., Horan, S. M., & Houser, M. L. (2017). Justice in the higher education classroom: Students' perceptions of unfairness and responses to instructors. Innovative Higher Education, 42,321–336.