More from the the 30th annual Lilly Conference on College Teaching at Miami University in Ohio…

Cranky Students: Causes and Approaches for Instructors of First-Year Courses (Robin Lightner, University of Cincinnati)

A recent meta-analysis of the literature on empathy in college-aged students by Konrath, O’Brien, and Tsing indicates that students are less empathetic today than they were in the 70s and 80s. Since students spend more time volunteering today than they did in decades previously, I have to question that research a little. Without having read the paper, however, I can only guess that empathy has decreased over time using certain measures but perhaps not other measures. Something else to go on my “to read” pile…

One session participant suggested that students became less empathetic after 9/11, presumably because the violence and terror of that event caused them to retreat into themselves.  Tim Clydesdale, in his book The First Year Out, shares the results of his study of young people who were college freshmen that fall. He found that 9/11 didn’t have nearly the same impact on them as the Columbine shootings did in 1999. After the Columbine shootings, many schools implemented much tighter security measures and took other steps to prevent similar incidents. Young people in school at that time experienced changes in their local environments that disturbed them in ways that the more distant 9/11 atrocities did not.

Robin shared some interesting neuroscience research on “cranky” students. See her slides for a summary. Two findings that stood out to me were (a) that adolescents are quicker to use the parts of their brains associated with emotion when confronted by challenges than adults are and (b) that the fight-or-flight impulse that results can actually impede a student’s cognitive functions. This means that adolescents often get defensive faster than adults do and need some assistance in “coming down” from fight-or-flight and engaging more cognitive functions.

How to handle cranky students?  Robin cited the book Difficult Conversations by Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton, and Sheila Heen as providing a useful framework.

  • Frame the student’s problem using precise language.
  • Check to see that you understand the student’s problem.
  • Offer up your perspective on the issue but present it as something to discuss not as the authoritative view on the issue.
  • Brainstorm options with the student, letting the student do most of the brainstorming.
  • Decide and agree how to move forward.

I was struck by the ways this problem-solving approach resembles some of the teaching consultations I do in that it’s very non-directive. In my consultations I typically let my faculty clients “drive” the conversation while I ask a few questions to point the conversation in certain helpful directions. Robin suggests similar roles in difficult conversations with students. The non-directive approach usually results in the client or student having more ownership of whatever solutions or strategies emerge from the conversation.

Image: “Cranky 1/4,” Sharyn Morrow, Flickr (CC)