Avoid a Common Mistake

One of the most common mistakes that new teachers make is to project a counter-productive message to students.  A primary concern of students, especially younger ones, is to "fit in."  Especially in a residential setting, these 18 year olds are now with other young people on a 24/7 basis, and one of their biggest concerns is to be accepted by their peers.  We should always keep this in mind when we convey our feelings to students.

 

For example,  if a University conveys a message that students at the college are drinking too much, many students will interpret that message this way:  "I guess drinking is really big here, so I better drink so that I will fit in."  Likewise, if the University communicates the idea that cheating is a big problem, the students may conclude that "Everyone cheats here, so I guess it is OK."

 

In other words, one of the the best ways to get people to get people to do something is to convince them that others are doing the same thing.  Social Scientist Robert Cialdini demonstrated this by looking at those signs in hotel bathrooms that urge people to re-use their bath towells to save water.  The most effective way to get people to do this, Cialdini found, was not to tell them that it was good for the environment, but to say that "the majority of the guests who have stayed in this room recyled their linens."

 

What does this mean for college teachers?  Think about the difference between these two statements, which might be said about the same test results:

 

Negative: "Many of you did poorly on the quiz, you need to read the material more carefully.

Positive: "Great job on the quizzes, many of you are really reading the assignments carefully. Keep up the good work."

 

The first message, in effect, tells students that it is OK not to do the assignment because others aren't doing it either.  The second message says: "everyone else is doing this work, if you want to be like everyone else, you'd better step up."  

 

The implication of this is that it is much for effective to emphasize how many students are doing well than to hector students about how badly they are doing.  Avoid the practice, all too common, about complaining to the students who came to class about how many students are absent. 

 

Source:

 The Gentle Science of Persuasion, Part 3: Social Proof, in Knowledge@W.P.Carey, January 30, 2007, 14 April 2009, 

Although TΦ101 has been aware of this phenomenon for years, Todd Zakrajsek, of UNC-Chapel Hill helped fill in the research background.

 

Author: John Immerwahr
Update: April 16, 2010