The Consolidation of Responsibility and Students' Definitions of Situation in the Mixed-Age College Classroom

By Howard, Jay R.; Baird, Roberta | Journal of Higher Education, November 2000 | Go to article overview
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The Consolidation of Responsibility and Students' Definitions of Situation in the Mixed-Age College Classroom

Howard, Jay R., Baird, Roberta, Journal of Higher Education

Sociologists have long pointed out that when people enter social situations they bring along with them certain understandings, sometimes called typificatory schemes (Berger & Luckmann, 1967), of the normative behaviors expected of them in the given situation. Participants in an interaction then negotiate roles and role expectations with one another in a process of defining the situation (Goffman, 1959, 1961; McHugh, 1968). Over time habitualized typifications become institutionalized (Berger & Luckmann, 1967). The college classroom is one setting where typifications have been institutionalized, because students have clear expectations of their instructors and other students. Unfortunately, their definitions of the classroom and the expected roles of students and professors often do not facilitate learning.

Learning occurs most effectively in a situation where students are actively engaged with the material, other students, and their instructor (see, for example, Astin, 1985; Johnson, Johnson, & Smith, 1991; Kember & Gow, 1994; McKeachie, 1990; Meyers & Jones, 1993). Critical thinking is also fostered by students' active participation in the classroom (see, for example, Smith, 1977; Garside, 1996). Each student brings experiences to the classroom that can contribute to learning through participation in discussion. Therefore, instructors should be concerned with the level and depth of student participation in classroom discussion. However, experience and research demonstrate that most students operate with a "Banking Model of Education," wherein the instructor is the bank of knowledge from which the students make withdrawals by taking notes (Freire, 1970).

Previous Research

In 1976 Karp and Yoels identified a college classroom norm they labeled "the consolidation of responsibility." This norm suggests that in the typical classroom, participation in discussion will be consolidated in the hands of the few, with the majority of students being passive observers or only occasional participants. Howard, Short, and Clark (1996) and Howard and Henney (1998) have found that the "consolidation of responsibility" is still the operative norm for discussion, at least in the mixed-age college classroom.

Studies of participation in classroom discussion have focused on issues of student gender (see, for example, Cornelius, Gray, & Constantinople, 1990; Crawford & MacLeod, 1990; Fassinger, 1995; Sternglanz & Lyberger-Ficek, 1977), instructor gender (see, for example, Auster & MacRone, 1994; Fassinger, 1995; Pearson & West 1991), class size (see, for example, Constantinople, Cornelius, & Gray, 1988; Crawford & MacLeod, 1990; Fassinger, 1995; Howard, Short, & Clark, 1996), teaching techniques (for example, Nunn, 1996) and, occasionally, student age (Howard et al., 1996; Howard & Henney, 1998). Relatively little attention has been given to the consolidation of responsibility. While the average male student might participate more frequently than the average female student, and the average nontraditional student more often than the average traditional one, there is, in essence, no "average" participant. Instead, when the consolidation of responsibility is operating, there are only "talkers"--who account for the vast majority of all interactions--and "nontalkers"--those students who speak up only occasionally, if at all (Howard et al., 1996; Howard & Henney, 1998; Karp & Yoels, 1976). Computing mean interaction levels for various demographic groupings is misleading, because it combines the participation of all students--talkers and nontalkers--within a demographic grouping into a single mean score. Instead of asking how often the average member of various demographic groupings (e.g., males versus females) participates, we need to ask who is most likely, and least likely, to accept the consolidation of responsibility and why?

In this study we first identified "talkers" and "nontalkers" via observation.

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The Consolidation of Responsibility and Students' Definitions of Situation in the Mixed-Age College Classroom


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