Preconceptions, misperceptions, and communication interaction over time in the mixed-age classroom: What's age got to do with it?




Mostyn, Becky R.

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This qualitative study utilized expectancy violation theory to investigate student perceptions of others in the mixed-age classroom, expectations about classroom communication interaction, and perceptions of the resulting interaction and communication climate. Data were obtained from two large lecture sections of a basic communications course at a large state university. The subjects were fifty-nine students representing the age range of the university undergraduate population. The research design used two rounds of student interviews, participant observation, and an instructor opinion survey to answer the research questions. Research studies have produced much important information regarding college students of various ages regarding such variables as academic achievement and perceptions of learning and satisfaction. However, most mixed-age classroom studies have been done from the perspective of one population or one population in comparison with another, such as "traditional" and "nontraditional". Studies using "traditional" and "nontraditional" as categorical age variables compartmentalized students into two arbitrary populations or "cultures". A few recent studies have begun to utilize different terminology such as "adult", "mature adult", "pre-adult" or ''young adult" to identify specific age ranges. However, the numerical age range of each group remains unclear. This study substituted the terms "younger'' and "older" in place of "traditional" and "nontraditional" to investigate whether students could actually be divided into two age groups (or any age groups) based on perceptions of their verbal and nonverbal communication behaviors. The goal was to challenge the use of age as a categorical communication variable for research purposes. RQ1 asked: What differences in perception concerning verbal and nonverbal communication do students have of each other according to age? Students were asked to describe "older" or "younger'' students in relation to their own age. Content analysis of interviews revealed two distinct descriptions of "older'' students. They are "attentive", "more articulate", "more respectful of the professor and of knowledge" and contribute positively to classroom discussion with "experiences and insights about life." They also "act like they know everything", "take up too much class time and hold the class back by asking too many questions" and "talk about things the younger students have never heard of'. Two distinct descriptions also emerged of "younger" students. They are "openminded", "very creative", "intelligent", "inquisitive", "excited about everything", and bring "a fresh perspective and outlook" to the classroom. They also are "loud", "profane", "obnoxious and inexperienced", "rude", "not motivated or focused", "not very respectful or friendly" and "don't care about what the professors or others have to say." The four descriptions confirmed that there are stereotypical preconceptions of "older" and "younger'' students. Students were also asked to identify an age range for "older'' and "younger'' students in relation to their own age. There was no consistent categorical age range of "younger'' or "older". Some freshmen considered a senior an "older" student. Some twenty-one-year-olds thought of themselves as "older'' because they were upper classmen. They identified students from seventeen- to twenty-year-olds as "younger''. Students generally identified "older" or "younger" in relation to themselves. For instance, one thirty-seven-year-old identified "younger'' as ''younger than me." However, no specific age ranges for younger/older could be established based on the interview responses. Students were asked their perceptions of where "older" and ''younger'' students sit in a classroom. Almost unanimously they positioned all "older'' students at "the front" and all "younger'' students at "the back". However, when the individual students were asked their own seating preference, many of the youngest participants said they preferred near or in the front. Students also answered a question as to who talked more in the classroom, "younger'' or "older'' students. "Older'' students were identified as talking much more. Again, when individuals were asked to give adjectives to describe their own communicative participation in the classroom, the perception of "older'' students as always more talkative was refuted by their comments. The comments sorted into three general groups of "talkers", "listeners" and "moderates". Many of the youngest students said they were "talkers" and many of the older students said they "like to listen." Students of all ages made comments such as "I'll talk when I need to know something, or when I want to make a comment." Content analysis of interviews indicated that students identified themselves as "talkers", "listeners", or "moderates" regardless of their age. Findings based on content analysis of the interviews indicated that there are stereotypical perceptions of both verbal and nonverbal behaviors according to age, but only insofar as "older'' or "younger'' in relation to the student. No categorical age divisions could be identified. The finding challenges the continued use of two age categories (traditional and nontraditional) as relevant communication variables. RQ2 asked: How does expectancy violation theory (EVT) apply to verbal and nonverbal behaviors of students of various ages in the mixed-age classroom? EVT proved useful in this qualitative study to ascertain specific verbal and nonverbal expectations about students of various ages with regard to impending communication interaction. After an extended period of time the students elaborated on their own interpretations of the resultant confirmation or violation of their expectations. An added benefit in testing the valence aspect of EVT was that the students also stated in their own words how they felt about the positive or negative violations. EVT could not be completely applied in the instance of students who either did not report any substantial interaction or did not perceive age differences. RQ3 asked: How does the mix of ages in the college classroom affect student interaction and the communication climate? This research question could not be fully documented or tested as to mix of ages because of the random nature of class assignments. Some classes had no significant age range, while other classes had a large range of ages. However, by their own accounts classroom communication interaction was natural for some people and almost unthinkable for others, regardless of age. General comments from students pointed to the importance of the instructor in structuring the opportunity for interaction, while allowing the individual students to participate within their own comfort level. Findings indicate that age is an important demographic variable. However, individual student background and personality, along with instructor mediation, are more responsible for participation, interaction, and satisfaction with classroom communication climate. Comments from the participants revealed that rather than student-student interaction being of prime importance, the instructor plays an integral part in structuring interaction and student perceptions of the resultant communication climate. This finding supported other studies which identified the instructor is a key component in the joint creation of classroom climate. Student comments also suggested that the pedagogical/ andragogical preferences customarily attributed to traditional/nontraditional students should be re-evaluated. Based on this study' s findings, important for future research designs is the confirmation from the participants' own words that communication characteristics are not age-dependent. They are part of each individual's personality, background, and upbringing. Age therefore may not be a categorical defining variable for research studies, but rather an important piece of demographic background information. The combination of a range of ages mediated by an instructor sensitive to the background and experiences of all students is an integral component affecting the quality of communication interaction, the resulting classroom climate, and the individual student's affective perception of the students in that class. Suggestions for future research included further investigation into perceptions of communication behaviors of students within the mixed-age classroom. Experimental studies could control for age ratio in the samples and for levels of instructor involvement in structuring interaction. Results of these studies could aid instructors across disciplines in better serving students of all ages.



communication, education, ages, classroom environments, communication interaction


Mostyn, B. R. (1998). Preconceptions, misperceptions, and communication interaction over time in the mixed-age classroom: What's age got to do with it? (Unpublished thesis). Southwest Texas State University, San Marcos, Texas.


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