Student Discipline - What Are We Trying To Achieve?

Keynote Presentation: The Canadian National Conference on Student Discipline (1998)

October 22-24, 1998, Banff, Alberta
by Dr. Peggy Patterson
Chief Academic Officer and Associate Vice-President (Student Affairs), University of Calgary


A. Understanding the Environment

In this presentation, student discipline is examined from the perspective of the interactive effect between the individual and his/her environment which is symbolized by the equation:

B = f(P x E)

Student conduct is first examined by looking at the environment (E) in which student behaviours occur. An analysis of this environmental influence begins with an assessment of the societal expectations of universities/colleges, which have shifted from the "in loco parentis" perspective (where administrators acted on behalf of parents for the good of students) to a perspective where institutions are seen as having a contractual obligation to students as consumers of education and other services and the liability standards for activities in which there is inherent risk. Also highlighted are the post secondary institutions' legal relationships to students which have changed over the past decade. The changes that have occurred have reinforced the fundamental requirement that institutional disciplinary procedures are at least as important than the disciplinary rules themselves. They guarantee students certain minimum level of due process in dealing with any offence and continue to see it as their role to stand guard against the arbitrary use of institutions' regulatory power. While institutions have a right to remain autonomous and independent, they have not been given the right to ignore the processes associated with upholding their own regulations.

Another shift in the environment related to student behaviour is in the way that institutions communicate to students about what behaviours are acceptable/unacceptable. There has been a shift over the last ten to 15 years away from the "laundry list of prohibited behaviours" to a code of conduct which provides students with adequate descriptions about behaviours that would be appropriate or inappropriate. This shift was done because it was found that if regulations were too narrow and excluded any of the behaviours that the student was exhibiting, institutions were not seen as providing adequate notice of what unacceptable behaviours were. What this generally has resulted in is the development of institutional codes of conduct based on the values of that community and the behaviours that are unacceptable associated with these values. Therefore, although it is impossible to identify every possible situation that might be identified as potential misconduct, administrators have generally concentrated on big concepts and defined them well, as well as providing examples of prohibited behaviour. Officials were warned to make clear that this list of prohibited behaviours should not be all inclusive. Some of the behaviours broadly deemed to be inappropriate on most campuses include:
  1. Violations against the college or university community - e.g., furnishing false information, altering or misusing institutional documents, disrupting institutional functions, possession of weapons, etc.
  2. Violations against property - e.g., theft, damage to property, unauthorized duplication of keys, unauthorized entry, etc.
  3. Violations against persons - e.g., physical and verbal abuse, harassment, assault, etc.
  4. Violation of federal, provincial or local laws at university/college sponsored events, and sponsored/associated events that might occur on or off -campus that have a detrimental impact on the university or college.
The issue of whether off-campus conduct should be considered was also discussed with the determining factor here being whether the misconduct detrimentally affected the university community in a significant way.

A third aspect of the environment which influences student behaviour is related to the philosophical approach to service that is used by various institutions. Four models of approaches to service were outlined: a Student Control model which emphasizes the control of student behaviour as its central goal; the Student Services model, which is oriented around providing services and resources; the Student Development model, which designs and facilitates developmental, and remedial environments; and Student Learning perspectives in which those working in student discipline are seen as partners in helping to shape the educational environment in concert with educators, faculty and administrators. By understanding the philosophical base that is used to provide services within an institution, those working in the area of student discipline can understand the messages that are provided to students about the bases for why services are provided as well as what services.

The fourth and final influence of the environment of post-secondary institutions discussed that is affecting student conduct was the political influence on the environment of institutions, specifically the financial/political influence. These factors could not have been anticipated even five years ago, and are reflected in the ways in which governments provide "subsidies/envelopes" to institutions based on their achievement of specific goals which are consistent with the political policies of the particular province/region. Accountability measures for institutions which tie the receipt of institutional funding to the achievement of political goals have become much more common. An example is used of the key performance indicator process used by Advanced Education and Career Development in Alberta, in which the goals of accessibility, responsiveness, affordability, and research excellence are all measured and institutions are provided with funding to the extent that they "measure up" to the provincial guidelines set. The impact on institutions focusing on these political goals was not seen as entirely negative -- there has been a significantly renewed interest in student satisfaction and retention in ways that could not have been brought about so quickly otherwise. But what it contributes to is an overall environmental context in which students are involved, and in which those involved with student discipline must operate.

As well as these broad areas of institutional influence, certainly other environmental factors such as the arrangement of buildings, lighting, emergency telephones, etc., are all important embodiments of the institutional values that our culture espouses and that our law requires. While students are certainly responsible for their own selection of programs and their own conduct, universities are being increasingly made aware of their accountability for ensuring that their physical environments are safe, that their learning environments are free from harassment and intimidation, and that the culture and climate of the institution is one that promotes collegiality and partnership, not fear and intimidation.

B. Understanding the Person

The first point of the discussion of individuals (the ÔP' in the equation) began with an overview by Alexander Astin who recently published a summary "The Thirty Year Trends Reflecting the Changes and Consistency in the Opinions and Characteristics of Students since 1966". His summary was based on the annual "freshman" survey that was completed by more than nine million entering students at more than 1500 colleges and universities in the United States by the Higher Education Research Institute. Several key findings about the ways that this population has changed were presented. By far the most significant and profound influence on changing character of North America's university students is the involvement and participation of women. Several interesting findings were cited which identified changes in the participation rates of women, their interest in aspiring to graduate degrees, career plans, with a particular interest on the convergence of men's and women's career interests.

The attitudes of both male and female students about the participation of women have also changed, with agreement to the item "the activities of married women are best confined to home and family" dropping to 30% (from 66% in 1967) and 19% of women (compared with 44% in 1967) disagreeing with this statement. One area of change which was more informative for those of us involved with student discipline is the area of convergence around attitudes and "bad habits". In 1996, men were substantially more likely than women to drink beer and smoke cigarettes. Since that time, the gender gap has been reduced from 22% to only 9% in the case of beer drinking. However, in the case of frequent smoking, the gap has actually been reversed. In 1966 men were nearly 50% more likely than women to be frequent smokers, but by 1978, the sex differences had been reversed and have been maintained, with women more than 50% likely to be frequent smokers. What apparently happened here is that while concerns about smoking and health were causing more men to avoid smoking, women's growing sense of autonomy and independence caused more of them to take up smoking.

Another area of change has been in the area of political self-identification. In 1970, men were more likely than women to identify themselves as either liberal or far left. By 1996, women were significantly more likely to identify themselves as liberal or far left, and men were more likely than women to identify themselves as conservative or far right. Perhaps the attention to equal rights, sexual harassment and other kinds of issues have had an impact on the political positions of men. As well as their political opinions, changes were also noted in the importance attributed to students of being well off financially. The values of "being very well off financially" and "developing a meaningful philosophy of life" have basically traded places, with being very well off financially the top value in 1996 (compared with being fifth or sixth in the late 60s) and developing a meaningful philosophy of life now occupying sixth place, whereas it was the top value in the late 60s.

These trends reflect increases in materialistic values which are also indicated through an increase in students' interest in attending post-secondary education to increase one's earning power or make more money. Speculations were made about the role of television in helping produce these value changes -- a speculation that has been supported in recent longitudinal studies. While there have been many shifts in values, there have also been some interesting parallels between the two periods of particularly rapid and widespread change -- the early 1960s through early 70s, and the past eight to ten years. The financial concerns which were prominent during the last 60s, early 70s have re-emerged as increases in the percentage of new students who report being overwhelmed by everything they have to do, and decreases in the percentage of students who rate themselves above average on emotional health all indicate some concerns of entering students around their emotional well-being.

Regarding their involvement, the 1996 new students showed evidence of a decrease in political involvement and, specifically, their involvement in student elections/activities. This disengagement is also reflected in a sharp decline since just 1992 in the inclination of students to become involved in programs to clean up the environment, commit themselves to participating in community action programs, or be involved in any form of social action projects. One new finding in the survey is that there are significant gender differences between the amount of time that men and women spend video games. Men are more than three times more likely than women to spend at least some time playing such games, and eleven times more likely to spend six hours or more per week playing them.

There are also other changes in the student populations on our university and college campuses. Fewer are of traditional age, going to school full-time and living on campus. Post-secondary education is just one of a multiplicity of activities in which undergraduates are involved, many involving work and family. The consequence of this changed priority and relationship is a different kind of service expectation from their institutions. They are bringing their consumer expectations of convenience, quality, service and cost. Their interest in on-campus activities, including campus governance, has been reduced.

From a personal perspective, students are coming to college and university overwhelmed and much more damaged than in the past. Situations such as eating disorders, classroom disruption, alcohol abuse and suicide attempts have all reported an increase in 1997. More students require counselling services, and counselling services are already stretched to provide the services. Changes in relationship patterns, and desires for intimacy have also decreased. With the shifts in the goals of students toward a more utilitarian/career oriented approach, there is a growing gap between how students learn best and how faculty are currently teaching. More than half of today's students perform best in learning situations described by "direct, concrete experience, moderate to high degrees of structure and a linear approach to learning. They value the practical and the immediate and the focus of their perception is primarily on the physical world". However, three-quarters of faculty prefer the global to the particular, are stimulated by the realm of concepts, ideas and abstractions, and assume that students, like themselves, need a high degree of autonomy in their work. In addition, students and faculty are spending less time on campus together. With work and part-time attendance, students increasingly coming to campus just for their classes and are taking longer to complete their post-secondary education. All of these changes add up to a major shift in the notions of collegiate life we have held in the past.

While the overall university population, within the broadest context has changed significantly, individual student development has shown some consistency. Students are still preoccupied by similar issues as they involve themselves in post-secondary education -- whether that be on a full-time or part-time level, whether they be male or female. The research on Psychosocial Development done by Arthur Chickering and his colleagues provides us with many clues about the particular issues that are the preoccupation of students in their early years, and as they continue through their post-secondary career. As students move through the tasks of the development of competence, the development of identity, and the development of purpose and integrity, they address many challenges and issues. While we are expecting more from this generation of students than we have expected before, it would appear, based on our understanding of the environment and their resources, they have fewer constants to hold onto.

Understanding Behaviour
So, if we go back to the preliminary equation, B = f(P x E), based on your understanding of the persons of our students and the changes in our environment, what would you anticipate their behaviour to be like? One of the most consistent findings in the persistence/ retention literature is the importance of the development of community and connections among students in both their satisfaction and their likelihood of staying at post-secondary institutions. This is consistent with the picture that we get of individuals who are lonely and individualistic and an environment which has conflicting goals and beliefs -- what is important is the connections between and among people. Peers are still the primary influence on students, and opportunities to connect with them, as well as with their faculty members, provide students with some relief from the isolation that they are experiencing, particularly in new learning contexts. Institutions need to nurture relational sensitivities and ensure that the values expected/required in their specific institutional environment are outlined clearly. These expectations generally exist in calendars and handbooks, however they are not ordinarily discussed or reviewed in any formal way. The institution's responsibility, as well as the students, should be emphasized and visualized to a higher degree.

Is there a problem with student conduct? In a report citing surveys conducted by Carnegie's Council on Policy Studies in Higher Education, the percentage of students who responded that "some forms of cheating are necessary to get what I want" has more than doubled from 4 to 9% between 1969 and 1976. In addition, other studies have reported over 75% of students being surveyed admitting to having engaged in some form of academic dishonesty. This evidence of widespread academic dishonesty poses a substantial threat to the higher educational enterprise because of the conflict it has with some of the core values of academic integrity and future dishonest practices.

So What Do We Do?
Unfortunately, there is no quick fix or simple solution to the problems of student misconduct, be they academic or non-academic. Adopting a code of conduct and publicizing it widely is not enough. Institutions must adopt a comprehensive approach involving the entire institution. Such an approach will be both written and experienced by students. Much of the most recent research in student discipline indicates that the increased willingness of students to engage in dishonest or unethical behaviours is continued in part due to the vague policies and procedures, laxity in enforcement, and lenient penalties. There appears to be relatively little discussion or action within university and college communities regarding the importance of appropriate behaviour which implies personal and academic integrity. The effectiveness of the actions taken by colleges and universities to enhance student conduct can be improved if they are planned within the context of Moral Development Theory. An example is given of the "Developmental Conversation" that can be done within the context of dealing with disciplinary issues. Student contacts related to student discipline provide teachable moments and if the goal of education is, in fact, to promote individual responsibility and development, then the importance of applying educational principles in dealing with disciplinary matters is also important. Research indicates that many administrators seems unsure of how to approach the problem of student behaviour, with lack of coordination, lack of training, lack of codes of conduct, unavailability and data being some of the symptoms of this lack of a coordinated approach. Therefore, the components that we need to consider are first and foremost, the development of a code of conduct; secondly, communication, involving faculty and students, including opportunities for discussion and dialogue about this policy in both verbal and written form; and thirdly, the development and communication of fair and equitable procedures for resolving cases of misconduct, and finally, clarification on the role of sanctions in dealing with student misconduct.

The area of sanctions has received relatively little discussion in much of the literature regarding student discipline/misconduct. Sanctions are usually imposed for one of two reasons: a) for education (helping students move to a higher stage of moral development); or b) punishment (retribution and deterrence). These goals are not in conflict, but in fact punishment itself facilities development -- it teaches students that there are consequences for wrong or dishonest conduct and that they are responsible for their actions. Any sanction may have several purposes. Certainly different remedies and sanctions may be combined to meet the multiple goals of student discipline. Furthermore, the same sanction may be applied for different purposes in different cases. A key component of student discipline is accountability: students must realize that college/university is not simply a testing ground where misconduct will be taken less seriously because of their immaturity. Examples of types of sanctions, e.g., warnings, reprimands, exclusions, fines, removal, apologies, education, etc., were discussed and the purposes of each provided. What is important is that the process of student discipline should consider the purposes of the sanctions, the developmental level of the student, the aggravating and mitigating factors inherent in the offence as well as those concerns related to the student's response to the situation. At the same time, the institution has the responsibility to provide a safe/effective learning environment for all students, and must ensure that the misconduct of one student does not harm the learning of another.

In summary then, student discipline -- what are we trying to achieve? When students act in ways consistent with our codes of conduct or when they exhibit misconduct, their behaviour is a direct result of both individual and environmental forces. It is essential that we not only deal with misconduct, but that we engage in the process of discussion on our campus regarding which conduct is acceptable and what is not, and we communicate this effectively to our students and others in our community. What you are doing is important -- no, it's essential for the education of students. In his recent article in Change Magazine, Charles Handy, a recognized expert in management and education, and the author of The Age of Unreason, The Age of Paradox and Beyond Certainty, outlined his propositions on what constitutes a "proper education" which underlines and reinforces this opinion more strongly. Handy describes that we need to "help students to begin to take responsibility for their lives, for their beliefs about the world, and for the others with whom they work, live or meet, as well as touch their imaginations and inspire their souls". Handy developed and wrote about these propositions based on his own experience, as well as research on others, that he was woefully ill-equipped after graduating from university, not only for the necessary business of earning a living, but more importantly, for coping with all the new directions that came his way, both in his life and his work. Here are his propositions:
  1. The discovery of oneself is more important than the discovery of the world. Both are important, but the world will always be there. We need to build up belief in our competence to deal with it.
  2. Everyone is good at something. Intelligence is multi-dimensional, and we need to help individuals to capitalize on their own types (e.g., factual intelligence, analytical intelligence, numerate intelligence, linguistic intelligence, emotional intelligence, etc.).
  3. Life is a marathon, not a horse race. In a marathon, everyone who completes the course is a winner. Life is more like a marathon for most of us. There is ultimately no winning and no losing, only taking part and getting better.
  4. Knowing what is not as important as knowing "where, how and why". As part of their role as practice grounds for life, schools ought not to be force-feeding their students, but teaching them how to feed themselves.
  5. Schools should be like work and vice versa. A better spread of responsibilities between work and school would allow the schools to concentrate on what they do best. The work of society and the values and norms of the world around us are best learned by working in and with the surrounding communities.
  6. Learning is experience understood in tranquility. We learn by reflecting on what happened. Life provides all the learning experiences we need. What is lacking is the time and place and people to help us learn from those experiences. We need to think of the whole educational system as a university of life in which everyone is entitled to study. This is a world where more than ever before, we shall be responsible for own destiny, our own definition of success, our journey of discovery.
What more do I need to say? Student discipline -- what are we trying to achieve? Some days it seems like we achieve very little. The progress toward helping to develop moral individuals to work within a caring community is not an easy task. But as Charles Handy, and certainly others have indicated, it is an essential one if our society is to equip our citizens with the skills they need. Self-education through living, is a prerequisite to life and to learning. And, surprisingly enough, sometimes the opportunities provided student discipline provide us one of the best teaching tools there are.

References Cited in Presentation:

Noddings, N. "Conversation as Moral Education", Journal of Moral Education, 1994, 23, 107-118.

Dudley, D. "Student Judicial Affairs Response Guidelines", Unpublished Working Paper, 1995.

Kibler, W.L. "A Framework for Addressing Student Dishonesty from a Student Development Perspective". NASPA Journal, 1993, 31(1), 8-18.

CAS Book of Professional Standards for Higher Education, 1997. Council for the Advancement of Standards, Washington, D.C.

Handy, Charles. "A Proper Education". Changes, September/October, 1998, 13-19.

Chickering, A. and Reisser, L. Education and Identity (2nd Edition). San Francisco: Jossey Bass, 1993.

Hoekema, D. "Campus Rules and Moral Community: In Place of In Loco Parentis", Larkam, Md., Rowman & Littlefield, 1994.

Astin, A.W. "The Changing American College Student: Thirty Year Trends; 1966-1996", The Review of Higher Education, 1998, 115-135.

Levine, A. and Cureton, J. When Hope and Fear Collide: A Portrait of Today's College Student, Jossey Bass, San Francisco, 1998.

© 1998, Peggy Patterson

Four Models*
Philosophical Base
  • Moralistic
  • Support for academic mission by providing various services
  • Based on maturation process
  • Partnerships in educational environment, with educators/faculty and administrators
  • To control student behaviour in prescribed ways
  • Provide a variety of remedial services and adjunctive services which keep the student in the classroom
  • Provide developmental, preventative and remedial services for individuals, groups and institutions both directly and indirectly
  • To establish learning goals/ outcomes and assess the success that is achieved
Purpose of Staff
  • To control student behaviour
  • To provide service to students and the institution
  • To design and facilitate developmental, preventative and remedial environments
  • To create a "seamless" learning experience
  • Monitor, direct, order, punish
  • Survey, plan, program, evaluate
  • Assess, plan, design, teach, facilitate, process, confront
  • Promote intentional learning, academic assistance and enhanced academic climate
*Ender, Newton & Caple (1996) -- (Sample of 563 institutions)

© 1998, Peggy Patterson

“The significant problems we face cannot be solved with the same level of thinking we were at when we created them.”

Albert Einstein

You can’t keep trouble from coming, but you needn't give it a chair to sit on.


B = f (P x E)

Alberta Advanced Education & Career Development Department Goals/Accountabilities

  • Encourage and support more accessible lifelong learning.
  • Increase the range of learning opportunities and delivery mechanisms for adult learners.
  • Ensure that Albertans have access to information and career consulting that allows them to make better decisions.
  • Increase its responsiveness to the needs of the individual learner and to the social, economic and cultural needs of the province.
  • Improve the knowledge and skills of Albertans, particularly as they relate to employability.
  • Improve the effectiveness of adult learning providers in meeting the goals established for the adult learning system.
  • Ensure transferability of credentials and mobility of Albertans. Align adult learning system policies to anticipate and respond to a changing environment. Maximize the economic benefits of immigration
  • Provide quality learning opportunities to the greatest number of Albertans at a reasonable cost to learner and taxpayer.
  • Realign the responsibility of learners, providers, business and government for the cost of adult learning.
  • Ensure affordability for learners.

The system, through its universities, will pursue research excellence to increase access and the development of new knowledge.
Maintain and enhance basic research excellence at universities.

© 1998, Peggy Patterson

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