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Investigating student behaviour in classrooms

by Michèle Nardelli

A UniSA study will investigate student behaviour.For the first time in 20 years South Australia is about to get an important new understanding of student behaviour in all of its schools.

A special $500,000 Australian Research Council project led by the University of South Australia in collaboration with Flinders University and a coalition of principals’ associations and education sectors over the next three years, is set to kick off this month with an initial survey of over 20,000 teachers across South Australia, including government and non-government schools.

Project leader, UniSA’s Dr Anna Sullivan, says the first phase of the research will provide quantitative data on the state of student behaviour in our schools and help support policy development and the kind of teaching theory and practice that will deliver better student outcomes and encourage teachers to remain in the profession by helping them to effectively engage their students.

“Surveys conducted in the past focused squarely on problem students and student behaviours, but we want to look at the issues more deeply and examine the link between student engagement, student behaviour and academic achievement,” Dr Sullivan says.

“We are very keen to build an evidence base for future policy development, so we are looking at student behaviours as part of what we are describing as the ‘social ecology’ of the school and classroom.

“We are also aware that any assessment of student behaviours must be looked at more broadly than just the usual talking in class, aggression and disruption, to include the more passive disengaged behaviours that impact on learning.”

Dr Sullivan says historically some of the most significant research done on school discipline was conducted in South Australia in the early 1990s with a survey of more than 3000 teachers – one of the largest Australian studies ever conducted of teachers’ views on discipline.

“This early research will be invaluable because although we are moving beyond the scope of those studies, we will have the capacity for some useful comparisons and longitudinal perspectives,” she says.

But she says the similarities with the previous research end there.

“Since then the school leaving age has increased, there is increased inclusion of students with special needs into mainstream education, there have been vast changes in technology and a host of other sociological factors have shifted, including changes to immigration demographics and an increasing complexity in students’ home backgrounds,” Dr Sullivan says.

“In this first phase of our research we’re hoping to get a better measure of how engaged students are in the classroom. Research carried out both in Australia and internationally shows that in any year about 40 per cent of students are not engaged productively in the classroom.

“Of that group about 20 per cent are low-level disruptive or actively uncooperative, but an equal number are completely disengaged.

“These are the students that don’t rock the boat but have just turned off and they generally get little attention because they are not a problem in any obvious way.

“They stay ‘under the radar’ but are not getting much out of their time at school.”

Dr Sullivan says the study will look at the links between behaviour, learning and teaching, considering the full range of environmental factors from curriculum and resources, the physical learning environment, to issues surrounding and influencing student and teacher behaviours.

“The research will be an invaluable resource for the future and we are hoping to get strong buy-in from teachers around the State,” she says.

Teachers can expect to receive a 25-minute online survey in the next two weeks.

See Achievements for details about UniSA’s most recent ARC grant success.

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