Cognitive Dissonance in College: Focusing on the Classroom Experience



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Background: According to cognitive dissonance theory, when individuals encounter information at odds with their existing values, beliefs, experience, or knowledge, they may experience cognitive dissonance, and consequently engage in dissonance reduction behaviors. The college experience in general, and highly diverse college campuses in particular, are spaces with significant potential for students to encounter dissonance-arousing information. Student responses to such experiences have important implications for conceptual development, which may be facilitated through improved academic material and practices. Past research on cognitive dissonance in college students employing qualitative methods is limited. Purpose: The overall goal of this study is to explore primarily qualitatively, the wider scope of cognitive dissonance experiences of college students, driven by the following questions: 1) What are some thematic trends in dissonance arousing topics important to college students, and the specific settings and contexts in which such topics became relevant? 2) What are students’ cognitive, affective, and behavioral responses to dissonance arousing experiences? Specifically, what information-seeking behaviors do they engage in upon such experiences? 3) Are there any significant systematic relationships between any features of the dissonance experiences and students’ cognitive, affective, and behavioral responses to them? Methods: The sample consists of undergraduate students enrolled in courses listed in the University of Houston SONA research participation system. The study employed a within-stage mixed-model design. At Phase 1, 49 undergraduate college students responded to an online survey with open-ended and closed-ended items, using the Qualtrics data collection software. At Phase 2, an independent sample of eight undergraduate students from the same participant pool participated in 12- to 45-minute semi-structured face-to-face interviews on campus. Data analysis was conducted using thematic analysis for the qualitative data, and frequency counts and chi-square tests of independence for the quantitative data. Results: Topics of cognitive dissonance for undergraduate college students were widely varied, and the second most frequently reported context of dissonance encounters was the classroom setting. Interview data showed dissonance experiences involving classmate behavior, instructor behavior, and course content. Undergraduate students’ self-reports of responses to classroom dissonance experiences consisted of overall negative affect and cognitive and behavioral responses which demonstrated varying levels of disengagement behaviors consisting of withdrawal from the physical classroom environment, avoiding engagement with class content, and superficial engagement with class content. Students also reported positive affective, cognitive, and behavioral responses to dissonance experiences at large. Chi-square results yielded a relationship between positive affective responses and behavior change. Conclusion: Qualitative data found evidence for maladaptive responses to cognitive dissonance experienced in the classroom setting and demonstrated that college classroom dissonance encounters have the potential to lead to disengagement from class material and thus hinder learning at least in the short run. Future research should explore classroom practices aiming to minimize such negative experiences, as well as practices that can facilitate ways in which such experiences--when they do occur--can be transformed into cognitive growth experiences, enhancing the well-being of students.



cognitive dissonance, college student learning, college classroom, disengagement behaviors, instructor behaviors