From: Curran, J. M. and Rosen, D. E. (2006). Student attitudes toward college courses: An examination of influences and intentions. Journal of Marketing Education, 28 (2), 135-148.
The first and most obvious answer is the instructor. Much previous research establishes the powerful ways instructors influence how students respond to and in a course. But two researchers wondered if the instructor was the only factor influencing student attitudes. Drawing from work in their discipline, services marketing and management, they extrapolated seven factors that might be significant determinants of student attitudes. Using a complex statistical model, they tested the seven factors and found that four of them explained 77 percent of the variations in attitude toward the course: instructor, course topic, course execution, and the room (physical environment).
They write of these findings: "An important result is that there are significant factors, in addition to the instructor, at work shaping a student's attitude toward a class that he or she may take. The model shows that course topic has just as strong an influence on attitudes as does the instructor." (p. 144) Only required courses were included in the study. They covered topics about which students had a range of interests, from not being interested at all to the course topic being introductory to a major. The researchers point out that if the subject matter of a course influences how students relate to a course, then their level of interest ought to be acknowledged as a contributing factor on course evaluations. At this time most course evaluations focus exclusively on instructor-related variables.
Equally interesting in this work are those other factors not found to influence student attitudes toward courses. For example, the student him- or herself was not found to significantly contribute toward attitude about the course. The researchers explain why they were surprised by this finding. "Given the emphasis some educators place on encouraging students to take ownership of their education, it was surprising to find that, overall, this group of students did not see themselves as being instrumental in shaping their own education experience." (p. 146) What the findings confirm is that students (at least those in this cohort) do not understand that they are at least partially responsible for what happens to them in courses. It seems to reconfirm the extremely passive orientation many students take toward knowledge acquisition.
Also surprising was that fact that other students were not seen as a factor influencing student attitudes. This means that "educators cannot assume that students will automatically appreciate the value of the diverse student population that takes a given college course together."
Finally, in a follow-up analysis that explored some of the factors related to course execution (which these researchers defined as overall design and conduct of the course), there was confirmation for some facts about participation many of us have observed in our individual classrooms. "Students in classes where participation was expected and graded were significantly more likely to prepare for class, attend class, and commit to excellence. Students in those classes where participation was emphasized were also significantly more likely to value the contributions that other students make to their learning experiences."