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Students’ uncertainty management in the college classroom
Michael Sollitto, Jan Brott, Catherine Cole, Elia Gil and Heather Selim

Department of Communication & Media, Texas A&M University—Corpus Christi, Corpus Christi, TX, USA

ABSTRACT
The uncertainty experienced by college students can have serious
repercussions for their success and subsequent retention. Drawing
parallels between instructional context and organizational context
will enrich theory and research about students’ experiences of
uncertainty in their college courses. Therefore, this study used
Uncertainty Management Theory to explore how students
manage their uncertainty about college courses with their
classmates. Overall, the results suggest that although students
experience uncertainty mostly related to their academic needs,
their uncertainty management focuses more on their
socioemotional needs. In managing their uncertainty, students
rely on direct communication with their peers, which suggests the
importance of considering uncertainty management as a
relational activity as opposed to an independent activity. Given
this, instructors can facilitate classroom climates and activities that
allow students to establish relationships with one another and
work interdependently to achieve their academic goals.

ARTICLE HISTORY
Received 10 February 2017
Accepted 23 August 2017

KEYWORDS
Information-seeking;
student–student
communication; Uncertainty
Management Theory

The uncertainty that college students experience is an important and overlooked consider-
ation for scholars because of the sheer amount of effort college administrators and person-
nel expend to enroll and retain their students (see Seidman, 2012 for review). Each year,
colleges and universities lose approximately one-third of their students (U.S. News and
World Reports, 2016), despite the attention devoted to orientation and first-year learning
programs at many institutions (Tinto, 2006). Notwithstanding these worthy efforts from
academic institutions, students still experience levels of uncertainty that may lead to
dropout (Tinto, 2012). Increasing retention is critical because college is a key place for stu-
dents to learn and hone the critical thinking skills needed for successful contributions to
society (Seidman, 2012). If “we want our students to be catalysts for change, both within
their fields and in society in general” (Seidman, 2012, p. 1), we need to help them manage
their uncertainty about college. Although students may experience uncertainty about many
aspects of their college career, this study focuses on uncertainty in the college classroom,
since the classroom is the “center of a student’s educational life and in turn at the center
of institutional action for student success” (Tinto, 2012, p. 114). Furthermore, the classroom
is a place where students actively interact with other students, faculty members, and engage in
the formal learning process that is essential to academic achievement (Tinto, 2012).

© 2017 National Communication Association

CONTACT Michael Sollitto [email protected] Department of Communication & Media, Texas A&M
University—Corpus Christi, Corpus Christi, TX, USA

COMMUNICATION EDUCATION, 2018
VOL. 67, NO. 1, 73–87
https://doi.org/10.1080/03634523.2017.1372586

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http://crossmark.crossref.org/dialog/?doi=10.1080/03634523.2017.1372586&domain=pdf

mailto:[email protected]

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http://www.tandfonline.com

Understanding the uncertainty students face about their courses can help students
develop realistic expectations about the kind of effort needed to succeed in college, and
how to deal with their instructors and classmates (Tinto, 2012). By learning what kinds
of uncertainty students face, administrators can establish campus cultures, programs,
and services to help students in their academic progress (Tinto, 2012). It is also important
to understand student information-seeking strategies because information-seeking is a
proactive communication act that individuals use to develop better clarity about their
experiences (Kramer, 2004). The manner in which individuals seek information is an
important determinant for the type of information that they gather and the quality of
information that they receive (Kramer, 2009). Students’ approaches to seeking infor-
mation can affect their knowledge of how to perform their work, how to communicate
appropriately in the classroom, and, largely, how to succeed academically and
socioemotionally.

Organizational scholars have long understood the importance of examining uncer-
tainty in light of organizational satisfaction and performance (Kramer, Meisenbach, &
Hansen, 2013). In many ways, the same rationale could apply to the academic setting,
given its parallels to the organizational context (Myers, 2017). Classrooms and organiz-
ations are both rule-filled environments that contain authority figures and peers who
work together (Daly & Korinek, 1980; Sollitto, Johnson, & Myers, 2013). Students, like
organizational members, encounter uncertainty about their courses and, as a result, try
to get information that will help them reduce that uncertainty (Myers & Knox, 2001).
In response, students tend to use overt, indirect, third-party, testing, and observing infor-
mation-seeking strategies to proactively gain information from their instructors (Myers &
Knox, 2001). It is worth exploring how students seek information from their classmates,
though, since classmates are abundant and accessible sources of information capable of
serving as informal coaches/mentors (Parker, Hall, & Kram, 2008) who help students
better apply course content, receive support, and develop social connections (Colvin &
Ashman, 2010). Classmates are important sources of academic support (Thompson,
2008; Thompson & Mazer, 2009), confirmation (Johnson & LaBelle, 2016), and connect-
edness (Sollitto et al., 2013), all of which are helpful for social and academic gains (Johnson
& LaBelle, 2016; Smith & Peterson, 2007). Peer coaches/mentors are particularly powerful
sources of support because they can communicate freely without the potential burden or
awkwardness of power differences that characterize instructor/student relationships.
Additionally, peer mentor relationships allow students to confide in one another,
support one another, offer critical feedback when necessary, and, in general, engage in
mutual social development (Parker et al., 2008).

Given that classmates are often valuable sources for a variety of academic and socioe-
motional gains (McCabe, 2016), it is important for scholars to study how students decide
to approach one another about their uncertainty. With greater detail about student–
student information-seeking strategies, instructors can work to create classroom cultures,
climates, and activities that encourage information sharing between students. Administra-
tors can emphasize to incoming students that their classmates can be powerful resources
for their retention and success in college. And scholars can fill a gap in the literature about
student–student communication in general (Johnson & LaBelle, 2015; Waldeck, Kearney,
& Plax, 2001) and student–student information-seeking, in particular (Myers, Martin, &

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Mottet, 2002), by focusing on the ways that students communicate about and manage the
uncertainty about their college courses with their classmates.

Uncertainty Management Theory (UMT; Kramer, 2004) provides a potentially fruitful
theoretical framework for exploring these issues because it describes why uncertainty
occurs, how individuals decide to manage their uncertainty, and the results of their infor-
mation-seeking strategies. Furthermore, UMT can provide scholars with another frame-
work to discover how to help students gather the information they need to stay in
college and be successful students. Therefore, the purpose of this investigation was to
use UMT to create a foundation of knowledge about the types of uncertainty students
experience and the strategies that they use to manage that uncertainty with their
classmates.

Experiencing uncertainty in the college classroom

UMT is a reformulation of Berger and Calabrese’s (1975) Uncertainty Reduction Theory
to account for the notion that the experience of uncertainty and the decision to manage
that uncertainty is mostly a cognitive process. According to UMT, individuals use com-
munication strategies once they decide they need to proactively seek information
(Kramer, 2004). Uncertainty typically occurs when a message or situation is inconsistent
with individuals’ mental scripts and schemes. Individuals then engage in a cognitive
process of managing their uncertainty before consulting with other people. In this
process, individuals weigh their options for uncertainty management and decide if they
can reduce their uncertainty individually without exerting effort to acquire information
from another source (Kramer, 2004). Individuals cognitively manage their uncertainty
by denying that it exists, tolerating it, assimilating it, accepting it, or by imagining infor-
mation-seeking. The desire to reduce uncertainty spurs information acquisition, but infor-
mation acquisition can be hindered by competing motives that prevent or limit
individuals’ capacity to gather the needed information (Kramer, 1999). When individuals
successfully work through their competing motives, they use communication strategies to
increase, maintain, or decrease their level of uncertainty. For example, if individuals decide
that their need for information is greater than their need for a desired image in the eyes of
others, they will seek the information that they need.

To navigate an instructional setting, students require various types of information to
succeed socially and academically (Morris, Wu, & Finnegan, 2005). West and Pearson
(1994) found that students ask questions to satisfy needs for content-specific information,
appraise correct answers to problems, gather additional perspectives on content, gain
insight into the operation of the classroom, and generally be informed. These reasons see-
mingly reflect that students need information to meet academic goals and find socioemo-
tional support, and that this need may motivate information-seeking. Additionally,
individuals are motivated to seek information due to self-interest, unpredictability
between risks and rewards about information acquisition, and desire to gain control of
a situation (Kramer, 2004).

Another crucial component of UMT is that individuals cognitively process their experi-
ences of uncertainty (Kramer, 2004). In the cognitive process, individuals may also weigh
their options about how and from whom to seek information. Students may attempt to
satisfy their uncertainty before the active pursuit of information. They may also make

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decisions about which of their classmates are approachable and which possess the intellec-
tual prowess to provide the desired information, as well as decisions based on the possible
face threats or repercussions that would come if they were to ask their classmates for
information.

UMT is an important theoretical framework for exploration now because contempor-
ary classrooms and students are different than students in the past. Many aspects of the
college classroom have changed dramatically in recent years due to increasing use of class-
room technology and the changing characteristics of students (Lechuga, 2016). Class-
rooms are now populated by millennial students who “bring different attitudes,
expectations, preparation, strengths, and shortcomings into the college classroom than
previous students” (Mazer & Hess, 2016, p. 356). Researchers suggest that millennial stu-
dents feel a sense of academic entitlement (Boswell, 2012), expect individual focus and
assurance from their instructors about their academic performance (Goldman &
Goodboy, 2014), and want opportunities to engage with their peers (Borges, Manuel,
Elam, & Jones, 2010). As “digital natives” (Palfrey & Gasser, 2008), contemporary students
enter college classrooms with a near-innate ability to make sense of and use increasingly
complex technology (Jones & Healing, 2010). Given these distinguishing characteristics, it
is likely that millennial students will encounter different types of uncertainty, process
uncertainty differently, and think about how to deal with their uncertainty differently
than previous students, all of which may lead students to manage uncertainty with their
classmates differently than students of past generations. To investigate these possibilities,
we proposed the following questions:

RQ1: What types of uncertainty do students experience in their college courses?

RQ2: What motivates students to seek information from their classmates?

RQ3: What cognitive processes are involved with students’ decisions to seek information
from their classmates?

Managing uncertainty in the college classroom

Students, like organizational members, are proactive consumers of information who rely
on a variety of behaviors to satisfy their information needs (Myers & Knox, 2001). Kramer
(2004) articulated that individuals typically rely upon passive, active, interactive, and
alternative strategies for information acquisition. Passive strategies involve information
acquisition through unsolicited means. For example, if a student experiences uncertainty
about how to participate in class discussion, a passive strategy might be to wait until the
instructor provides feedback about the student’s participation and then adjust accordingly.
Active strategies involve attempts to manage uncertainty without direct interaction, often
with monitoring or testing. Using the same scenario as above, a student may discreetly
monitor other students’ methods of classroom participation to discern the best way to par-
ticipate. Interactive strategies attempt to reduce uncertainty through direct interaction,
either with the source of uncertainty, or through a third-party. With this strategy, a
student may directly ask a nearby classmate about the best ways to participate in class dis-
cussion. Alternative strategies involve individuals diverting their attention away from their
uncertainty and toward other activities. With this strategy, students may turn their

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attention away from uncertainty about classroom participation and focus on other activi-
ties to minimize the discomfort created by the uncertainty. Although we know some about
how students manage uncertainty with instructors (Myers & Knox, 2001), it is possible
they will choose to seek information in different ways from their peers. These differences
may occur because students are of equal status to one another, which may reduce the
potential social costs of bothering a professor or appearing foolish. Additionally, the
shared experience of being a student might make some likely to approach information-
seeking differently, especially if they perceive their peers as uniquely capable of providing
guidance, comfort, and support (Parker et al., 2008; Thompson, 2008). Therefore, the fol-
lowing research question was proposed:

RQ4: What communicative strategies do students use to seek information from their
classmates?

Typically, the acquisition of information will result in some alteration to an individual’s
level of uncertainty (Kramer, 2004). The acquisition of information might increase,
decrease, or maintain one’s uncertainty. Students may experience outcomes that go
beyond uncertainty management, though. For example, their information-seeking beha-
viors may also foster relationship development, new understanding, or alternative ways
of thinking about course content (Parker et al., 2008). Therefore, the following question
was proposed:

RQ5: What outcomes do students achieve from seeking information from their classmates?

Method

Our methodological approach involved the use of Boyatzis’ (1998) thematic analysis
process, which involves three distinct stages: deciding on sampling and design issues
(data collection), developing themes/codes and applying them to the data (data analysis),
and validating results.

Data collection

We gave a sample of college students a survey packet during the 13th week of a 16-week
semester; the packet contained six open-ended questions assessing their uncertainty man-
agement in the college classroom and three basic demographic questions. The sample con-
sisted of 138 undergraduate students (57 men, 80 women, and 1 unreported) recruited
from a variety of communication courses at a medium-sized southern university. The
average age of the students was 22.2 years (SD = 5.60). The sample included 20 first-
year students, 29 sophomores, 42 juniors, and 46 seniors. The students reported on
their experiences in a total of 55 different classes across 11 different academic disciplines:
Communication (n = 83), History (n = 9), Science (n = 9), Business (n = 6), English (n = 6),
Math (n = 6), Political Science (n = 5), Sociology (n = 5), Performing Arts (n = 4), Art (n =
3), and Psychology (n = 2).

On the open-ended survey, we directed participants to consider their communication
behavior in the course that they attended immediately prior to the course in which they
completed the questionnaire. We asked them to expound upon their answers as much

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as possible. This design allowed for greater depth and description from a variety of courses
throughout the university (Plax, Kearney, McCroskey, & Richmond, 1986). Participants
responded to the following open-ended questions: (1) Explain the things about the
course that you are sometimes unsure or uncertain about. (2) What motivates you to
talk to your classmates about things in the course that you are sometimes unsure or uncer-
tain about? (3) Explain the thought process that you use to make decisions about asking
particular classmates about things in the course that you are sometimes unsure or uncer-
tain about. (4) Describe what you say or do with your classmates to gain information about
the things you are sometimes unsure or uncertain about in the course. (5) How do you
benefit from the information that you receive from your classmates about the things
you are sometimes unsure or uncertain about in your course? (6) Explain why you
might choose to seek information from your classmates instead of your instructor.

Data analysis

Thematic analysis, as an analytical tool, allowed us to observe patterns in the data and
ascribe meaning to those patterns based upon the recurrence, repetition, and forcefulness
of meaning (Boyatzis, 1998; Owen, 1984). To do this, we followed several steps. First, one
author read each of the survey responses to develop understanding and familiarity with the
data and to identify units of analysis. Units of analysis included any words, phrases, or
series of sentences that reflected students’ uncertainty management (as articulated in
the research questions). Although the study’s research questions were designed to align
with the open-ended survey questions, we reviewed the units for their relevance to any
of the research questions. In other words, units of analysis from answers to each survey
question could correspond with any one of the guiding research questions, if we deter-
mined them to be relevant.

Second, following the initial reading of the data, we wrote individual units on a separate
sheet of paper to assess similarities between the units and compare them to other units to
develop emergent themes (Glaser & Strauss, 1967) about types of uncertainty (RQ1),
motivation (RQ2), cognitive processes (RQ3), information-seeking strategies (RQ4),
and outcomes (RQ5). We devoted attention to the internal homogeneity of the units to
ensure that all units within a theme were meaningfully related to one another and that
units were distinct from those that represented other themes (Patton, 2002). As themes
emerged and became more apparent from the data, the author team worked together to
create definitions and exemplary indicators of each theme (Boyatzis, 1998) in a way
that best reflected students’ uncertainty management. Upon creation of the themes and
definitions, the author team created a codebook to use for categorizing the remaining data.

To verify that our analysis was consistent and trustworthy (Boyatzis, 1998; Lincoln &
Guba, 1985), we engaged in peer debriefing, intercoder reliability, and member checks. We
first discussed the initial themes and descriptions with a peer to check for any assumptions
or biases that could have affected the coding of the units. The peer made suggestions that
helped clarify the assignment of units into particular themes and suggested small altera-
tions to the definitions. Second, two independent coders, provided with descriptions of
the themes and 25% of the data, helped ensure the consistency of the coding (Boyatzis,
1998; Lincoln & Guba, 1985). Alpha reliability figures above .80 are considered appropri-
ate (Hayes & Krippendorff, 2007; Krippendorff, 2004); we achieved a satisfactory

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reliability of .87. Third, the first author asked seven undergraduate students who partici-
pated in the study to serve as a member check to assess how well the emergent themes
aligned with their experiences. The participants agreed that the themes and descriptions
matched their uncertainty management experiences.

Results

Types of uncertainty

Students articulated six different types of uncertainty they had experienced in their college
courses: logistical, content, relevance, normative, social, and academic performance. Stu-
dents faced logistical uncertainty when they were curious about the quantity and nature of
assigned activities, or when they lacked insight about how to operate software or equip-
ment necessary to complete activities, and deadlines. As one student noted, “I am uncer-
tain about what questions to answer on the homework assignments, where to find the
homework assignments, and how to answer the questions when I do find them.” Students
experienced content uncertainty when they were confused about particular terms, defi-
nitions, and theories associated with a subject area, or confused about the resources or
means through which to find needed information about the course. A student remarked,

I’m not always sure about how all the different and moving parts of programming work.
Sometimes they seem to follow the same rules, while other times the tools or syntax are com-
pletely different. For example, sometimes double quotes are necessary to define a parameter,
while other times only a single quote.

Another student added, “I’m always unsure about the theater lingo and sometime [sic]
unsure about the lighting terms and names of the lights.” Students’ uncertainty about rel-
evance involved uncertainty or frustration with the application of the class and assign-
ments to students’ academic interests or career aspirations. For example, one student
shared,

I am sometimes unsure what the point of this class is since it deals with understanding and
analyzing new media outlets and understanding how they affect communication and social
trends. I am uncertain as to why this class’s subject and online discussion assignments are
productive for my education.

Students faced normative uncertainty when they were unsure about the classroom
norms: the structure and use of class time, the topics that would emerge during class dis-
cussion, and how they should approach communicating about the topics with their
instructors. For example, one student wrote, “Sometimes I am unsure about what the
topic of our discussion will be for a given day and how that discussion will actually
take place. Sometimes class is structured as a lecture, but sometimes it is based on discus-
sion.” Students experienced social uncertainty when they were unsure about how to inter-
act with their classmates, what friendships already existed among classmates, and why
classmates behaved in certain ways. One student described uncertainty about others in
the course in this way: “There are a lot of nonmajors in the course, so I get unsure
about if anybody in the class even likes theater, so it makes it tough to get to know
people sometimes.” Students reported uncertainty about academic performance when
they were curious about their learning gains and their achievements in the course.

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Students expressed that they became uncertain about the quality of their work and how to
maintain or improve their performance. For example, one student shared, “Due to the fact
that the course is centered around practice rather than theory, I sometimes become uncer-
tain about how well I am performing.”

Motives for seeking information

Students articulated four motives for seeking information: to obtain clarity, gain perspec-
tive, achieve performance goals, and manage impressions. Students described their desire
to obtain clarity when they perceived their instructors as unapproachable or lacking the
availability or ability to help them gain certainty. For example, a student said, “If the pro-
fessor is unclear/difficult, I’ll go to multiple classmates to gain a consensus, or if the pro-
fessor is rude. Also if the question is small and I’d rather not waste the professor’s time.”
Students expressed that they sought information to gain perspective when they desired
knowledge, additional insight and, perhaps most importantly, new perspectives from
their classmates that could inform their own approaches or paradigms to their course-
work. One student said, “Because it is a class that deals with television criticism, I like
to hear other students’ perspectives because they may be different from my own, which
helps me see different sides of the argument.”

The motive to achieve performance goals involved students’ desire to achieve success in
their classroom endeavors, such as high scores on graded assignments, and contributions
to class discussion. As one student suggested, “Getting a good grade on an assignment or
presentation motivates me. As well as wanting an understanding of what I need to do to
perform well.” Students expressed motivation of managing impressions due to their face
concerns with the instructor. They expressed fear of embarrassment or the appearance
of foolishness if they sought greater clarity from their instructors. Students’ reluctance
to lose face manifested itself in seeking information from classmates. As one student
stated, “I would prefer to see if others are confused or it is just me. It’s more embarrassing
to ask the professor a question that can come across uneducated than a fellow student.”

Cognitive processes

Students expressed four cognitive assessments they make prior to seeking information:
assessing competence, evaluating similarity, appraising ability, and gauging dispositions.
Students reported they engaged in assessing competence when they made judgments
about their classmates’ level of knowledge and engagement in the course and their class-
mates’ likelihood of answering questions or providing information in an understandable
manner. For example, a student explained, “Things that affect my decision on what class-
mate to ask is if the student is knowledgeable toward the class.” Students engaged in eval-
uating similarity when they appraised the relatability of their classmates based upon their
personality and physical characteristics or the perception that they also may be experien-
cing confusion and uncertainty. A student shared, “Most students are as unsure as I am
about the course work and because we are all in the same boat and never really receive
direction from the professor. We mostly depend on each other to learn the material.”
When students reported they were appraising ability, they were considering their own

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ability to gather needed information without consultation with other classmates against
the risks and rewards of information-seeking. As one student explained,

I try to answer the question in my own head and most of the time I will talk myself out of
asking the question in order to save face. But if I am unable to figure things out for myself
I will ask someone for additional assistance.

Students reported gauging dispositions when they considered their classmates’ approach-
ability and friendliness; considering which classmates would be most receptive …

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