A Research Project on Roommate Conflicts, RA Responses, and Student Development

The Residence Life Staff at Resolve-it College have been actively working with faculty to try to meld theory, research and practice. Robert Rodgers, a faculty member in Education and Psychology (actually from Ohio State University...) was keen on studying interpersonal conflict in the residence halls and welcomed the staff's invitation to do something together. Rodgers' area of expertise was college student development theories (ala Perry, 1970; and Chickering, 1969), so it was a good fit.

Of particular interest to all involved was an exploration of the kind of problem-solving forum that would be most developmentally appropriate (and growth promoting) for college freshman and sophomores living in residence, and especially for those experiencing roommate conflict.

According to theory, students tend to enter college at a level that Perry called dualism, an "absolute" stage wherein "right answers" are known by the authorities, and any divergence of opinion is simply viewed as inadequacy. A given proposition is (dualistically) either right or wrong. Students, in Perry's view, progress from dualism through stages of multiplicity, where there is no single right answer and many opinions can be equally valid, with everyone having a "right to their own opinion"; to relativism, where different answers can be correct for different contexts, and each proposition must be evaluated in terms of its particular application; to ethical commitment, where unchanging fundamental principles define the contexts for evaluating truth.

Chickering first (1969) suggested three and then (1993) seven "vectors" of growth toward individuation. He does not see definite stages and specific quantitative changes. Instead, he identifies seven areas (vectors) of growth that seem to develop somewhat independently: developing competence, managing emotions, moving toward independence, developing mature interpersonal relationships, establishing personal identity, developing purpose, and developing integrity. Developing competence in the early vectors is seen as a necessary precondition for successful competence in the later ones.

Anyway, a baseline study was done with students at the college, wherein both RA's and a targeted group of roommates were assessed as per their developmental levels. They were also interviewed concerning their actual behaviors in roommate conflicts, and asked to speculate on how they thought they should behave in these situations.

It was found that the students typically described a defensive style of trying to prove aggressively that they are right and the other wrong. All of the students (freshman and sophomores) were assessed to be reasoning from positions of dualism on the Perry scheme and 90% were still coping with Chickering's vectors one through four. They were not yet autonomous, and they worried about peer group impressions of themselves. They could not manage aggressive emotions autonomously; they were still developing interpersonal skills of empathy, assertiveness and negotiation.

Students Data: Actual Behavior and
Outcomes in Roommate Conflicts

(data from Rodgers, 1983)
Actual Behavior in Conflict Situations Frequency of Behavior Outcomes
1)  I avoid the conflict and do nothing. Usually Things get worse or stay at the same level of conflict.
2)  I appeal to my RA to solvethe problem. It's his/her job, isn't it? Sometimes RA usually refuses and then tells the student to try to settle the conflict on his or her own first. If the student tries and it does not work, then the student is told to see the RA. After hearing this from the RA, students usually do nothing.
3)  I confront my roommate and we try to work out our conflicts. Rarely A few students try to resolve their conflicts on their own. They report behaviors that would be called WIN-LOSE, and the situation tends to get worse.

Typical Resident Advisor responses were to tell the student to try and work it out themselves, or direct the students as to how to handle the situation (see table). These approaches were not particularly effective, and did not appear to provide an optimal opportunity for students to address their problem while at the same time not robbing students of the chance to advance their cognitive and psychosocial development.

Resident Advisor Data: Actual Behavior & Self-Evaluation in Conflict Situations

(from Rodgers, 1983)
Self Report of Action Taken Frequency Feelings and Evaluation
1) I make them deal with each other first. 60% Satisfied that I did what is best, and this is what I was taught to do.
2)  I step in, listen to them
separately, and then tell the
students what to do, and we solve the problem.
40% Guilty for taking responsibility for the situation, and powerful because I did something important and had influence in the situation.

According to his reading of the theories, Professor Rodgers understood that dualist reasoning students learn best, are more satisfied, and develop more quickly if the environment provides:

  1. Encounters with moderate degrees of diversity
  2. Through highly structured, experiential learning
  3. Followed by analytic processing with an emphasis on differentiation
  4. In a warm and personal environment

It seemed that mediation would offer a particularly useful structure, especially for students still at the dualistic stage. To test this idea out in practice, a subgroup of RA's participated in at two-day mediation training, and RA conflict interventions were tracked for a semester. Rodgers reports that control or resolution of roommate conflicts was achieved in 67% of the cases using mediation, compared to 25% for a comparison group using regular methods. Student satisfaction with mediation was significantly higher than for regular practices, and students participating in mediation showed improvement in both negotiation and assertion.

More specifics about this study (which was actually conducted at Ohio State University, and not at our virtual campus...) can be found in Rodgers' 1983 article entitled "Using Theory in Practice."

Chickering, A. W. (1969). Education and Identity.San Francisco, Jossey-Bass.

Chickering, A. W. (1993). Education and Identity.(2nd edition) San Francisco, Jossey-Bass.

Perry, W. (1970). Intellectual and Ethical Development in the College Years.New York, Holt, Rinehart, & Wilson.

Rodgers, R. F. (1983). "Using Theory in Practice". Administration and Leadership in Student Affairs.T. K. Miller, R. B. Winston and W. R. Mendenhall. Muncie, Indiana, Accelerated Development Inc.: pp. 111-144.

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