April 21, 2018

How Social Class Background Affects Student Self-Expression and Perception in the Classroom

Author: Casey Pettiford

Research Question:

Is there a predominant individualism that is expressed in the Duke classroom? If there is one type of individualism that students tend toward, how does this affect what they perceive about important classroom characteristics (e.g., participation, working with others, competition for grades)? My research aims to answer how students’ class backgrounds affect how they perceive classroom interaction, as well as capture what these students do on a daily basis in the classroom through behavioral questions.

Key Social Mobility Finding:

  • Based on student free responses in the classroom perception section, it seems that the upper class social characteristics dominated over middle and lower-class characteristics when students answered: In your opinion, how do successful students participate in the classroom? (See Diagram 1).

Background: The theme of our Bass Connections Project is “Visualizing Social Mobility.” Two components that often determine an individual’s social mobility are class and education; in particular, someone’s social class shapes their worldview, personality, and societal understanding and greatly affects how they interact with their peers throughout their educational careers. The way students express themselves can be defined as “individualisms”, which are characterized by certain tendencies that vary across each class spectrum (e.g., lower class, middle class, upper class). At Duke University, students from various social classes interact in the classroom and express their individualisms differently, but is there a predominant individualism that is expressed in the Duke classroom?

My research sought to answer how students’ class backgrounds affect how they perceive classroom interaction, as well as capture what these students do on a daily basis in the classroom through behavioral questions. I compared their responses about perception against their responses about their actual actions and concluded, based on my sample, what individualism was most dominant in both thought and practice.

Diagram 1. Most Popular Words in Student Responses to: How Do Successful Students Participate in the Classroom?

** These words subscribe to the same upper class behavioral tendencies that Kusserow’s student population exhibited in her research. Upper class students tended to exude more confidence, interaction, and active engagement with their peers and teachers in Kusserow’s classroom observations. The data above shows that the Duke student sample tended towards these characteristics as well, possibly indicating that upper class tendencies are what students perceive as ideal and “successful” in the Duke setting.

Diagram 2. Wording and Class Coding Process for A Multiple Choice Question (Example)

** The order of the multiple-choice answers varied so participants would not predict the class coding for each question.

Methods: The online survey was composed of four sets of questions that captured general information (such as demographics and socioeconomic background) and specific information (such as classroom behavior and classroom perception). For the demographic and socioeconomic background questions, students chose from a dropdown list, multiple choice, or free text response. Since all the classroom behavior questions asked students to respond to hypothetical classroom scenarios, the answers were all in multiple choice format. In contrast, the classroom perception questions consisted of a mix of free response and multiple-choice questions so that students’ actual words would be recorded in my data collection.

Since my research question sought to answer what social class individualism students tend toward in the classroom, I had to shape the multiple-choice answer options in two ways. First, I worded the answer choices based on the qualities and characteristics that researchers have ascribed to both lower and upper-class individuals (Kohn, 1963; Piff and Kraus; 2010). Although other primary educational research has also used measures for coding social class tendencies and behaviors in student responses, these studies formulated the answer choices based on negative viewpoints typically ascribed to the lower class to reinforce studies about peer rejection, exclusion, and intimidation in the classroom (Sandstrom and Coie, 1999; Lopes and Cruz, 2002). Likewise, these studies relied heavily upon students and teachers reviewing other students, whereas my research was primarily focused on how students personally perceive and behave themselves (Coie and Dodge, 1988). Thus, in wording the multiple-choice answers, I made sure to carefully choose words that still reflected the characteristics of the lower and upper-class individualisms but that did not polarize positive and negative tendencies for each. Likewise, since middle class tendencies could incorporate both lower and upper- class traits, I worded the middle-class response choices as a combination of both classes (see Diagram 2).


  1. Kusserow, Adrie. “When Hard and Soft Clash: Class Based Individualisms in Manhattan and Queens.” Fiske, Susan T. and Hazel Rose Markus. Facing Social Class: How Societal Rank Influences Interaction. New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 2012. 195-215. Print.
  2. Jury, Mickaël and Annique Smeding. “The Experience of Low-SES Students in Higher Education: Psychological Barriers to Success and Interventions to Reduce Social-Class Inequality.” Journal of Social Issues (2017): 23 – 41. Online.
  3. Coie, John D. and Kenneth A. Dodge. “Multiple Sources of Data on Social Behavior and Social Status in the School: A Cross-Age.” Child Development (1988): 815 – 829. Online.
  4. Anyon, Jean. “Social Class and School Knowledge.” Curriculum Inquiry (1981): 3 – 42. Print.
  5. Bathmaker, Ann-Marie and Nicola Ingram. “Higher education, social class and the mobilisation of capitals: recognising and playing the game.” British Journal of Sociology of Education (2013): 723 – 743. Online.