Public Perceptions of Stuttering 2002

This section of the web page comes from a class project conducted by the CSD 4200 class, spring 2002. This class continued the query into what the general public knows and thinks about stuttering. They chose to focus on the college student population in the 18-25 year age bracket. In addition to finding out what other students think about stuttering, this class wanted to give people some accurate information about the disorder. To that end they developed a simple flier called Quick Facts About Stuttering that they distributed to each of their interviewees. Quick Facts is located in another section of this website. In this section you will find the Methods and results from each section of the interviews: Demographics, What is stuttering, What causes stuttering, How can a person who stutters handle their stuttering, and What can listeners do to help. (All sections were edited by Cindy Spillers, the instructor.)



Author: Cindy Spillers, Instructor


The interviewees consisted of 26 males and 26 females between the ages of 18-25 years, for a total of 52. All participants were college students.

Interview protocol

The student interviewers developed a brief interview protocol to use when talking with participants. The first section of the protocol asked for basic demographic information such as age, year in school, academic major, and personal knowledge of anybody who stutters. This was followed by four open ended questions: What do you think stuttering is? What do you think causes stuttering? What do you think a person who stutters should do to move through a moment of stuttering? What do you think listeners should do when talking to some one who stutters?

Quick Facts flier

The student interviewers developed a one page flier that presented some common beliefs/misperceptions about stuttering and some basic facts to counteract the misperceptions. The topics on the flier corresponded to the topics covered in the interviews.


Each of the 13 students in the class interviewed 2 male and 2 female college students between the ages of 18-25 years. Interviews were conducted in person and took between five to ten minutes to complete. The interviews began with collecting demographic information such as age, academic major, etc., and then progressed through the open ended questions. The student interviewers wrote down each interviewee's responses and asked follow up questions as necessary. After each interview, the student interviewers gave the respondent a Quick Facts flier and pointed out some of the information that related to the subject's responses.

Data analysis

The data underwent two levels of analysis. First each student compiled the data from her four interviewees onto one interview protocol form. This level of analysis involved the quantifying of information and as well as some qualitative analysis. Copies of these first level results were distributed to all the members of the class for subgroups of students to conduct aggregate analyses of each section of the interview protocol. The aggregate analysis included simple nonparametric statistics and qualitative information.

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Demographic Information

Authors: Rachel Hemke, Jill Hayden, Kristine Klinnert

The demographic information included age, gender, year in school, major field of study, and personal knowledge of anybody who stutters. Fifty-two students participated in the study. Half of the participants (n=26) were males and half were females. They ranged in age from 18 years to 25 years with a mean age of 21 years and a modal age of 22 years. Table 1 displays the demographic information on ages of the interviewees.

Table 1. Chronological Ages of Interviewees.

Percentage (n=52)
18 years
4% (n=2)
19 years
8% (n=4)
20 years
13% (n=7)
21 years
23% (n=12)
22 years
31% (n=16)
23 years
17% (n=9)
24 years
2% (n=1)
25 years
2% (n=1)

Table 2. Academic Level of Interviewees.

Percentage (n=52)
11% (n=6)
10% (n=5)
8% (n=4)
71% (n=37)


The interviewees were all undergraduate students, with the majority (71%) being college seniors. Table 2 displays the demographic information on year in school. The academic majors of the participants covered a wide range from art to engineering. The majority of participants (23%) were pursuing degrees in education. Table 3 displays the demographic information on academic majors of the participants.

Table 3. Academic Majors Represented by the Participants.

Academic Major
Percentage (n=52)
23% (n=12)
15% (n=8)
15% (n=8)
Industrial Engineering
11% (n=6)
10% (n=5)


6% (n=3)
4% (n=2)
Exercise Science
4% (n=2)
Art/Graphic Design
4% (n=2)
4% (n=2)
Social Work
2% (n=1)
2% (n=1)

*The Education category contained elementary, secondary, physical, and math education.
**The Business category contained marketing, accounting, human resources, and finance.
***The Science category contained biology, biochemistry, and molecular biology.

The final item in the demographic section of the interview asked if the participant was personally acquainted with anybody who stutters. Forty-four percent (n=23) responded yes, and 52% (n=27) responded no. Two people did not understand the question so their responses were not tabulated for this question.

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What Do You Think Stuttering Is?

Authors: Jenny Merton, Mara Allgood, Jeanne Erkens

To analyze the results for this question, we read through the first level analyses done by our classmates and looked for themes that emerged. The themes that surfaced were: neurological problems, loss of motor control, psychological problems, developmental problems, difficulty getting words out, and repetitions. We then sorted all responses into these thematic categories. Results appear in Table 4.

Table 4. General Categories of Definitions of Stuttering.

Percentage (n=52)
Neurological Problems Brain can't get words to the mouth. It's hard wired in the brain.
19% (n=10)
Loss of Motor Control Speech impediment due to no control over their muscles.
Voice box closes and tongue gets in the way of words.
Can't spit the words out in a smooth sentence.
12% (n=6)
Psychological Problems Person is nervous and not confident
8% (n=4)
Developmental Problems Starts at an early age when speech is not developing correctly and no help or reinforcement is offered.
2% (n=1)
Difficulty getting words out Not able to verbalize words they are trying to say.
Getting caught or hung up on words.
Can't get words or syllables out.
36% (n=19)
Repetitions Stuttering is characterized by many repetitions within a single sentence.
Repetitions of words and syllables in sentences.
23% (n=12)


Most respondents gave very general definitions of stuttering. The most common response related to difficulty getting words out (36%, n=19). A few people (19%, n=10) had a sense of a neurological component to stuttering. Only one person identified stuttering as a developmental problem that begins in childhood. These participants mentioned only the primary behaviors of part word and whole word repetitions in their definitions. None of the participants mentioned the primary behaviors of prolongations and blocks, nor did they mention any secondary behaviors, covert features, or physiological features.

Stuttering involves much more than what the college students who participated in this study believe. These results suggest that the average college student has an idea that stuttering is a speech disorder, but does not seem to have a very clear or accurate picture of that disorder.

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What Do You Think Causes Stuttering?

Authors: Bethany Werth, Maria Bataglia, Bryanna Otto

To analyze the results of the cause of stuttering, we read through the first level analyses that our classmates provided and noted all of the causes that people mentioned. This list appears in Table 5, along with the number of interviewees who gave this response. Since some interviewees suggested more than one cause for stuttering, there are more responses than subjects.


Table 5. Individual Responses to What Participants Believe Causes Stuttering.

Beliefs about Cause
Number of Responses (N=71) and Percentage of Responses
19 (25%)
Deficiency or imbalance of the brain
9 (13%)
Physiological cause
8 (11%)
7 (10%)
Talking too fast
7 (10%)
Unknown cause
6 (8%)
Psychological factors
4 (6%)
Traumatic event
2 (3%)
Premature birth
2 (3%)
Lack of confidence
2 (3%)
Sexual frustration
1 (1.5%)
Inefficient communication skills
1 (1.5%)
Laughing as an infant
1 (1.5%)
Cleft palate or other abnormality
1 (1.5%)
Environmental factors
1 (1.5%)
Scared or stupid
1 (1.5%)

We then looked for general trends among the beliefs about cause. The causes proposed can be split into two general categories. The first category consists of internal and psychological factors (51%) and includes responses such as nervousness, lack of confidence, sexual frustration, being scared, and stupidity. The second category consists of physical factors (39%) and includes responses such as deficiency in the brain, heredity, talking too fast, premature birth, cleft palate, and environmental factors. Of all the answers given, 23% seemed to contain a small piece of accurate information such as an imbalance in the brain or genetic inheritance; however, most responses contained limited accurate information.

Many of the ideas presented by these interviewees have their roots in historical beliefs that have been disproved or in folk beliefs. For example, the belief that stuttering is caused by sexual frustration has a Freudian tone to it. The idea that stuttering has a psychological or emotional cause may have originated in Germany in the late 19th century. And the belief that laughing as an infant causes stuttering is common in South African cultures and other cultures.

While a definite cause of stuttering is not yet known, current research suggests that stuttering has a large genetic component which may cause the speech pathways in the brain to be less efficient. The results of this study suggest that the average college student has a very limited idea about the cause of stuttering and holds some inaccurate and outdated beliefs.

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How can a person who stutters handle their moments of stuttering?

Authors: Mary Hertenstein and Jennifer Oeltjen

Table 6 contains the responses to the question "What should a person who stutters do to move through their moment of stuttering?" Some people gave more than one suggestion so there are more responses than interviewees. The majority of responses involved slowing down (31%), followed by staying calm and concentrating (27%). A few suggestions were made to get therapy (11%). One interviewee added that the stutterer should do whatever the speech pathologist told them to do during a moment of stuttering.


Table 6. Responses to What Stutterers Can Do to Handle Moments of Stuttering

Number of Responses (N=55) and Percentage of Responses
Slow down
17 (31%)
Stay calm and concentrate
15 (29%)
Stop and start over
8 (14%)
6 (11%)
Ignore it
3 (5%)
Don't try so hard
2 (4%)
Strengthen muscles
2 (4%)
Listener should finish sentence for them
1 (2%)
No idea
1 (2%)

Three people suggested that the stutterer ignore their stuttering and one added that they should not feel bad about their stuttering "because we all have our problems." Two people suggested that the person who stutters should not try so hard to talk because the harder they try to say something, the more they will stutter. This response fits well with a common experience that many people who stutter have: the harder they try not to stutter, the more they end up stuttering.

Although speech therapy often teaches people who stutter how to talk more slowly, the suggestion that stutters should slow down seems simplistic. Learning how to talk more slowly involves intense concentration and practice. Telling a person who stutters to slow down conveys the message that if they would just talk slower and think about what they say, their stuttering would be solved. Stuttering is more complicated than that.

In general, the interviewees seemed sympathetic toward people who stutter. As one person said, "...We all have our problems." However, the responses give the impression that managing a moment of stuttering is easy and all a person has to do is to slow down.


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What Can Listeners Do to Help?

The final question asked of the interviewees was "What should a listener do when talking to someone who stutters?" Table 7 contains the interviewees' responses. Since some people made more than one suggestion, there are more responses than interviewees.


Table 7. Responses to What Listeners Can Do When Talking with Someone who Stutters.

Number of Occurrences (N = 73) and Percentage
Wait patiently
36 (49%)
Pretend not to notice
9 (12%)
Focus on the message
7 (10%)
Don't make fun of the person
7 (10%)
Help the person by finishing the sentence
6 (8%)
Be attentive - maintain eye contact
2 (3%)
Tell them to slow down
2 (3%)
Rephrase the question or change the subject
1 (1%)
Encourage the person
1 (1%)
Have the person write out what they are going to say
1 (1%)
Speak softly to ease the tense situation
1 (1%)

Two general themes emerge from these responses. First, the majority of responses (85%) deal with listening patiently while the person talks and practicing basic listening ettiquette. The other 15% of the responses offer specific suggestions for helping the person get through a moment of stuttering (e.g. write out what they want to say, finish their sentence, change the subject).

Professionals commonly suggest that listeners wait patiently, listen to the content of the message, and show the same respect as they would for any other speaker (see the Do's and Don'ts section of the website for specific suggestions) and the majority of the responses reflected these guidelines. These results show that the average college student knows what the preferred response to stuttering would be; however they also raise the question of whether the interviewees would actually follow their own advice when faced with a person who stutters. Although it seems socially acceptable and socially preferred to wait patiently and listen to the content of the message, how many of us can actually do that in real life? Stutterers often report that listeners finish their words, tell them to slow down, or talk to another person who is with them. Stuttering can be very uncomfortable to listen to, especially when the listener does not expect a person to stutter. Although most people know that the most appropriate response is attentive listening, when in a situation and caught by surprise, what would their gut level response be?


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