Preventing and Curtailing Troublesome Student Behaviors

Classroom management involves creating a learning environment that fosters academic integrity, courtesy, respect, and an enthusiasm for learning.  Unfortunately, situations sometimes arise that are less than conducive to a positive learning environment.  Students, who regularly talk during instruction, forget to turn off their cell phones, spend time texting, use their laptops for purposes other than course related work, habitually come late or leave early, and fall asleep during instruction, are shortchanging their learning and distracting to fellow students and instructors.  How can a faculty member prevent and curtail such activities?  Good classroom management involves creating an atmosphere that minimizes the likelihood of such behaviors and having strategies to obstruct them when they do occur.

Create a Positive Learning Environment

“Establishing a positive climate,” according to Mary Deane Sorcinelli, “can avert many problems” (Handbook of College Teaching, 366).  How can you create a learning environment that reduces troublesome behaviors?

Develop a Class Behavior Policy to Include in Your Syllabi

You should have a positively written policy in your syllabus about class participation and etiquette.  If you emphasize the relationship between student behaviors and successful learning in your policy, students will perceive that your foremost concern is their learning.  Focus your policy on the benefit of civil behavior to learning.  If your course deals with controversial issues, include a consideration of mutual respect in the policy.

Discuss the Class Behavior Policy on the First Day of Class

Discuss with students your desire to establish an educational environment that is free from distractions and disturbances.  However, be realistic in your discussion.  Admit that sometimes students find it necessary to leave a class (nature sometimes calls and can’t wait), or an emergency requires that they have their cell phone on vibrate because they are awaiting news of a loved one’s surgery, or perhaps they ask a friend what term you used because they didn’t hear you, etc.  This helps students to see that you are fair in your expectations.  You are concerned about disruptive, repetitive, and thoughtless behaviors that distract learning.  When students understand that you can distinguish the difference between an emergency and an inconsiderate behavior, they will recognize that your intention really is the establishment of a good learning environment.

Build Rapport with Students

Spend some of the first class getting to know one another.  Allow students to see why you love teaching the material, why it interests you, what you believe is its significance to life, etc.  This allows students to perceive that you are more than an automaton of disciplinary knowledge.  Likewise, get to know your students.  Even in large classes, the old technique of having each student fill out a note card about their major, year, hometown and interests can be useful.  In combination with a photo roster, faculty of large classes can learn students’ names.  If you begin to see disturbing behavior, casually addressing a student by their name can quickly lead to a cessation of the behavior.

Model Civility in Your Teaching

Faculty can establish a civil environment by avoiding behaviors that students perceive as uncivil. In a study by Clark and Springer, students identified what they believed were six uncivil faculty behaviors (“Thoughts on Incivility,” Nursing Education Perspectives 28, no. 2 [2007]: 93-97).

1. Making condescending remarks

2. Using poor teaching style or method

3. Using poor communication

4. Acting superior and arrogant

5. Criticizing students in front of peers

6. Threatening to fail students

When faculty members act in these ways, they foster student incivility.  A student cited in the Clark & Springer study rightly says, “Rude professors encourage the same rude behavior from students.”

Never Lose Your Cool

Linda B. Nilson in Teaching at Its Best gives sage advice about maintaining composure while teaching:  “If you encounter a discipline problem in your classroom, the first thing to do is to stay calm. Count to ten, breathe deeply, visualize a peaceful scene, anything to keep you from losing your temper. No matter how much an offensive student tries to bait you, you lose credibility if you lower yourself to his level. If you keep your composure, you win the sympathy and support of the other students. They may even start using social pressure to discipline the offenders themselves.”

Practice Informal Early Course Evaluations

Many faculty members find that early course evaluations work well to stem difficulties that students might be experiencing with the class.  Informal course evaluations allow for change early enough in the course to help students. Some instructors use the KQS method.  Simply ask students at the end of a class to take out a sheet of paper and respond to three questions:

1. Keep Doing – What have I as an instructor done that you would like me to keep doing that assists your learning?

2. Quit Doing – What aspects of the course should we quit doing that have hindered your learning?

3. Start Doing – What should we start doing that will help your learning in the course?

Tell them that you will legitimately consider their suggestions to improve their learning.  However, admit that you will ignore illegitimate suggestions such as abandoning all future tests.  When students are finished writing their evaluations, have students fold and pass in the papers.  Assess the evaluations to see if trends occur in the evaluations that call for legitimate changes to the instruction.  Then, at the next class session or via email, inform students about the results of the evaluation.  Some students might be surprised that other students did not share the same concerns.  Let the class know how you plan to address their legitimate recommendations.  Your students will appreciate the fact that you had taken their suggestions seriously.

Curtailing Troublesome Behavior

When troublesome behaviors occur, faculty members should be proactive to curtail them.  “The longer inappropriate behavior continues, the more acceptable it becomes and the more difficult it is to stop it” (Handbook, 366).  What are some techniques that work to curtail troublesome behaviors?

Practice Nonverbal Immediacy

Studies show that students positively respond to instructors that display behaviors of immediacy.  Behaviors of immediacy include positive head nods, smiles, eye contact, vocal expressiveness, purposeful gestures and body movements, and a direct, relaxed and open body positions (Kearney, et al, “Effects of Teacher Immediacy,” Communication Education 34, 19).  When troublesome behaviors occur, practice nonverbal immediacy by looking toward the distraction and smiling.  Sometimes this is enough to signal to the students that you are aware of the behavior and want it to stop.

Practice a Mobile Class Presence

When you see students talking, sleeping or texting, you can also move closer to the offending students to alert them that their behavior is distracting.

Practice Increased Participation

Skilled teachers also try to involve students that are straying in their behavior.  Asking a student a question relating to the material is an excellent way to get many students back to the course materials and away from their distracting behavior.  Sometimes when the class seems restless, getting the students to work on a question or problem in groups is a great way to reenergize learning and decrease troublesome behaviors.

Practice Empathy

When you find it necessary to confront misbehavior verbally, practice empathy while clearly defining the problem.  Meyers says that students are more likely to respond to intervention “if faculty members demonstrate empathy, tact, and concern when broaching issues of contention.”  Try to speak with the student in private.  Meyers gives the following case as an example:

Professor G initiates a conversation with Jason by stating: “Jason, I’m concerned about whether you’re enjoying class.  Over the past two weeks, I’ve noticed that you frequently talk to people who sit near you when I lecture.  Although I understand that students’ attention will wander at times, I’m worried that other people find your conversations distracting.  I also feel it is more difficult for me to explain concepts clearly and remain focused when students talk during class lectures.  I want to make sure that class is a positive learning experience for you and for all students, so it is important that we talk about this.” (Myers, “Strategies to Prevent and Reduce Conflict in College Classrooms,” College Teaching 51, 96)

Practice Progressive Discipline

If a student persists in disrupting the class, the faculty member may ask the student to leave the classroom for the remainder of the class period.  The student should be told the reasons for such action, and be given an opportunity to discuss the matter outside of the class as soon as practicably possible.  When a faculty member undertakes this progressive disciple, the Department Chair or Dean should be promptly notified of the action.

If a faculty member feels threatened, campus police should be immediately called at extension 2677.  The Office of Student Conduct is available to help faculty members with serious and persistent disruptive behaviors at 412.396.6642.

The University Counseling Center has a helpful Web page for faculty and staff recognizing and assisting troubled students.