Dealing with Troublesome Behaviors in the ClassroomMary Deane SorcinelliUniversity of Massachusetts, AmherstThere is increasing concern – both nationally andamong individual faculty members – aboutstudent behavior that is, at the least troublesome,and at the most, disruptive. A recent report onstudent conduct by the American Council onEducation and by the Carnegie Foundation forthe Advancement of Teaching (1990) concludedthat the quality of campus has diminished overthe last several years. This study, “Campus Life:In Search of Community,” identified not onlybroad social problems among students (e.g.,racism, sexism, crime) but also an “alarming lackof civility and consideration” toward otherstudents and toward faculty members. Thereport recommended more participation bystudents and faculty members in campus life andthe creation of a “campus compact” that wouldspell out broad principles, values, andexpectations that promote respect for others.Unfortunately, an erosion of the sense ofcommunity at many institutions appears to haveintruded into the college classroom. Recentinterview studies of new and junior facultymembers report that a surprising number ofnewcomers described distressing experienceswith classroom misbehavior (Boice, 1992,Sorcinelli & Austin, 1992). Although offenderswere few, they could change the wholeenvironment in a class. Their behavior, be itcoming late, leaving early, or talking out loudeventually became disruptive, directing theattention of the teaching and other students awayfrom the topic at hand.In a series of workshops requests by facultymembers on my own and other campuses, juniorand senior professors and instructional andfaculty developers reported similar concernsabout classroom incivility (Sorcinelli, 1990a,1990b). For some of these instructors, the worstexperiences in teaching concerned a fewdisruptive students that one professor describedas “classroom terrorists.”In this chapter, I hope to offer both somepreventive measures and some practical advicefor dealing with the kinds of troublesomesituations that commonly arise. In this chapter, Ifirst identify behaviors that instructors report asmost troublesome. I then suggest specific waysin which college teachers can promote aconstructive classroom environment that willdiscourage such behaviors. No matter howcareful teachers are, however, they will still runinto some disruptive behaviors in the classroom.A few recurrent misbehaviors – and ways towork with them – will be discussed.Categories of TroublesomeBehaviorsWhat kinds of student behaviors do instructorsperceive as most negatively affecting the teachingand learning process? In an interview study ofprofessors at a liberal-arts college, Appleby (1990)found considerable consensus among facultymembers about student behaviors that theyregarded as most irritating. Behaviors weresorted into three categories: (1) immaturebehaviors such as talking during lectures,chewing gum, eating or drinking noisily, beinglate, and creating disturbances; (2) inattentivebehaviors such as sleeping during class, cuttingclass, acting bored or apathetic, not payingattention, being unprepared, packing books andmaterials before class is over; and (3)miscellaneous behaviors such as cheating, asking“Will it be on the test?” and expressing moreinterest in grades than in learning.Despite the fact that students do not alwaysbehave in class as instructors would want themto, instructors are reluctant to confront them.Weimer (1988) and Rutherford (1991) havesuggested several reasons. First, because studentoffenses in the classroom tend not to beegregious, instructors are hesitant to challengethem. They ask themselves whether it might bebetter to ignore the behavior rather than to makea scene. Also, instructors hesitate to deal withmisbehaviors because they somehow feel theyare in blame, that the behavior points to somedeficiency in their teaching. Finally, instructors
hesitate to deal with disruptions because they aretruly unsure of what do.Instructors can be sure of two things. First, theyneed to do something. The longer inappropriatebehavior continues, the more acceptable itbecomes and the more difficult it is to stop it.Second, it is easier to prevent disruptivebehaviors than it is to deal with them after thefact. Establishing a positive climate in theclassroom, for example, can avert many problems.Creating a Constructive ClassroomEnvironmentThis section discusses four groups of specificstrategies that college teachers can use to guidetheir efforts in creating a constructive classroomenvironment: (1) defining expectations forstudent behavior at the outset, (2) decreasinganonymity by forming personal relationshipswith students, (3) seeking feedback from students,and (4) encouraging active learning. Some ofthese strategies are discussed elsewhere (Eble,1988, Erickson & Strommer, 1991, Lowman, 1984;Sorcinelli, 1990a).Define Expectations at the OutsetThe importance of defining a class at the outsetcannot be overstated. A carefully planned firstclass meeting, a clear syllabus, and simply relatingto students on a personal basis can help toestablish a good atmosphere and spare aninstructor many problems that may arise fromstudent uncertainty or confusion aboutguidelines for classroom behavior.Make good use of the first class. The first classmeeting offers an ideal opportunity both forwelcoming students and for communicatingexpectations for classroom conventions, such asarriving, leaving, and talking in class. Thechallenge lies in establishing both a pleasantatmosphere and a code of conduct. One of theprofessors on my campus, a scientist whoroutinely teaches a lecture course with fivehundred students, starts each first class byacknowledging the worries that go withbeginning a course in the sciences, by discussingthe constraints and the benefits of a large class,and by encouraging students to get to know him(e.g., bringing in topical articles from the localand campus paper, stopping by his desk beforeor after class). At the same time the professorconveys to students the notion that they havecertain responsibilities. He explicitly statesexpectations for behavior, asserting that –especially because the class is large –inattendance, tardiness, idle chatter, and cheatingcan only serve to break down the respectbetween teacher and students. Anothercolleague, this one in a professional school,videotapes her first class meeting so that studentswho are still completing their schedules orwaiting in line for a parking sticker will not missthe setting of both tone and conduct.Use the course syllabus to reinforce expectations. A clear,informative syllabus can reduce studentconfusion about appropriate behavior. It isimportant that teachers describe, in a positivemanner, what they anticipate and would like tosee in terms of classroom behavior. It is equallyimportant that they outline with candor, whatthey dislike. Put simply, the syllabus shouldindicate whatever rules are deemed necessary forthe course to run smoothly. For example, inorder to anticipate the common problems of lateassignments or missed classes and quizzes,teachers should state policies governing thesematters. To make clear their positions onstudents who arrive late or pack up early to leave,teachers should put into writing when and howthe class will start and conclude. Explaining therationale for setting such policies will make thepolicies seem less arbitrary and stern and willallow students to ask questions about classroommechanisms so that all are starting out with thesame assumptions.Let students participate in setting classroom rules. Classatmosphere can be enhanced significantly whenthe instructor is willing to entertain reasonablesuggestions and objections. Leaving someclassroom policies open for students to decideor giving students some choices withinprescribed limits is likely to be appreciated. Forexample, an instructor might tell students hecannot tolerate talking during his lectures, but canlive with students drinking a Coke or munchingon a candy bar. Other possibilities for choicemight include whether to drop the lowest quizscore, how much work to assign over vacationbreaks, or how many chapters in the text to coverfor a given test.
Decrease AnonymityA highly effective strategy for promoting positivebehavior involves reducing student anonymity.Large classes, of course, present more challengesthan do smaller, more personal classes.Nonetheless, the following are practical ways tofoster personal relationships with students anddecrease their sense of anonymity.Learn students’ names. Lowman (1984) has assertedthat “the easiest way to begin forming personalrelationships with students is to learn theirnames.” (p. 47). He has argued that learning eachstudent’s name is effective in promoting rapportbecause it begins personal contact immediatelybut does not seem forced or intrusive.There are a number of name-learning strategiesthat have proved successful for instructors.Using a seating chart for the first few weeks canbe helpful. This way, not only will a teacherlearn students’ names but the students will alsolearn each other’s. Eble (1988) and Lowman(1984), however, have found the seating chart toomechanical and impersonal and have offered atleast two alternatives. One is to practice namesassiduously at the start of a course and to usemnemonic devices such as placing students in acontext and setting up associations. The othermethod is to strengthen physical association byacquaintance with students’ work. For example,Eble has suggested that if a teacher gives frequentwritten assignments or quizzes, if he paysattention to names and faces when he returnspapers in class, and if he asks students to discusstheir work, he will tend to remember theirnames.Learn something about students. Another way toconnect with students on a personal basis is toadminister an open-ended questionnaire on thefirst day of class. Some teachers pass out indexcards and ask students about such things as whythey are taking the course, what attitudes theyhave toward the subject, and any distinguishinginterests or experiences they might want to share.Some instructors also help students to meet andestablish connections with other students byasking them to share their answers in groups oftwo or three before handing them in.Find ways to meet individually with students. Whileannounced office hours may signal aninstructor’s accessibility to students, manystudents are reluctant to use them. An alternativeway to encourage personal contact with studentsis to come to class early. This allows the teacherto “work the aisles,” chatting informally withstudents and eliciting their concerns. Similarly,staying awhile after class allows students tofollow-up with a question or idea that they mighthave been reticent to bring up in class. Severalfaculty members on our campus find it helpfulto schedule their office hours right after class. Inthat way, students who approach them after classhave a chance to accompany the teachers to theiroffices to continue discussion.Seek Feedback from StudentsAsking students for help in determining what isworking and what merits some attention is usefulin encouraging communication and establishing aresponsive tone.Find out how the class is going. One effectivetechnique for encouraging students tocommunicate is to administer an informal courseevaluation early in the semester (e.g., the thirdweek of class). Teachers should ask studentswhat they like about the course, what they don’tlike, what seems to work and what doesn’t, whatthey would like to see done differently, or anycombination of the above. Lowman (1984)suggested that the instructor write personal notesin the reply, thus completing the communicationcircle and strengthening the personalrelationship.Similarly, Cross and Angelo (1988) haverecommended “One-Minute Papers” as a quickand effective way to collect written feedbackabout a course or a specific class session,particularly in large lecture classes. Here, theinstructor asks students to write a brief answer tothe following two questions: “What was the mostimportant thing you learned in today’s class?”“What question or questions that you have fromtoday’s class remain unanswered?” Bothtechniques provide valuable self-correctingfeedback and, by demonstrating respect for andinterest in student reactions, encourage positiveengagement in the teaching and learning process.
Encourage Active LearningStudies on active learning suggest that methodssuch as student-centered discussions andcooperative-learning groups develop committedand positive relationships among class members.Students describe feeling more responsible forpreparing and coming to class, for payingattention during class, and for taking activeresponsibility for their own learning (Sorcinelli,1991).Descriptions of such active-learning methods ascooperative-learning groups, small-groupdiscussion, case study, role-playing, and writing-to-learn are detailed elsewhere (Erickson &Strommer, 1991, McKeachie, 1986). Some generalsuggestions for teachers are as follows:1. Encourage active learning by giving short in-class writing exercises to stimulate thoughton specific issues and to get more peopleinvolved. Prompt students to talk about theirideas by directing questions to themindividually or as a group. After discussion,collect written work and evaluate it with acheck, check plus, or minus.2. Small group discussions also work well.Break students into groups of two, three, orup to about five to discuss questions,accomplish specific tasks, or share in-classwriting. Reconvene as a class and solicitresponses from individual groups.3. To increase preparedness for the next class,assign questions from reading or lectures tobe discussed at the next session. Makestudents accountable and foster involvementby having them write their responses prior toclass, perhaps in preparation for group work.4 . During the last ten minutes of class,administer short quizzes that cover the fouror five most important points that you havecovered. These need only be evaluated witha check, check plus, or minus.Dealing with TroublesomeBehaviors in the ClassroomClearly, prevention is to be preferred toconfrontation. Defining a class at the outset,decreasing student anonymity, seeking feedbackfrom students, and encouraging active learningare preventive measures that allow instructors towork smoothly with students and to create anatmosphere that is conducive to positive,respectful attitudes. However, instructors maystill run into some students or classes that presentproblems. In this section, I offer some practicaladvice for dealing with such situations. All of thesuggestions given here address the immature andinattentive behaviors that faculty members reportas most troublesome (Appleby, 1990). Some ofthe recommendations are adapted from Weimer(1988) and Sorcinelli (1990a). They includestrategies for handling (1) talking and inattention,(2) unpreparedness and missed deadlines, (3)lateness and inattendance, and (4) directchallenges to authority.Talking and InattentionUsually the best time to handle a problem iswhen it occurs.1. If students are chatting, make direct eyecontact with them so that they know you seethem. Sometimes stopping the lecture,looking directly at the students, and resumingthe lecture when talking stops is enough toresolve the problem.2. Direct a question to someone right next tothe students. That focuses attention to thatarea of the class but avoids confrontations orputting anybody on the spot.3. Physically move toward that part of the room,again making eye contact with the students.4. As mentioned earlier, break the class intomini discussion groups or in some other wayvary the method of presenting or processingthe material.5. Speak to the student or students privatelyafter class or before the next session. Tellstudents who talk in class that their behaviordistracts you and the other students, and askthem please to refrain. With chronicallyinattentive students, try to ascertain the cause.Unpreparedness and MissedDeadlinesMake it clear to students that there are logicalconsequences if they don’t do their homeworkor if they turn in assignments late.1. If students are coming to class unprepared,then require evidence of preparation in the
form of chapter summaries, homework,writing exercises, but avoid a primitive tone,stance, or attitude.2. Consider requests, short assignments (e.g., alist, an outline, a paragraph, a solution to aproblem) to help students keep up with theirwork and study productivity. To ease theburden of grading, scan the assignments,evaluate them with a check or check plus (orminus for no assignment), and figure themtoward the total grade.3. If the policy is not to accept late papers, thendon’t accept them, except under the mostextraordinary circumstances – and then inprivate. Always document the rationale for achange in policy should your decision bechallenged by a third party.4. Regularly meet deadlines. If you say tests willbe graded and returned Friday, then get themback on Friday.Lateness and InattendanceIdeally, students should not skip classes or misshalf of each one. However, some do. Again, thenotion of reducing lateness and inattendance bytaking preventive steps makes sense.1. Establish an understanding with students:you expect them to come to class on time; inreturn you will start and finish as scheduled.2. In large lecture classes in particular, establisha starting ritual: moving to the podium,dimming the lights, reading a notablequotation or passage – whatever suits yourteaching style.3 . Many instructors leave the question ofattendance up the individual students. If yourequire attendance, be sure to have a systemfor reliably recording it and a policy tofollow up on those who are absent. Someinstructors make attendance or participationworth a specific percentage of the final grade.4. If you feel that a student’s absences areexcessive and are jeopardizing academicperformance, call or submit a letter to thestudent’s advisor, dean of the student’scollege, or the dean of student’s office anddiscuss it with the student.5. If a large percentage of students don’t cometo class, consider the possibility that they donot find sessions useful. Make sure not onlythat the material covered in class is vital tostudents’ mastery of the subject and theirperformance on tests and papers but also thatstudents understand the connection, too. Onthe day you give a test (attendance should behigh), ask students to write on a piece ofpaper the reasons why they are not attendingclasses regularly.Challenges to AuthorityAt some point in their career, most teacherswill have to face a student who is resentful,hostile, or challenging. The following are a fewsuggestions for gaining the cooperation of anoppositional student.1 . Don’t become defensive and take aconfrontation personally. Respond honestlyto challenges, explaining – not defending –your instructional objectives and howassignments and exercises contribute to them.Although the purpose of class activities andlectures may be obvious to you, studentsoften need to have these objectives madeexplicit.2. As a rule of thumb, avoid arguments withstudents in class. If a student continues topress, table the discussion until later and thencontinue it with the student privately. Listencarefully, openly, and calmly to the grievance.Sometimes the opportunity to express a feltgrievance may be more important to astudent than is a resolution.3. When talking to a disruptive student, tell thestudent that you value his or her goodcontributions, but point out how thebehavior that he or she is engaging innegatively affects you when you are teaching.Try to enlist the student’s cooperation insetting ground rules for acceptable behavior.4. Be honest when something doesn’t work asyou had planned. Students respondpositively when they see that you truly havetheir best interest in mind and aren’t justmaking things difficult in order to save face.5. On the rare occasion that a student is hostileor threatening, contact the ombudsman’s orthe dean of student’s office. Most campuseshave disciplinary procedures that protectfaculty as well as students.
ConclusionDealing with troublesome behavior in theclassroom is one of the most challenging aspectsof being a professor. Although instructors haveexpertise in their content areas, they often havelittle training in dealing with the interpersonaldynamics involved in working with students.And yet instructors want to create anenvironment of mutual respect, not one rife withadversarial relationships.The solutions available to instructors includeestablishing a positive environment in theclassroom to deter disruptive behavior andintervening directly (e.g., talking privately, settinglimits) to deal with inappropriate conduct.Perhaps most importantly, instructors need toconsider their own behavior as well as that oftheir students. An honest attempt to understandhow instructors’ classroom deportment mightcontribute to a difficult situation (e.g., arrivinglate for class, not following the syllabus,presenting unprepared lectures, ignoringstudents’ suggestions) may help to reduce thenumber of troublesome behaviors in theclassroom.Sorcinelli, M.D. (1994). Dealing with troublesomebehaviors in the classroom. In K.W. Prichard &R.M. Sawyer (Eds). Handbook of college teaching: Theoryand applications (pp. 365-373). Westport, CT:Greenwood Press. Reprinted with permission ofGreenwood Publishing Group, Inc. Westport,CT.ReferencesAmerican Council on Education and theCarnegie Foundation for the Advancementof Teaching (1990). Campus life: In search ofcommunity. Washington, DC: Author.Appleby, D.C. (1990). Faculty and studentperceptions of irritating behaviors in thecollege classroom. Journal of Staff, Program andOrganizational Development, 8 (2), 41-46Boice, R. (1992). The new faculty member. SanFrancisco: Jossey-Bass.Cross, K.P. & Angelo, T.A. (1988). Classroomassessment techniques: A handbook for faculty. AnnArbor: University of Michigan. NationalCenter for Research to Improve Post-secondary Teaching and LearningEble, K. (1988). The craft of teaching. San Francisco:Jossey-BassErickson, B.L. & Strommer. D.W. (1991). Teachingcollege freshmen. San Francisco: Jossey-BassLowman, J. (1984). Mastering the techniques ofteaching. San Francisco: Jossey-BassMcKeachie, W.J. (1986). Teaching tips: A guide for thebeginning college teacher (8th ed.). Lexington,MA: HealthRutherford, L.H. (1991). Trying time: Preventingand handling irksome classroom behavior.Instructional Development (University ofMinnesota, Duluth Campus). 1-2, 8Sorcinelli, M.D. (1990a, April). Dealing withtroublesome behavior in the classroom. Workshopand unpublished manuscript presented atUniversity of Massachusetts, AmherstSorcinelli, M.D. (1990b, November). Dealing withtroublesome behavior in the classroom. Paperpresented at the meeting of the ProfessionalOrganizational Development Conference,Tahoe City, CA.Sorcinelli, M.D. (1991). Research findings on theseven principles. In A.W. Chickering & Z.Gamson (Eds). Applying the seven principles forgood practice to undergraduate education (NewDirections for Teaching and Learning, No.47) pp. 13-25. San Francisco: Jossey Bass.Sorcinelli, M.D., & Austin, A. (Eds). (1992).Developing new and junior faculty (NewDirections for Teaching and Learning, No.50). San Francisco: Jossey Bass.Weimer, M.E. (1988). Ideas for managing yourclassroom better. The Teaching Professor, 2(2),3-4