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Ask Professor Pedagogy: Disruptive Students

Posted by on Friday, July 12, 2013 in Commentary.

Ask Professor Pedagogy is a twice monthly advice column written by Center for Teaching staff. One aspect of our mission is to cultivate dialogue about teaching and learning, so we welcome questions and concerns that arise in the classroom; particularly those from Vanderbilt faculty, students, and staff. If you have a question that you’d like Professor P to address, please send it to us.

Dear Professor Pedagogy,

I am a new instructor and am reflecting on the spring semester. The semester started out fine. But as it progressed, several students have began to challenge me in the classroom in ways that were increasingly disruptive. At first, I welcomed their interjections as engaged challenges to the material, but their conduct became less helpful and more argumentative. It seemed that they never failed to contradict whatever I had to say or the works I presented. With each class session, they seemed to get bolder in not only attacking me or the works under consideration, but became increasingly intolerant of other student’s voicing their opinions. I feel like I lost control of the class, and don’t want to to happen again in the fall! Help!

Frustrated and Confused


Dear F.C.,

This happens more frequently than many suppose, especially when you’re new to teaching and you’re teaching undergraduates. You are not alone and it sometimes happens to the best teachers because the erosion of authority takes time to occur as you have observed. Students, who were at first engaged, become mildly disruptive and within a week or so, the same students can be downright uncivil. It is difficult to tell exactly what has happened in your class because so much of what happens is often contextual and dependent on factors that are hard to discern in a question, but here are some “best-practices” that the CFT has identified as being extremely helpful in preventing student incivility and effectively addressing the challenge of incivility when it surfaces:

Prevention: Establish your authority and the expectations for proper class decorum at the beginning of a class. Set the tone. Put your expectations in the class syllabi. Some other successful strategies include maintaining and conveying “the same level of respect and confidence in the abilities of all your students.” Additionally, you can set a good example by displaying a positive attitude and refraining from making comments that might invite a hostile response from your students.

Get feedback: Ask your students, at mid-term if possible, for feedback (both positive and negative) that can be used to improve your teaching and interaction skills. The CFT can perform a small group analysis for you, if you’re interested. Additionally, many instructors find that asking the CFT to perform an observation of their course provides them with valuable feedback about their teaching and their students.

Classroom Intervention: It is important, especially at the beginning of the semester, to intervene and stop disruptive behaviors as soon as possible. Incivility happens in many forms and can be addressed in a variety of ways:

  • If the problems are general annoyances, try referring to the problem in general, rather than calling attention to specific students: “It’s really hard to have a class discussion with side conversations going on.” or “Please don’t pack up yet. There is still 5 minutes of class and I intend to use that time.”
  • For those students who are dominating the classroom conversation, use discussion-leading techniques that encourage more people to participate. (In fact, I answered a question about this recently). If the problem persists, ask the students to see you individually after class so you can discuss the issue privately. Try to keep it good-humored: you appreciate their eagerness and involvement, but more learning will occur if more people participate.
  • If students continue to challenge you, consider ways you might present yourself in a more authoritative manner. Suggestions often include projecting your voice more, moving around the room and using larger gestures, dressing somewhat more formally to increase the “distance” between you and your students. Being very organized and prepared also reduces students’ perceptions that you may be unsure of yourself.

Out of Class Interventions: These can be as simple as meeting with the disruptive students, one on one, during office hours. During that discussion, try to identify specific issues and stick with them. Express interest in the student’s point of view, and be sure you give him/her a chance to talk without interrupting. Try not to be defensive. Explain policies, grading, etc., but don’t get into a long defense.

The main thing to remember is that young instructors and young students are both unsure in their roles. Sometimes students, in their desire to make good grades, may pose questions about content, interpretation, or assignments that seem to be a challenge to your authority. Err on the side of caution. Model the behavior you would like to see them adopt. Remain calm; acknowledge their concerns, but remain firm in your judgment.

Overt frustration with the students will only encourage students to respond in kind.

Don’t suffer in silence. Discuss the problem with your department chair or another trusted colleague, and ask them to help you develop a plan for dealing with it. You can also set up a consultation with the CFT or review these additional resources:

I hope these suggestions and best-practices will help you regain control of the class and get the learning back on track.

Prof. P


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