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Classroom Civility

Is It Just Me?

By Cynthia Desrochers, The California State University

The erosion of classroom decorum affects our success as teachers, as well as our students’ success as learners.

Although most college students are well-mannered, a few poorly behaved students can spoil class for the rest. Why might students act uncivilly (aka, rude) in today’s college classrooms? To answer this complex question, we might categorize student actions as arising from student will, skill, or ill.

Student will is motivation towards goal attainment. Although, ultimately, motivation lives within the student, our teaching decisions can encourage student motivation. Examples include sequencing course assignments from simple to complex; allowing students to personalize assignments to reflect their interests; and arranging prompt, specific, and encouraging feedback on student work.

If we attribute poor behavior to a lack of student skill, we might take a different approach, perhaps teaching a replacement skill. For instance, encourage an overly dominating student to let others speak by using a group task, Talking Chips, whereby each student in a foursome must place his/her pen in the center of the group in order to speak in turn, all pens being forfeited before anyone speaks a second time.

Lastly, some students are ill with emotional problems that may be interpreted as incivility. This situation requires immediate and specialized attention, beginning with your department chair, moving to the dean of student affairs, and perhaps the counseling center. An ill student needs appropriate help and so do you.

Meet Cynthia Desrochers

Cynthia Desrochers is professor and faculty director of the Institute for Teaching and Learning, California State University Office of the Chancellor, where she provides system-level faculty professional development for the largest university system in the world, with 23 campuses and almost 450,000 students. Cynthia has consulted in 27 states and internationally on topics relating to teaching and learning, coaching and supervision, and organizational understanding. She served on the Board of Directors of the Professional and Organizational Development (POD) Network in Higher Education, chaired POD's Innovation Award committee, and is currently on the editorial board of Innovative Higher Education. She can be reached at

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