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Desperately Seeking Civility

No, it's not just you! Many faculty are asking for advice on promoting classroom civility and working with disruptive students.

Okay, we’ve all been seated behind the wheel at a red light, when the car behind us blares the horn after the light’s been green for a nanosecond. And few will deny that the 10:00 a.m. class of freshmen is more challenging in terms of classroom behavior than the adult evening classes. But given the in-your-face rudeness seen in society and issues of student maturity, what can we do to promote classroom civility?

In his 1976 book The Fall of Public Man, Richard Sennett defines civility as that which “protects people from each other and yet allows them to enjoy each other’s company.” That sounds like a good climate to have in our college classrooms. But move to the other end of the behavior continuum to find the most commonly reported categories of student incivility, students who: (1) annoy and disrupt; (2) dominate; (3) challenge the teacher; and (4) challenge other students. Moreover, in his AAHE Bulletin article, “Essential Demographics of Today’s College Students,” E. J. Hansen reports that student preparedness has decreased over the years, while student academic self-confidence has steadily increased—certainly a twist capable of sparking conflicting expectations.

Students Have Their List, Too

Neither are students afraid to question teacher behavior. Atop their list of dislikes are teachers who appear distant, cold, and uncaring; teachers who come late to class; and teachers who change due dates at the last minute. In addition, it appears that pop quizzes rankle many students; so for those among us who see pop quizzes as motivators for completing out-of-class reading, consider giving a scheduled one-question quiz at each class session, and then on rare occasions announce a NO-quiz day—it’s all in the marketing!

Making Sense of Teacher Variability

As teachers, we exhibit vastly different reactions to student behavior due to our unique philosophy, interpretation, style, and tolerance—our PIST indicator. This makes it difficult for some students to calibrate how they should behave from one course to the next. For example, my philosophy may be that classroom rules should be set the first day of class, but you prefer to let rules emerge naturally as the need arises in your classroom. I may interpret a side conversation as students wanting to ask a question, whereas you may see this behavior as off-task. Your style may be to allow students to blurt out their important questions, while I prefer hand-raising and waiting to be called upon. You may tolerate gum chewers, where I find them very annoying. As a partial solution, don’t keep your PIST indicator a secret from students; instead, share and explain it early in the term before misunderstandings can surface.

Another part of the solution is to collaborate (where feasible) with others who teach the same or similar courses in order to develop expectations for students that are consistent. These may address classroom conduct as well as course assignments (e.g., what are our expectations for expository writing, and can we design and use the same student-writing rubric?).

Back to Philosophy: Know Thyself

If students come in thirds, so do teachers when it comes to establishing expectations for students. Identifying who we are can help guide us in promoting student civility. The first method is the On-the-Spot Approach, where teachers respond to student incivility by discussing expectations only after some infraction has disturbed the teaching-learning process. This approach allows students firsthand to see the purpose for a rule and have some role in establishing it. Often, the incivilities that spring up involve class disruptions such as beeping electronics, simultaneous talkers, small Fidos in designer purses, or broccoli-cheese-filled potatoes—I’ve seen them all.

The Preemptive Approach is the second method, where expectations are written in the syllabus and discussed at the first class meeting. These can take various forms, from a few general categories (e.g., don’t bring anything to class that makes noise, is/was living, or smells) to a laundry list of “dos and don’ts.” Another format I find particularly civil is a list of “Assumptions I Make about Students” and “Assumptions Students Can Make about Me” (see box). Also falling into this approach is the practice of establishing clear expectations prior to special activities (group work, poster session, guest speaker, or visit to the computer lab).

The last type is the Instructional Approach, where the heuristic methods are designed in part to promote student civility. First, recognize that students who have frequent side-conversations could be checking their understanding with a peer. With this as the assumption, plan a few three-minute sharing opportunities in each class session where students can check gaps in their knowledge and note-taking.

Second, recognize that because the sharing helps students become better acquainted, socializing is apt to increase—it’s always something! So, don’t let too much comfort set in. Have students mix it up by frequently changing seats and regrouping.

Third, to reduce the number of late arrivals and early departures, begin each class by having students write a response to a journal question; and end each class by giving the journal question that will be used for the next class session. The set of journal entries can count for 10% of the course grade; the two lowest (or missing) journals can be dropped. Journals are collected five minutes after class begins; no make-ups. Often, journal questions are based on out-of-class reading and provide a framework for understanding that day’s class concepts.

Leverage the Positive

If I could share only one piece of advice with a new teacher, it would be to assume a positive intent when motive for student behavior is in question. This mindset can translate into a more positive response from us. For example, to the student who is having a side conversation, we might say, “I’ll bet you have a good comment, so please share it with the rest of us.” To the student who is late to class, we might whisper, “You’re always so punctual. I hope you didn’t have a flat tire, or four!” To the student who is crankier than usual, “I understand about having a bad day, even in a class as much fun as this one!” These comments establish rapport and can evoke a more positive reaction.

Future Employers Want Social Skills, Too

Students today view the college degree as a ticket to greater job opportunities as compared with students of years past who saw college as the place for developing one’s philosophy of life (Astin 2007). Consequently, discussing qualities that are desirable to employers—communication skills, honesty and integrity, teamwork skills, interpersonal skills, motivation/initiative, and strong work ethic (National Association of Colleges and Employers Job Outlook, 2003)—can inform their behavior as they begin their journey as civil citizens. And this works for us educators in the here and now, too.

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Published In

February, 2009


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Thriving in Academe

  • anc_dyn_linksClassroom Civility
  • anc_dyn_linksTales From Real Life: A Civility Lesson
  • anc_dyn_linksDesperately Seeking Civility
  • anc_dyn_linksBest Practices: Assumptions We Can Make About One Another
  • anc_dyn_linksIssues To Consider: Thinking On Your Feet
  • anc_dyn_linksReferences & Resources