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My school has a recommendation, but not a requirement, not to let students eat during class. I am wondering if I should make this a rule or not for the classes I teach. I am concerned about my undergraduate students.

On one hand, the noise from rustling bags and crunching chips and bottles falling on the floor can be distracting. On the other hand, hungry students are distracted by hunger. This is a particular problem for my classes which start before 8 AM as students often skip breakfast and want to eat it during class (because they do not want to wake up early enough to eat before coming to school).

Since my main concern is on the learning, I would like to know how the issue of allowing eating during class actually impacts student learning.

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Your school's recommendation may be based on liability (food allergies, chem lab classes). –  Ben Crowell May 10 '14 at 2:40
When I was taking courses, I could not stand the smells and sounds of other student's eating activities. If there are folks in your class like me, then I think it's safe to assume that learning will be negatively affected in some way. The "food allergy angle" is also another important consideration. –  Mad Jack May 10 '14 at 3:15
@user11192 of course earthling's point about how not eating during class might negatively affect other students is also a valid one. –  David Z May 10 '14 at 7:25
My personal policy is not to make rules, except concerning how they're to do and turn in their work, unless I really have to. Some of my colleagues have explicit rules "no cell phones", "no eating", etc., but in my opinion this is at least a little disrespectful to the students -- unless, of course –  Anonymous May 10 '14 at 15:37
My department has short, informal lunchtime talks twice a week, where everyone listens while eating. It's certainly not a lecturing environment. I think asking your students to not eat noisy or smelly foods is only fair -- those who are there to learn don't want to be distracted by food. –  Moriarty May 10 '14 at 15:54

5 Answers 5

up vote 18 down vote accepted

Most of the answers here suggest limiting or prohibiting eating in the classroom, but I have to disagree.

First, students generally do not control their own schedules. Personally, I often had five or six hours of class back-to-back as an undergrad, and I was not unusual in that regard. Yes, there are breaks between classes, but students need that time to get to the next classroom. In addition, many professors let their class go overtime, reducing the length of the break. If you prohibit eating, hungry students will simply choose to arrive late after getting a snack, which defeats the idea of minimizing disruptions by prohibiting eating.

Second, you don't know what medical issues a particular student has: they may be diabetic or need to eat at regular intervals for other reasons. While a student can tell you about this at the start of the term, I don't like the idea of forcing students to discuss their medical issues with every professor, every term. After all, students who get special classroon accommodations due to a disability are not obliged to tell their professors what the specific disability is.

For these reasons, if the university does not have a specific policy, I would tend to be lenient at first. Most students are reasonable people who won't show up to class with a five course dinner. If a specific concern arises during the term, such as very noisy food or garbage being left behind, you can address it either with the individual student or the class as a whole, as appropriate.

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In addition to the scenarios described above, here are two more that occur very frequently for me. (1) The class is scheduled for 5:30 pm, in order to fit the schedules of students who work 9-5. The class consists of lecture followed immediately by lab, which runs until 10 pm. There is simply no way for the students to have time to eat dinner except in class. (2) Lecture runs from 10:30 am to noon. Lab goes from noon to 3 pm. Again, there is no realistic way for students to do their eating outside of class. –  Ben Crowell May 10 '14 at 16:09
@BenCrowell Do you not have breaks for students going to the bathroom between classes? If yes, the student may eat his sandwich during those breaks. –  Alexandros May 11 '14 at 8:11

EDITED: As you mention, there are two competing issues here: Running low on carbohydrates and especially hydration leads to decreased cognitive ability; but eating is a distraction from attending the lectures. I have found mostly opinions and little hard data on this, for example

The consensus seems to be that water (in sealable bottles) should definitely be allowed, and that students should not go longer than three hours without a chance to snack. This would suggest treating the classroom like a study place in a library: Water (or anything that doesn't leave a mess when spilled) yes, snacks only during breaks.

One thing to keep in mind that diabetic students will have more strict requirements on when (and what) to snack, which should be accommodated, see http://care.diabetesjournals.org/content/6/2/180.full.pdf. Not allowing other students the same opportunity to refuel might be seen as unfair.

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I'm an undergraduate student with diabetes, and I've definitely gotten the "why does he 'get' to eat" question or look from other students. I'm fairly open about handling my medical needs, and I don't hesitate to eat or do injections in class when necessary. I still appreciate it though when a professor doesn't make a big issue out of eating in class, because it avoids other students perceiving it as "unfair" and being jealous of me for simply taking care of my medical needs. –  nhinkle Aug 1 '14 at 16:24

I don't have any data on this, just an idea.

You could mention the rule (and justification), ask students to please come fed, and say that if you're really hungry you would still prefer that they attend class and be discreet: sit near the back, don't make undue noise, etc.. That would hopefully minimize the disruption to student learning without making you seem unreasonable.

(If I were the university administration, I would probably do away with 8 am classes; younger people (especially teenagers) have circadian rhythms that run a bit later than older or younger folk. I do not think it speaks that ill of students that they don't want to wake up early enough; it's probably quite difficult for quite a lot of them. High schools are beginning to adjust.)

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I am not sure if there is any hard data on this but reflecting back on the undergrad years I think we can all provide some perspective on the effects of food consumption in class.

If there is a clear cut school policy (not your case, as you indicated) then there is little you can, and should, do. Otherwise as the teacher you should make the rules of the game clear for the students from the first day. If you intend to allow eating, then ask first for any allergies that might be relevant. At our university, we had some students who had severe allergies to peanuts. Thus there was a campus-wide ban on peanuts.

If the classes are longer than 45 mins it might be tricky with the morning lectures. As the OP mentions, many students skip breakfast on occasion, willingly or otherwise. I believe you can get away with banning eating, would probably be better off actually... Food that speaks to one or more of the senses besides visual (smell, sounds etc..) might be distracting to others.

But be vary of drinking; both coffee (in the morning) and water (all day) might be vital for students to be able to keep focus, and extend their attention span.

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I do not have any hard data, but my personal opinion (by both teaching multiple classes and being a student) is to simply do not let the students eat during class. There are many-many reasons for that:

  • If this contradicts official university policy, then it might cause you problems for not conforming to university's rules
  • If you allow them to eat, in other classes they might say: "But earthling allows us to eat, why do not you?" which will further cause more problems with your colleagues
  • Your students are adults and you are not their mother. They should learn to eat when allowed, go to bathroom on their own and drink water when they are thirsty. You must prepare them for the outside world when they will not eat whenever they want but will frequently have to miss / reschedule / postpone lunch for important business or family reasons.
  • Classes are not for eating or drinking. If someone spills his "hot cocoa", will you be the one cleaning the mess up for the next class? University cleaning ladies / gentlemen are not your or your students' private maids to clean after the mess created due to meals. For that reason eating is usually restricted to cafeterias, restaurants and not classes.
  • The more "unreasonable" freedom you provide the more problems you will get later down the way. What will you do when someone brings a refreshment? Or perhaps a beer? How will you define what food / drink is allowed or not? And what if some food gets on their clothes or hands? They will then need to go the bathroom to clean up. And if you ask a student something and he replies "Not now I am eating". What will you do?
  • Think of those students who are hungry and are not eating inside class because they want to focus on your class or out of respect for you. Would not they be distracted if the guy next to them eats a pizza? Or someone gets dirty even if he is not eating by the next student spilling his coffee?

Conclusively, students do not need a new friend or mother. They have one. They need a good teacher. A teacher who will teach them what they do not know and prepare them sufficiently for the outside world by learning them to respect boundaries and workspace rules. And this is a job that teachers must do, because parents due to their infinite love for their children are usually not able to enforce such strict guidelines. As a result, especially in the beginning, this will require some "tough love". Once you have their respect and they "earned" your respect, you can be more lenient. And allowing them to eat during class is contradictory to all these concepts.

UPDATE: Some additional reasons for people to be angry at:

  • Only infants need to be fed every 1-2 hours. A healthy adult can survive days or weeks without food (see hunger strikes). Therefore, there is no medical reason that one healthy student cannot survive 2-3 hours without food. If there is a medical reason for that (diabetes), the student still has a choice: a) he can skip class to get something to eat, if he believes his health is jeopardised b) he can wait until the break c) or he may get excused (going to the bathroom) and grab a bite for 5 minutes (such a student would always bring some food with him). As a result, there is no need to enforce a global rule for a few students who might need to eat more frequently than 2-3 hours.
  • Since ancient ages, eating is a social event / gathering. People tend to talk when they eat. That is why university restaurants are one of the noisiest places in a campus. Suppressing this natural urge would be hard for any student.
  • According to @scaaahu suggestions: If students are allowed to eat, so does the teacher. Even more so: The teacher is an employee therefore he has more rights than the customer / student. But most students I know would be probably offended if their teacher is eating spaghetti, when a student is asking a question. Or to rephrase as @scaaahu proposed: "If an instructor can arrange to have breakfast before going to teach a morning class, why can't students do it?"
  • Everybody focused on the time-dimension of eating, where none focused on space dimension. E.g. There are multiple places, where eating is forbidden: You do not eat during a trial in a courtroom (nobody complained there that diabetic lawyers or judges would die of hunger), you do not eat your food in a church during mass, you do not eat a pizza inside a taxi, there are many public transport means that prohibit eating, you do not eat inside the server room, on many jobs you are not allowed to eat in your office but there is kitchen / dining room for that etc.. In this sense not eating inside a classroom during class, is not different that any of those cases and not really an academic "freedom" issue.
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I don't know how students will react to this one. But, I know for sure most Eastern world parents (not the students) will love to see this answer. They pay the tuition for their kids to go to college, not for them to use Internet all night and then eat breakfast in the classroom while listening to the instructor. –  scaaahu May 10 '14 at 13:09
You must prepare them for the outside world when they will not eat whenever they want but whenever they are allowed to. Wait, what?? –  user15108 May 10 '14 at 14:02
...long hours without food. What this has to do with 1.30 hour long classes in university? –  Alexandros May 10 '14 at 14:18
There are good reasons to take one's freedom to eat food that are noisy, smelly, or if it can damage expensive equipments. There are no good reasons to forbid someone who eat discreetly on the corner and leaves their desk cleaner than before. It's not your business if a student is focuses so much on their food that they don't pay attention to the class, as long as they don't disturb the class in any other way, you are not their mother; they are responsible adults who should partake in their own learning, if they misses the opportunity, that's their own problem. –  Lie Ryan May 10 '14 at 21:31
Your students are adults and you are not their mother. They should learn to eat when allowed... — You have a rather disturbing definition of "adult". –  JeffE May 11 '14 at 13:45

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