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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
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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
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@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
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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
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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

4 Answers 4

up vote 19 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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