63

Term just started and I think every class does have some students who sit in the back (which is totally fine) but sometimes are challenging to deal with when they show some disrespect towards other students who wish to participate.

For example, if their colleague asks a question they start laughing. I try to be nice by asking if their colleague's question reminded them of an incident (in order to get them engaged). They say no and when I turn my back they keep on laughing.

I know I shouldn't take this seriously but I find it challenging at times to figure out how to deal with such kind of students. I know they might not be interested in my material but still want to be physically available which is fine. I don't know how to say enough is enough in a kind way such that they appreciate other students' questions.

This concerns last year undergraduate students. If you have any advice for such situations please share best practices.

5
  • 9
    Caution. When I was an undergraduate, my colleagues and I made up a lot of really juvenile jokes that bore just enough relation to course material to be effective mnemonics for that course material, i.e. to be pedagogically useful. Oct 5 at 13:53
  • 1
    @DanielHatton You have described the first year of medical school. We didn’t even make most of them up; they were already well established. (I just searched; they have cleaned them up.)
    – Damila
    Oct 6 at 2:12
  • 2
    Related/Dupe : How to quiet noisy undergrads students during lecture
    – J...
    Oct 6 at 18:12
  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – Bryan Krause
    Oct 6 at 18:48
  • 1
    Have you tried asking that student to answer the question, especially if it's nontrivial and it appears the bully is just trying to disparage the questioner for wanting to learn the material?
    – WBT
    Oct 7 at 22:33

14 Answers 14

160

In my opinion, you should take this seriously. What you are observing is bullying. The students that are asking questions, and trying to participate, need to know that you have their back.

For example, during class, as soon as students start laughing:

"Excuse me, X was asking a question."

"Please be respectful of other students."

After class, follow up by email, again asking them to stop. I wouldn't worry too much about trying to be "kind" or "nice"; instead, ask them directly to stop laughing at others. If the behavior continues, threaten disciplinary action, and follow through if necessary.

Good luck.

12
  • 4
    +1 But could you be more specific about disciplinary action? I don't believe my university has any procedure set up for this.
    – Kimball
    Oct 5 at 12:04
  • 98
    Actually, the behavior is disrespectful to everyone including the instructor.
    – Buffy
    Oct 5 at 13:04
  • 9
    @Kimball Many universities have an "Office of Student Conduct" or similar, and I would probably make a referral there. Alternatively, OP could ask their chair, dean, or ombuds what formal avenues exist at their university.
    – academic
    Oct 5 at 13:14
  • 25
    At my institution, disruptive students could be removed from the class; they got a grade of F. In that case, a caution about the consequences, especially if it came from chair, dean, etc. might be effective.
    – Bob Brown
    Oct 5 at 14:58
  • 8
    Options vary widely. In contrast to @BobBrown's experience, at my school the instructor definitely cannot remove a student from class permanently; only one session at a time. And then one time I asked for that from public safety they denied I had that option and wouldn't do it (despite being explicitly written in the faculty handbook). Oct 5 at 22:52
77

I'm afraid my response would not be as diplomatic as those suggested in the other answers.

This concerns last year undergraduate students.

You are dealing with adults. Moreover, your are dealing with adults who are likely paying tuition in order to attend your lectures. This isn't grade school; attendance is not compulsory, and they are free to leave if they feel your class is not worth their time.

For the first and second incidents, I would respond as suggested by academic:

"Excuse me, your classmate is speaking. Do you have something to contribute?"

Hopefully this puts an end to their disruption. If not, I would respond to subsequent offenses with stronger language:

"Excuse me, why are you here? If you don't feel like you can prevent yourself from disrupting our class, you are free to leave. No one will stop you. If you need this class for degree credits, consider dropping it and re-enrolling at such a time that you've matured to a point where you can contribute meaningfully to the discussion."

I realize this is more confrontational than most instructors are willing to be. That said, embarrassment can be a very effective means of making your point.

10
  • 10
    It feels as if after saying these students are adults, you suggest speaking to them as if they were children Oct 5 at 21:13
  • 72
    Au contraire, Owen. Children should be addressed with grace and patience. The disruptors here are adults, so the expectation is that they act as adults. If they choose to act with disrespect, that disrespect will be returned.
    – acvill
    Oct 5 at 21:23
  • 20
    @rackandboneman: Just because they are customers doesn't mean that they can be disrespectful and fail to follow rules. If I pay $10 to visit a museum attached to a famous church and I don't follow the "Please be quiet and respectful" signs, I would expect to be reminded of the sign by a guard. If I go to Macy's, pick up a frying pan and start yelling that BrandX pans are crap, then I'd likely be escorted from the store, even if I had just bought (and paid for) merchandize. I've "fired" customers before.
    – Flydog57
    Oct 7 at 0:55
  • 4
    @rackandboneman all the other students who are being disrupted are customers too by the same token
    – benxyzzy
    Oct 7 at 17:08
  • 1
    @SethR That's my point. From the "say this to them" part the advice seems to be: if they act like children, treat them like children. But the part above with "adults" doesn't lead us there. It looks as if the answerer started writing one answer and changed into another 1/2-way. Oct 7 at 21:30
47

I understand your challenge. Have you established house rules at the start of your course? If not, you still can. Also, you could consider inviting the misbehaving students for a one-on-one in your office.

4
  • 60
    It's not too late. You could say "I didn't expect that I would have to put up house rules about behavior that can be assumed from an average adult person, but here we go" Oct 5 at 11:54
  • 8
    Are people downvoting based on a misunderstanding? @Mario did write that it is NOT too late.
    – erc
    Oct 5 at 13:14
  • 1
    @erc Oops, that was the case for me! Thanks for clarifying. Now upvoted Oct 6 at 8:57
  • "House rules at the start of the course" - explain basic human decency at the start of a college course? If you have to explain this stuff, it should only be explained when the circumstance arises, and no more then once - otherwise the perp doesn't belong in said classroom. Oct 8 at 18:47
25

My solution might not be yours, but I learned from many (many) years as a student and professor that when one student asks a question, others in the class also have that question but aren't brave enough to answer it.

I developed a facial expression (one raised eyebrow) that can be used to express skepticism or extreme displeasure. I might walk over to an offending student (for this or other actions) and simply look down and put on "that face". They got the idea pretty quickly. But an invitation to my office, or to leave the room, might be appropriate if the behavior continues.

The second possibility would be to hand one of the offenders the board marker (chalk in the early days) and ask them to show the answer/solution to the question. It won't work for everyone, but for many it is a clear disincentive.

Both of these are a bit aggressive, of course, so I hesitate to recommend it to non-tenured faculty. But, you could also have a conversation with the department head and ask for advice, perhaps making a couple of suggestions for a response.

I never had a problem with administration over some seemingly radical actions, but sometimes you have to do somewhat dramatic things to get through to people.

9
  • 13
    "The second possibility would be to hand one of the offenders the board marker (chalk in the early days) and ask them to show the answer/solution to the question." Perhaps, but that can backfire badly --- sometimes the unruly students are ahead of the curve, and enjoy showing off.
    – Ben
    Oct 5 at 20:40
  • 5
    @Ben. yes, true enough. It won't work for everyone.
    – Buffy
    Oct 5 at 20:42
  • 2
    -1 for advising things that "are a bit aggressive, of course". I've approached a student like that in the past and he and his buddy jumped out of their chairs and threatened to attack me ("don't come at me, yo") and then ran from the room. Never again. Oct 5 at 22:56
  • 8
    @DanielR.Collins: Sometimes I find what you report in your comments a bit scary (honestly; no sarcasm intended). Walking over to a student with a displeasured look on the face, or asking them to answer a question on the board if they just disrupted the class, makes some students threaten the instructor at your college? How do you manage to teach your students anything under such circumstances? (I mean this is a genuine question - I think I personally would be completely desperate within weeks.) Oct 6 at 9:33
  • 2
    @JochenGlueck: Thanks for thinking about that. :-) I've only had to call security a few times (but again, I stopped certain interactions after that one event). Took a self-defense course to get more confident physically. The real problem is the lower-level (remedial) classes full of sad, helpless, desperate students who are illiterate and find it impossible to learn 4th-grade math; higher-level classes are more reasonable. At this point I'm pretty anti-open-admissions. Oct 6 at 13:06
10

Irrespective of whether this rises to the level of bullying or not (and I don't really want to get into the weeds on that), as an academic teaching undergraduates, you need to learn to "control the room". Undergraduates are generally young and sometimes immature. Consequently, you should ensure that your classroom is being run by a responsible adult (you) and you should avoid allowing a situation where "the inmates run the asylum". This is a situation you should take seriously, and I think you should look at it in a broader sense that abstracts from the specific problem you are having with these partiular unruly students.

Establishing authority in a classroom (without being overbearing yourself) is a subtle art, but you can speak to experienced academics in your department and get them to help you with this. As a general rule, if there is persistent misbehaviour, you can start out with polite requests, then escalate to calm but firm statements of what you require, and then escalate to removing students from the classroom. In extreme cases you might escalate to a private meeting or a disciplinary action. In some cases it can be appropriate to give unruly undergraduates a bit of a "dressing down" (usually in private) to enforce behavioural standards.

From your description of the problem here, it sounds like you have probably already established an atmosphere in your classroom where misbehaving students do not take your authority and instructions seriously. This can be difficult to remedy for the class under consideration, but it is a good prompt to try to start your next course with a commitment to establishing control over the room early on in the course. Seek help from experienced academics and have them sit in on a class with you to observe if that would be helpful (but take account of the Hawthorne effect).

1
  • 1
    The professional phrase is "classroom management". The university will teach this skill in its education faculty, for classes of both children and of adult learners.
    – vk5tu
    Oct 8 at 1:03
8

Maybe some of you will find this a bit harsh but as a student, I had last year a professor asking the question back to the people laughing :

John, can you answer the question you are laughing at?

If he failed, he would get a small remark from the professor and was laughed at, a bit. People quickly stop chuckling at each other questions and from then. It became the favourite professor of a big part of the class.

Note that he almost never asked the question if it could be answered, in this case, he directly made a remark.

5

Simply have them leave the class, they cannot disrupt if they are not there and a very strong message is sent to the others that it will not be tolerated. Repeat interruptions simply drop them from the class. I taught ordnance disposal and never tolerated for 1 instant a source of disruption. I would show them a photo of someone who needed to be fed, wiped, placed into bed, bathed for life. They were not even able to kill themselves and were a burden to everyone they loved for the rest of their life. Just have them leave, the remaining students will thank you for it and you can fulfil your goal of imparting knowledge instead of playing class cop.

5
  • "I would show them a photo [...] for the rest of their life." Is this lecture material that they were laughing at? Or is this supposed to be some form of punishment??
    – Drake P
    Oct 6 at 4:33
  • 4
    @DrakeP, In the context of ordinance disposal, the gesture means, "If you don't pay attention, you may blow off one or more of your appendages and end up in this situation" Oct 6 at 8:01
  • 3
    I think you mean 'ordnance'. Ordinance is a local by-law & not likely to result in such extreme consequences if mishandled ;)
    – Tetsujin
    Oct 6 at 8:38
  • 3
    @Tetsujin: A course teaching the disposal of local by-laws might be just as interesting. ;)
    – Ben
    Oct 6 at 9:21
  • @Tetsujin As in "From October 2014, student discipline matters will no longer be handled by the statutes, but by special ordInance". Oct 10 at 10:51
3

I mostly agree with the general theme of the other answers here, but figured I'd contribute by making something very explicit: You absolutely should take this seriously, and furthermore whatever you do should ensure that the number of times that a student behaves disruptively in such a manner is kept in the low single digits.

I'm surprised that this behavior has not yet completely stifled participation from the rest of the class. That shows that the at least some of the other students are headstrong enough to ensure they get the best of their education despite the rude interruptions of others; not all students will be this way and it should not be expected of them.

The other answers have already given suggestions on how to escalate if the problem does not resolve. But you also need to make clear to yourself that at some point in this escalation there needs to be a step that reads "inform the offending students they are no longer welcome at your lecture", regardless of what else you may do. You cannot allow this to have a long term effect on the degree to which other students feel comfortable making the most of your class.

2

If you know the names of the offenders, I would contact them directly by email asking them to show respect for other students in the class.

If you don't know the names, if such an event occurs, without calling anybody out, I'd ask the class to please show respect to the others in the class. If the behavior continues, you have the option of immediately asking the students to leave the room, or pull them aside after class and tell them that they'll be asked to leave the room after such an event in the future.

2

In addition to giving warnings and removing students from class if they don't heed the warning, you should also consider if attending class is really necessary. If not, and it's good enough if students submit homework problems, then that should be mentioned at the beginning of the course. You then don't have bored students in your class who would rather do something else if attendance was not compulsory.

2

In my classes, part of their grade is professionalism. In the syllabus, it's a multiplier applied to their final grade, so there is no limit to how much impact it can have. I explain on the first day of class that any disrespectful behavior toward me or any other student will immediately result in a reduced grade, per the syllabus.

Since you didn't start out this way, I would make an announcement at the beginning of class that being respectful toward your peers and toward the class content is a part of their participation grade (I'm sure you have something like this in your syllabus), and that any comments that distract from questions or other educational activities will henceforth result in reduced final grades with the possibility of failing. I would do perhaps a half a letter grade per incident. Be serious and prepared to do it.

I would not call anyone out specifically during class time as that may further embarrass the person asking the question and make an enemy of the offender. Instead, you may want to send private emails to the offenders letting them know that they are at risk for a participation penalty. Even better, ask them to come to your office, separately, and then tell them in person what you expect from them in a serious but not punitive tone.

Making class less educational for others is a significant offense, and I think it should be treated as such. If you have a repeat offender, start a paper trail so if you need to fail them, you can do so.

You need to be very professional and sober about this. You set the tone for the class and can be a powerful influence on them without having to explicitly punish anyone.

3
  • So you can give a student a 0 with a perfect exam if you think the student was not "professional enough"? This can very easily be abused by instructors to give worse grades to people they "don't like", and it also removes any right the student has to a review of their grade, because there is no proof and no objective measure of "professionalism". I doubt that this system is allowed in many universities, and I hope it is not.
    – wimi
    Oct 7 at 13:12
  • 1
    @wimi It's pretty easy to make it objective - as farnsy says, all you need to do is give them notice in writing each time they do it. They would be entitled to challenge each of those warnings, and they would be entitled to challenge the verdict on their degree of unprofessionalism at the end of the course. Whether it's fair or unfair, there's a reviewable body of evidence which either side can use.
    – Graham
    Oct 7 at 14:32
  • 1
    I have never been at a university that micromanaged grades. I do have to file some paperwork in order to actually fail a student and my guess is that they could appeal that, though I have never heard of it happening. However, to give a student a C based on subjective factors when they would have an A if their behavior was better is certainly permitted. There are many university classes where grades are mostly or totally subjective. Not mine, but they exist.
    – farnsy
    Oct 7 at 23:05
2

The questions might (intentionally or unintentionally) be hilarious.

I would ask what is funny about the question. This isn't guaranteed to get an answer as sometimes for various reasons people don't want to or can't articulate why something is funny, but it seems to be a good place to start. Or you could ask some other people about the questions, and see if any of them think they are funny. I think it would probably be okay to share some examples of the questions here.

If the laughing students are not actually laughing out of amusement, then I would first get that agreed on, and then ask why them they are laughing. If they say, "no reason", then explain calmly and respectfully (kindly, if that is your preference) that you are finding it difficult to teach when they are laughing, and that you would appreciate it if they would not laugh while another student is asking a you a serious question.

By treating them with respect, you increase the chance that they will treat you with respect.

If this doesn't work, then you can try again, asking whether or not they are willing to agree to stop laughing when other students are asking serious questions. If they say no, then you can ask why not, or if you don't care why not, explain that they will be kicked out of your class or whatever if they don't agree to it.

That's what I'd like to think I would do.

3
  • 1
    The answer is great starting from "Explain calmly and respectfully that you are finding it difficult to teach". The decision tree at the beginning of the answer leaves lots and lots of tricky branches unconsidered, and all the branching doesn't seem necessary anyway; if it's difficult to teach with the laughing, that's true no matter why they're laughing, so don't bother asking about it. Oct 7 at 7:22
  • 1
    @DanielWagner I partially take your point about the "tricky branches". I pruned the answer accordingly, and generally improved the English. Maybe the problem in the lectures is the questions. For example, what if the questions are subtly improper, and the laughing students are trying to let the lecturer know that by laughing? Or the students simply can't control themselves, because the questions are so hilariously improper? Oct 7 at 20:01
  • That's a good point, thank you for that! Oct 7 at 22:28
1

You did not add a country name but since you mention "undergraduate", I guess this is the US - my perspective is French.

I had once this case when teaching (first year of university). I asked once "What is the problem?", and then "Leave the course now" when they were maliciously sniggering again. They tried to explain that I have no right to throw them out, I said "leave now" again and they left.

This did not happen afterward (they were back for the next course).

I think you should take this very seriously. It is a juvenile attempt to see who is stronger, and if you want to have a normal year you should be over the top to show that this cannot happen.

Getting rid of this behaviour is also something you do for other students so that they are not afraid to ask questions.

Disclaimer: this is for France, a country where students come to study and there is no expectation that they are "paying customers". They are students and learn from a teacher, whose role is also to keep the course in one piece.

One note that is probably not relevant: I had a hard time once, as a student, to not burst into laughter when someone asked a question. The question was generic, it is just that we've been teasing each other with other students (yeah, I know) and it was that time when you giggle about anything. I do not believe that this is your case at it seems to be repeated, but a mea culpa just in case.

-1

Instead of taking a rude or passive-aggressive approach, you should just lay out the facts of the situation to everyone. Just say,

"It seems like people are laughing after questions are being asked; while you may be laughing at something unrelated to the questions, it's hard for people to know you aren't laughing at what they said. Please exercise judgement when deciding when to laugh."

If students keep it up after this, then just say "name, that was a inappropriate time to laugh" at each occurrence.

1
  • Honestly, this is probably a fast track for someone to lose all credibility. I would not be surprised if the answer was another burst of laughter. If you then say "it was inappropriate to laugh" you are cooked.
    – WoJ
    Oct 9 at 19:23

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.