Last week I taught my first exercise session. I am a PhD student so the kind of classes that I will teach are exercise sessions about what the Professor explained in the theory class. They essentially have to work problems and I have to explain and help them with their approach in solving them.

Students of the same year are divided into small groups. I had about 25 students and from what I noticed: 17 were working hard, 7 were working more slowly with less interest and 1 was watching videos with his smartphone.

I tried to get his attention in a kind way several times (by going to him and telling something like "I know that videos are funnier than this theoretical stuff but if you want to practice for the exam you should do also exercises") but even if he stopped and started to read the exercises then he always restarted watching videos.

Since I will not assign grades and this kind of class is not mandatory, his participation will change nothing in his final grade. So at a certain point I just wanted to ask him why is he attending. There are many seats outside the class where he could sit and watch videos, but I just stopped to get his attention and I left him watching videos. I made this decision because he was watching videos/surfing the web without audio and without annoying the other students.

What is the best way to deal with these situations?

  • 22
    Anecdotally, in my last tutorial there used to always be a student in the room before we started, working on programming assignments. He was not part of my tutorial group, he sat in the last row, never made any noise and just stayed there when everyone else left. In the first session I did not know who was who yet and thought he might be one of my students. In the second I decided to ask him to leave if he did anything annoying. He never did, so he stayed. The classrooms are heated in winter, the floors are not. I could not bring myself to send him in the cold when he made himself invisible.
    – skymningen
    Feb 3, 2017 at 15:37
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    Also anecdotally, I sometimes had to take a class that was very similar to a class I'd already taken or that I otherwise already understood. I would often attend them just in case something new came up, but I'd do homework for other classes while they were covering material I already knew. So it could be they are goofing off because they don't need to practice the material for whatever reason, and it has nothing to do with you.
    – Kat
    Feb 3, 2017 at 17:53
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    Cellphone and headphones sounds a lot better than a guy some 10/12 years ago that would sit at my lectures and open a full size newspaper and read it. Feb 4, 2017 at 3:48
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    17 working hard, 7 working with less interest and 1 watching videos <-- that's not bad actually, I remember 2-3 working hard, 15 watching videos and 2 absent. :) How to deal? Give them an option not to show up if they don't really want to. Work with those who want to work. Feb 4, 2017 at 13:54
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    @Autistic Ironically the person who got the highest marks in my college BTEC course worked for McDonalds during the course. To every stereotype there are exceptions.
    – Pharap
    Feb 4, 2017 at 19:22

8 Answers 8


Do you prefer more or less authoritarian style?

More authoritarian: "If you come to my class, I assume you wish to be taught by me and respect my time. In other words, you are to work on your assignments. If you do wish to watch videos or to Facebook, that is fine, but please do not do that in my class - it is disrespectful to me and in fact also to your fellow students who come here to learn. Feel free to leave to watch, and to come back when you are done and wish to return to the exercises."

More liberal: "It is everyone's own responsibility to learn and I will help you to understand the material and how to master it. If you do not wish to engage in it, that is your free decision, but you need to be aware that this is your own responsibility to engage with the material in order to benefit from it [and pass the exam]." - say it once at the beginning, and then perhaps one more time in the middle of the semester. That's it.

Modify as required, this is just a coarse line of action, YMMV.

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    This is a good answer, so I won't write my own, I will just add to it. To me it sounds like the one student on the smartphone is the real cause of concern. This should not be tolerated in university any more than it should in a secondary school. In my uni, my tutor told everyone at the start of the session[s] that smartphone use would not be tolerated. It tended to work. I would take more of a hardline stance with it [or authoritarian] by also put it in writing on the class notes/lecture series. That way people can't say they weren't warned if/when they get thrown out.
    – C26
    Feb 3, 2017 at 14:52
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    I will only add that this works best if you set that tone from the very beginning. Changing policy halfway through the course makes it harder. This comment won't help you now, but maybe next semester. Feb 3, 2017 at 15:35
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    Without saying it's easy, I have turned a few things around mid-semester. E.g., I would tell students to shut off phones for a test and they wouldn't; then for a later test I asked "Is everyone's phone off?" "YES" "Good, because 5% now comes off any test for a person whose phone rings," and all of a sudden there was a scramble as everyone pulled out the phones to shut them off for real. Feb 3, 2017 at 15:47
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    +1 for liberal approach. This is university - give the students sufficient resources, make help available, and then let them succeed or fail according to their desires and abilities. Also, OP explicitly stated that the student is not disturbing the other students, so it won't be taking away from others.
    – Jeutnarg
    Feb 3, 2017 at 17:01
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    @Jeutnarg However it is indirectly taking away from other students if it keeps taking the OP's attention away from groups who are working.
    – Kimball
    Feb 4, 2017 at 16:13

You certainly seem to be engaged in your lecture, which is good. The thing is, though, that the distribution of student types you describe is very normal. The way lecturers handle unattentive students will differ culturally. At least here in Germany, as a student you are expected to be self-independent. If you do not pay attention, nobody will fight for your attention, as long as you do not disturb the lesson.

In this special case, you have two options:

  1. Continue trying to reach him and give him extra attention.
  2. Ignore him and let him decide for himself how much he wants to engage.

What is important for you is, that you do not take such behaviour personally. Sometimes people just come to university out of habit and then they'll surf on their phones or whatever. It is their responsibility to study for their exams, not yours to force-feed them knowledge.

  • 1
    Actually there has to be a study somewhere that even when you are not actively listening you are still learning more from passively listening than from staying away. As long as your student is not distracting other students it should be okay. If you want, you can try asking him questions once or twice but if absolutely no good comes from it I tend to stop that after some sessions. In not mandatory sessions, those people also tend to either not turn up at some point or start listening.
    – skymningen
    Feb 3, 2017 at 15:34
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    @skymningen: I think that watching a video on one subject and trying to listen to a totally different audio subject counts as "multitasking", and all the research paints that as disastrously useless. Feb 3, 2017 at 15:43
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    about the idea that this student's inattention isnt a problem if it doesn't disrupt other students, I would argue that it does because the students are doing group work. The group this student is in loses one of their peer resources (research shows group work problems should be challenging enough that they require all members to participate; a part of positive interdependence). Even if the group could continue without this student, it affects group morale and other students' willingness to commit to undistracted work.
    – NMJD
    Feb 3, 2017 at 16:45

Let him watch videos

You are at the university, all are adults. It is not mandatory to attend, it does not disturb your lecture. Why should you even bother?

Your goal is to support the students if they want it and to help those who are interested and can follow the speed of the course. All the other have to look for themselves and should not drain you capacity.

If he misses the lecture, it is his fault. Leave him the freedom to do that as long as he does not distract or disturb with his behavior (you or other students). Then you would have to intervene.

Probably, and I've had fellow students which it really was the case for them, he is just bored because he thought already through the exercise. Probably he is to lazy and won't pass or has a lot of work to do at home. Doesn't matter in the end.

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    Furthermore, please take in account that the time you use to go after students watching videos is time you are not using with the students working hard, therefore making your class worse for them.
    – Pere
    Feb 4, 2017 at 9:34
  • It might be a linguistic oversight, but the last paragraph is self-contradictory. Feb 5, 2017 at 18:10

The answers by Captain Emacs and ian_itor are good. I want to add that you should ask your coordinator/managing professor about this, because the scope of what's acceptable on your part will vary by culture and institution.

Perhaps some professors will say, "Just tell them to leave." Other institutions may highly encourage or require proof of regular attendance for funding or legal purposes, and therefore culturally prohibit telling students not to come to class in any event.

When my father was at any Ivy professional school in the 1960's, one professor could reputedly grab a distracted student without warning by the shirt collar, physically throw him out of the room, and lock the door on him. Surely that's not allowed anywhere anymore.

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    It's allowed at West Point, but I add that once you're out the door the consequences are far more ... uncomfortable.
    – bishop
    Feb 3, 2017 at 18:56
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    It's helpful if you mention which two answers you find helpful. "Prior" can be confusing, as more votes come in. Feb 4, 2017 at 0:14

Invite the students to the blackboard

It is unclear how the class is structured in your university. Do the students work on their own, sometimes asking you for personal help? Do they discuss the problems as a group?

Occasionally asking the student to solve a part of the problem at the blackboard in front of the class will make him follow the class discussions better. If the student is working on his own only, he might be tempted not to admit his mistakes in solutions, or only solve an easier part of the problem and call it a day.

It is important to frame this not as a punishment for those who are distracted during the class, but as a learning tool that you provide. It gives instant feedback to the student, and a very detailed one. Ideally, you should invite students randomly or, at least, aim to invite them equally often.

As a side note, 1 distracted student out of 25 is a very good ratio.

  • Students are supposed to work alone or in small groups and ask for personal help. If the question is relevant for all I answer their question to the whiteboard.
    – user21043
    Feb 7, 2017 at 12:15
  • In a sense, inviting a student to the whiteboard gives him more of a... personal involvement.
    – svavil
    Feb 7, 2017 at 22:36

You have 17 students that are interested and engaged in the course. It means that you are doing good job in keeping them interested. Focus on them, spend your time with them and help them!

Being given that your exercise sessions are neither mandatory nor graded, I don't think you are expected to motivate the least motivate person out of 25. It's not high school anymore, even if he has reasons or difficulties being concentrated, you should leave it up to him if he refuses your suggestions to work.

By the way, weren't the some third of uninteresteds among students when you were a student? Weren't there someone coming (and even paying) completely uselessly?

I got a story

In Latvia it is common (and even mandatory) that the professors hold consultations. I think it's somewhat similar to office time in English...?

Anyways, it's usually a time scheduled every week when students can come to ask what they didn't understand. No one ever comes except before the exam or before tests if the course is a tough one.

In one such course tens of students decided to attend the consultation before a test. Before tests there are not only the students that want to ask something but also those who just want to listen to what others will ask and what the answers will be. And there was aso that guy.

Mr. that came few minutes early (as he always did in lectures), he sat in the second row, you might even assume that he is diligent. He opened his laptop (it's common - many students use the computers for notes, viewing lecture materials, preparing questions etc.). As the consultation started, he started playing some silly flash games on his computer (as he always did in lectures). He did it until the very end, then he closed the computer and went away as others did.

Even the lectures were not required to attend. The consultation was not near mandatory - it was intended only for those having questions and usefulness there. To this day I haven't understood why he came there late in the evening and spent all that time commuting to play flash games. He was living in the campus so there was no parental control or pressure.

I assume that he just felt that as a student he should attend but seemingly didn't understand what he has to do when attending a lecture or consultation. By the way, he didn't pass the course.

  • 4
    Since we're trading stories. I was that guy in some of my courses and got A's in all my major courses. I showed up to class to soak up info on things I didn't know about and I'm positive that I picked up valuable things while I was there. I still spent a large chunk of time on Reddit. Feb 3, 2017 at 21:11
  • I am also often that guy. I work and don't have time to study full time. Because of this, I sometime don't take the lectures in the normal order. Often, I know a lot already. I still go to the lectures, because there is sometime something I don't know. I do other stuff on my laptop, but if I hear something unfamiliar, I can tune in. And just another anecdote: A few weeks ago, there was a question hour at the last lecture timeslot before the exam. About ~25 of more than 120 people taking the course where there. Nobody actually had a question. All just wanted to hear the other questions...
    – Josef
    Feb 6, 2017 at 10:13
  • @MiniRagnarok I can't put it into words, but there is a noticable difference between those A students on laptops and those failing students on laptops. There is a lot of students doing work or random stuff during lectures, but some of them has the aura of learning immunity around them and they make you ask "why is that person who always fails tests coming here to play games?"
    – Džuris
    Feb 6, 2017 at 13:46
  • @Josef I have seen that "nobody got a question" thing a lot, I've struggled with that as a lecturer when I try to make the question hour somehow useful for the attendees. Let's see if this makes a question :) academia.stackexchange.com/questions/84571/…
    – Džuris
    Feb 6, 2017 at 14:08

While I agree with the existing good answers, the impact upon the tone of the class has yet to be addressed.

By not challenging this behaviour and not being seen to encourage focus, you implicitly communicate your values and expectations to the class. By allowing/tolerating mild disruption and inattentiveness you are setting the tone that this will be tolerated in future classes and by ignoring it you will be signalling to other students that you do not care if they focus or not.

My advice is to consider what it is that you need and want from the class and your students, make these expectations explicit, communicate the rationale for it (including the impact upon other students), then be consistent with it. The difficulty here will then be in having the self-belief, the confidence, and the respect to enforce it - particularly as a new PhD student.


At the beginning of your next class, announce:

Phones and laptops will not be needed in this class. If you must use your phone briefly during class, I will ask you to step out into the hall to do so.

Neutral voice.

If anyone comes in late, you can say it again, after the person has sat down and gotten comfortable, but right before the phone comes out of the pocket; or you can give him or her a handout with the same information.

  • 3
    -1 because there is a moment in life, when people are not kids anymore. Somethings are their own responsibility and restricting the use of the smartphone does not really fit to the other requirements and behavior at a university.
    – Mayou36
    Feb 3, 2017 at 20:31
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    @Mayou36 - some universities have a policy that restricts the use of laptops and smart phones to the last two rows of a large classroom. // Aside from concern for the surfing student, the phone use is distracting to, and disrespectful of, the instructor. Feb 4, 2017 at 0:10
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    the OP did not write anything about that it is distracting or disrespectful. Actually, he even pointed out that he does not distract other students. If it IS distracting, of course, it's another thing. But he did not ask how to stop him from watching videos but what to do. And that's a different point.
    – Mayou36
    Feb 4, 2017 at 10:40

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