Discipline problems in college classrooms: Strategies on how to avoid or address

by Robert H. Wells
Ph.D. student, University of Florida

Robert H. Wells

Robert H. Wells

Discipline is a concern for all college instructors at some point in their career. Having an idea of some common discipline problems, as well as possible solutions to them, will help mitigate the problems when they occur as well as help instructors reduce the anxiety they may have about disciplining students.

Four common types of discipline problems are: academic dishonesty, attendance, distracting behavior and aggression.

This post will focus on the latter three, as academic dishonesty is discussed in a separate blog post. At the University of Florida, academic dishonesty must be taken seriously and reported to Student Conduct and Conflict Resolution, a part of the Office of the Dean of Students.

Attendance problems

Attendance problems can include cutting class, sleeping in class, acting bored, packing early and arriving late. Students may do these things for a variety of reasons, but one reason is they may not know an instructor’s expectations. One way to remedy this is to clearly define expectations in the course syllabus at the outset of class. Instructors should also evaluate their class meetings to make sure they are relevant, lively and enjoyable to their students and their mastery of the subject matter. To encourage students to attend class, giving in-class quizzes and extra-credit opportunities can be effective strategies.

Distracting behavior

Distracting behavior, another common discipline problem, may be activities such as using technology during class, students having side conversations with one another, and eating and drinking in class. Again, the instructor’s expectations should be outlined in the syllabus at the beginning of the semester, as instructors may vary on their guidelines on these issues. For instance, some may see technology use by students as part of the modern classroom experience while other instructors may be concerned with the temptation that technology can provide during class to do nonacademic activities.

To handle distracting behavior, an instructor may make direct eye contact with the offending student to let him or her know the action is not approved. An instructor may also direct a question at a person near the person who is making the distraction so that focus is drawn to that area of the class but no one is put on the spot. Another strategy is to speak with the student privately after class.

Aggressive students

Aggressive students may be the type of discipline problem that instructors are most concerned about. Student aggression can be between students or between students and teachers. Forms of student aggression are hostile words, physical actions, challenges to the instructor’s knowledge or authority, or resentful students. Sometimes aggression can be the result of disappointment or disagreement over grading. With aggressive students, it’s best to keep the situation calm and not delve into one-on-one arguing with the student in front of the class.

When students are aggressive, one strategy is to listen and ask them to better articulate their opinion or why they feel the way they do. Also, the problem may be reflected back to the class for a broader set of opinions to be brought in on the discussion. Like with other discipline problems, another good strategy is to meet privately with the student, especially if the other strategies don’t seem to be work. If students are making threats or being physically aggressive, then the instructor should report them to Student Conduct and Conflict Resolution.

Overall strategies to address discipline problems

In general, instructors can use several overall strategies to make their classroom less likely to have discipline problems. One is to decrease anonymity in the classroom by trying to learn names or do some sort of getting-to-know-everybody activity that helps form a positive relationship between an instructor and students. Creating this classroom climate may even be instructors telling a bit about themselves, their background, and some aspects of themselves that students may relate to.

Also, if instructors sense that something is not working in the classroom, they may elicit feedback from the students via a survey to help make the class more relate-able to them. Also, incorporating active learning into the classroom can help students become more engaged and less likely to be passive and possibly bored. And if an instructor needs to talk to a colleague about a student discipline problem, they may do so in general terms but should be aware of student confidentiality issues in naming students. Also, disrupting class and threats or physical aggression are violations of the Student Code of Conduct and can be reported as such.


Cursan A. & Damour L. (2006) First day to final grade. A graduate student’s guide to teaching (2nd ed.) (pp. 106-140). Ann Arbor, MI: The University of Michigan Press.

Forsyth, D. R. (2003). The Professor’s Guide to Teaching: Psychological Principles and Practices. Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association.

Silvestri, M. M. & Buskist, W. (2012). Conflict in the College Classroom. In Buskist, W. & Benassi, V. A. (Eds.) Effective College and University Teaching: Strategies and Tactics for the New Professoriate (pp. 135-143).  Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Sorcinelli, M. D. (1994). Dealing with troublesome behaviors in the classroom. In Prichard, K. W. & McLaren Sawyer R. (Eds.) Handbook of college teaching. Theory and applications (pp. 365-373). Westport, CT: Greenwood Publishing Group.

Svinicki, M. D. & McKeachie, W. J. (2011). McKeachie’s teaching tips: Strategies, research, and theory for college and university teachers. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, Cengage Learning.

Robert H. Wells is a doctoral student in UF’s College of Journalism and Communications and a student in Mass Communication Teaching (MMC 6930). Twitter: @rhwells79



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