How to handle distractions, disruptions and discipline issues in the college classroom

by Steven Gallo
University of Florida Master’s student

Steven Gallo

Steven Gallo

It’s a topic that many teachers think they’re prepared for, but it’s easy to get caught off guard when confronted with a discipline problem or some other disruption in the classroom. Just like a lesson plan or a presentation, it’s important for teachers to rehearse and prepare for disciplinary situations so that we don’t feel prepared and don’t respond well when problems arise.

Let’s take a look at a few common scenarios that teachers may encounter and the strategies we could employ for each.

Students who argue about grades

There will almost always be a student each semester who has concerns about a grade(s) and who will want to speak with you about it. A situation like this could potentially evolve into a disciplinary matter, but if handled correctly, it can be a “teachable moment.”

Here are a few strategies to consider:

  1. Make sure your syllabus outlines the expectations for when grades can be discussed (e.g. must be during office hours and within a week of receiving the assignment grade, etc.)
  2. Review the assignment expectations and/or grading rubric with the student
  3. See if the student understands your written feedback
  4. Identify areas for improvement so the student knows what to work on going forward
  5. Wait to make any decisions about changing a grade until after meeting with the student

There may be times when changing a grade is justified, but there’s no need to rush into making that decision until after meeting with the student and after looking into the specifics of the situation further on your own.

 Students who miss or skip class

This tends to be a common problem, particularly in a university setting. Of course, there is a difference between a student having to miss class for a legitimate reason and a student who skips class intentionally, but there are also instances where a student may skip class on accident (i.e. sleeping through an alarm). It’s important to consider and plan for all these scenarios.

Once again, a key to success here starts with having a clear-cut policy in your syllabus about the absence policy. Your policy should include things like:

  • Time period of advance notice required if a student will miss an assignment or exam
  • If the student must provide the reason for missing class
  • Whether they will need to provide proper documentation to be considered excused
  • Any grade penalties for unexcused absences

Most universities have a standard absence policy, including what absences are considered excusable (here is the University of Florida’s). This is a good general guideline you can look to when making decisions about absences for your class.

Students who are apathetic or disengaged

Another common issue teachers encounter is students who are not engaged or who seem not to care about class. Though this can be frustrating as an instructor, it’s important to remember that there could be a variety of reasons students may be disengaged—it doesn’t necessarily mean they are being lazy. If possible, express your concern with the student privately and listen to what may be going on in his/her life. This will build a connection with the student and be a good stepping stone to understanding how you can help them succeed in your class.

Here are some proactive ways to avoid apathy or disengagement in your class:

  • Continually emphasize the purpose and application of class topics or assignments (i.e. how they relate to the industry, students’ future careers, etc.)
  • Use group activities or sharing with a partner to get students involved and talking with one another; this may help prevent students who have a more social learning style from “checking out” from class
  • Find ways to give students choices about how or what they learn (e.g. having different options they can choose from for an assignment topic) – this empowers students and gives them more of a personal stake in the subject
  • Highlight the importance of class participation in the syllabus, including any incentives and/or if participation is part of a student’s grade in the class

The key is to remember that students have lives outside of your classroom and there may be things going on with them you’re not aware of – don’t make assumptions. Always listen and view these issues as win-win situations.

Technology as a classroom distraction

This is likely the most common disciplinary problem in the college classroom today. Technology is simply a part of life today, so it’s important to maintain a realistic perspective when considering its place in the classroom.

Again, concrete expectations are essential: set clear guidelines for the use of laptops, tablets, and smartphones in the classroom. A complete ban on technology is not only is a turn-off to students, but you may be missing opportunities to use these as occasional learning tools.

Avoid talking down to students and confiscating devices—this only makes them feel like they’re in high school again, and it damages your relationship with them. Rather, we should treat students as the adults they are and set a precedent of mutual respect in the classroom.

Finally, it may be helpful to debunk the multitasking myth. It may be possible to do several things at once, but attention to detail, recall, and quality of work inevitably suffers as a result. (I like to use the Monkey Business illustration to make the point to students in a funny and engaging way.)

Discipline issues can be ‘teachable moments’

These are just a few of the situations you may encounter as a teacher, but don’t forget that each of them is a chance for students to grow and learn. When it comes to any discipline matter, keep these tips in mind:

  • Be a good listener
  • Set clear expectations
  • Don’t let discipline issues go unresolved
  • Remember that every teacher has discipline problems
  • Build cooperative relationships with students

Handing disciplinary problems is one of the more difficult parts of being a teacher, but with thought-out and well-rehearsed strategies, you can turn any of these situations into a “teachable moment.”

Steven Gallo is a master’s student in the College of Journalism and Communications at the University of Florida and a student in Mass Communication Teaching.


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