Avoiding Classroom Conflict

Instructors are not only responsible for ensuring course learning outcomes are being met, but also for creating a safe, comfortable environment where learning is most likely to occur. Classroom management challenges can stem from physical limitations in the environment, but most often from teacher/student attitudes. Students can be overtly hostile, challenging the teacher's authority or objecting to teaching methods or policies. More often though, teachers struggle with students' inattentiveness or oscitancy. 

Hostile attitudes toward faculty

How can faculty avoid overt student hostility in the classroom? 

  • A warm, positive, caring attitude goes a long way. When a teacher models supportive and respectful behavior, the students are less likely to cause disturbances and will even "police" themselves. Faculty are well advised to take how students perceive them seriously. Building a positive, nurturing environment from day one goes a long way to prevent problems.
  • Address minor misbehavior immediately and fairly. Small problems can snowball quickly. Whether it's one student's phone buzzing every few seconds or the student in the back snoring. Address small disturbances sensitively, respectfully, but directly. If the problem persists, pull the student aside discreetly to express your concerns. Try not to reprimand, but rather focus on how the behavior is negatively impacting the learning environment and your concern for the student.
  • Have students sign a Behavior Contract (also referred to as an Ethics Contract) at the beginning of the semester. The contract can include expectations like, "I understand that my professor expects respect from everyone in the classroom at all times. This includes rules about sleeping, rudeness, cell phone activity, and chatting with classmates at inappropriate times."

If a student becomes hostile during class:

  • Remain calm and explain how the behavior is not supporting the learning environment. State how you expect the student to change their behavior. If the situation warrants it, explain the consequences (i.e. loss of points or removal from class).
  • If the behavior escalates (depending on the situation ... use your best judgment), tell the student to leave. If the student refuses, use the room phone and dial 5777 for a campus safety officer to escort the student from the classroom. Follow up with the student about what happened and the next steps.
  • After an incident -  file a BERT alert for serious concerns or reach out to the student's Success Advisor (SSA) for minor concerns. If a student is causing an unsafe learning environment or exhibiting disturbing behavior, you need to get outside help.  The Behavioral Evaluation Response Team will review BERT alerts at its regularly scheduled Thursday afternoon meetings. Student Success Advisors will reach out to the student, repeatedly if necessary, for a holistic discussion on factors affecting their goals.

Engaging the Disengaged or Apathetic

Thankfully, hostile students are not the norm in higher education classrooms. However, every instructor will face the challenge of disengaged learners. The ones who perpetually arrive late, don't participate in discussions, and don't come to class prepared. Their behavior not only affects their likelihood to succeed, but can also sour the atmosphere which can affect everyone's experience. So what can be done?

  • Incorporate more active learning activities into the lesson plan. Create activities that force students to engage. Think-Pair-Share and small group discussions go well with a variety of classroom sizes. Mixing 10-15 minute lectures with group activities helps prevent students from zoning out.
  • Tie required reading or other pre-class activity to small assessments. Students are more likely to come prepared if there is an incentive. Earning points is a strong incentive to most students. Many teachers create reading checks/quizzes on Blackboard so they're easily graded. Others have short in-class assessments at the beginning, which also helps encourage students to be punctual.
  • Bring real world examples into the lesson. Often students get disengaged when the subject doesn't seem relevant. Using current events or something the students can relate to can attract interest.
  • Ask your colleagues for ideas to break the ice. Have conversations with others that went through, or are going through, the same challenges you are facing. Chances are they have a strategy you have never thought of before and vice versa.

Dealing with Crowded Classrooms

Possible challenges with overcrowding:

  • Limited mobility. Physical limitations is a challenge with crowded classrooms. This is especially difficult for students with special needs. 
  • Discipline issues. In crowded classrooms, student disruptive behaviors can be more prevalent and difficult to manage.
  • Limited enrichment for advanced learners. All students need one-on-one attention from time to time. However, it is almost impossible for instructors to spend personal time with each student in overcrowded classrooms. Thus, instructors prioritize the students who struggle with the course and do not offer enough enrichment activities for the advanced students.
  • Decrease in the instructors' creative contributions to the class. Larger classes need more materials, have limited physical space, and a higher risk of chaos for newly designed activities. Thus, instructors` main focus is on controlling the classroom not trying the novel approaches. Many instructors prefer to stay in the safe zone instead of thinking out of the box because of the unmanageable class size.
  • Fewer varieties of assessment tools. Good instructors believe in the importance of using different assessment techniques for equity in the classroom. However, in overcrowded classrooms, instructors mostly prefer to use easy-to-grade measurement tools, such as multiple-choice quizzes, rather than writing assignments, student presentations or hands-on projects. In addition, grading takes longer in overcrowded classes, so immediate feedback to every single student is almost impossible after the assessment. Instructors often prefer summative assessment tools instead of formative ones.

Strategies for overcoming challenges of overcrowded classrooms

  • Clearly state your expectations of student behavior and consequences of disrupting class in the syllabus. At the beginning of the semester, discuss the classroom rules, behavior expectations, and the consequences of disruptive and disrespectful behaviors.  In addition to verbally expressing the rules and consequences, clearly state them in the course syllabus. Refer to the rules from time to time as a reminder for all students.
  • Make course materials easily accessible. Online platforms, such as Blackboard, are a part of not only online and hybrid classes but also face-to-face courses. Creating supplemental pages and actively using them for announcements and sharing documents, makes things easy for both instructors and students. In small classes, you may encourage the students to meet with you if they miss a class, but in larger classes, individual communication with every single student after they miss a class may be really time-consuming and hard-to-manage. However, if students know class materials are accessible on Blackboard, they can find what they missed, and contact you when they need additional support. 
  • Be available and visible. In a crowded classroom, every student does not have an equal opportunity to communicate with the instructor. Especially for silent students, it is not easy to ask questions in front of other students. Thus, it is important to become available for students not only during the class but also out-of-class. Active and effective uses of office hours are critical in higher education. Clearly mention your office hours and location in the syllabus. Encourage students to come to your office and become visible during your office hours. If you are not in a meeting, keep your door open during office hours, so students feel that they are welcome to visit you. You may also think about different strategies to meet with students virtually such as Zoom meetings.
  • Make announcements in a timely manner and numerous ways. If you have an important announcement, make it in advance, verbally repeat it several times in the class, also put a reminder in Blackboard.
  • Use small group activities. It is hard to encourage every single student to join class discussions and activities in crowded classrooms. Students have more opportunity to talk and actively engage in small groups. While students are working on a task in  small groups, actively engage in their discussions and communicate with students individually. Randomly assign students to groups to avoid cliques and build camaraderie.

Encourage Quiet Students to Participate

Students have different personalities and preferences. Their class participation is influenced by those traits and preferences. Extrovert students may prefer to actively join class discussions whereas introvert students prefer to stay silent and follow the class discussions with their emotional and nonverbal participation. Although being silent is not a big problem if students are mentally participating in the class, some of those students are willing to verbally participate but need some further encouragement or time to process their thoughts. Here are some strategies for encouraging silent students to join class discussions.

  • Random Call. This is one of the most well-known strategies by instructors to increase class participation of every student. It is simply calling the names of students randomly instead of taking volunteers. Different instructors use different methods for this technique. Some pick the student names randomly from the class list, and others assign numbers to students and randomly call the numbers. Perhaps the biggest challenge with this technique is creating a positive, non-judgmental classroom environment before starting to call students randomly. If students know that their classmates value different opinions and brainstorming is always encouraged in the class, they feel more comfortable to mention their ideas even if they are not sure about the answer.
  • Increase wait time. In most classrooms, there are the super engaged students who are always ready to answer questions and join discussion. Instructors typically highly value these students and wish more would take their lead. On the other hand, there is a possible risk that those students may suppress the silent students. Students who prefer to process the information in their mind first, and join the class discussions later may not have enough opportunity to do so. Give some extra time to students. Wait for a while before asking for their ideas and this will encourage silent students to participate.
  • Think-Pair-Share. This is an excellent activity for supporting the active participation of all learners. It is not only giving an opportunity to silent students for expressing their ideas but also create a mentoring environment in the class. Students who are not comfortable with the subject may learn from more advanced learners. In this activity, because students work in pairs, it is not possible to get lost in the crowd. After pairs work on an activity together, they share their findings with the whole class. 
  • Ask for written responses. Some students do not feel comfortable to express their ideas verbally but they are completely fine in written language. If you know there are students in class who have a lot to say but do not prefer to talk in front of others, asking for written responses may be an excellent opportunity for them. Exit tickets are one of the several ways to gather student opinions in written form. At the end of the class, share an index card with each student and ask them to write 3-5 sentences about what they learned today. You can modify this activity by asking 2 things they learned in the class and 1 more thing they want to learn about this subject in the future. You could also ask for the "muddiest point" that they would like further clarification.
  • Use online tools. There are several instructional tools that encourage students` participation in a fun way and give students the possibility to keep their names anonymous. You can enrich your class activities by using those tools such as polleverywhere.com, Kahoot, Menti, etc.