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Managing Classroom Difficulties David Baume

Summary

This short paper should help you to (a) understand the likely causes of, (b) reduce the likelihood of and where necessary (c) deal with classroom difficulties. They key messages are that most students want their classes to go well; that classroom difficulties can arise from many causes, many of them not to do with your teaching; that, nonetheless, good teaching can prevent most but not all classroom difficulties; and that there are some reasonably reliable ways to deal with any classroom difficulties that may occur.

Key words

Students; teaching; learning; disruption; difficulty; behaviour; classroom; control; fairness

Biography

David Baume is a higher education consultant and writer. He is an elected member of the ILTHE Council and Accreditation Committee. He was founding chair of the UK Staff and Educational Development Association (SEDA) and a founding editor of the International Journal for Academic Development (IJAD). His research and consultancy topics include the assessment of portfolios, the use of personal development plans and the evaluation of educational development projects. David holds a Masters in Curriculum Development in Higher Education and Fellowship of SEDA. He is undertaking a PhD in educational development. David Baume, [email protected]

Introduction

The vast majority of students want their classes to go well. Disruptive or disturbing behaviour by one or more students can therefore be annoying, and even distressing, to the remainder of the class, as well of course as to you, the lecturer. There are several likely reactions to a classroom difficulty or disruption:

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You may feel annoyed - "This student's behaviour is messing up my class". You may feel concerned - "What have I done to allow or provoke this behaviour?" The rest of the class is likely also likely to be annoyed - again, "This student is messing up our class".

Beyond that, if the rest of the class find the student's behaviour genuinely funny, they may briefly express their amusement. If they find that the student's behaviour is unreasonable or unacceptable, they may - sooner or later, inside or outside the class - make their views clear to the student. Only if the student is being difficult in a way that reflects broader student concerns in the class are students likely to support a student who is acting disruptively.

Understanding and reducing the likelihood of classroom difficulties

Good teaching reduces although not to zero - the likelihood of disruptive behaviour by students. What particular qualities of good teaching might contribute to this? Here's an initial list. Many of the articles in the ILTHE Members' Resource Area, and the many other good sources on learning and teaching, will add to this list. Other lives Remember that students have lives outside your classroom. These other aspects of their lives - for example:

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paid work caring commitments other courses and classes social life ill-health or disability

may affect their behaviour in your class. Such factors do not make disruptive behaviour acceptable. But it may help to make it comprehensible. Clarity, of outcomes and processes and boundaries Students like clarity. They like to know what the course is designed to achieve; what will happen in each class; what work and what standard of work will be expected of them, and when; what feedback they will receive, and when; when and where you will be available to see them outside class. They also like to know how they (and you) should behave in class. Confidence Students want to have faith in you: in your subject expertise, your teaching ability, your reliability, your fairness. As well as displaying all these qualities, you also need to show that you are confident in your abilities. If you show justifiable confidence in yourself, students are more likely to have confidence in you. Consistency Being a student can be an unsettling business. Students know that, as their lecturer, you have a lot of power over them. Your teaching and your assessment judgements greatly affect their academic and professional future. Your students will be reassured if you are consistent in your teaching and your assessment and all your dealings with them, including in your dealing with any classroom difficulties. Consistency is an important part of fairness, which students value very highly. Control Students generally want you to be in control of the class. It's your role. If you aren't in control, who is? Being in control can, and indeed should, involve getting the students appropriately active; asking and answering questions, making presentations, chairing sessions, whatever is appropriate to the setting and the course. But, ultimately, you are in charge of the class. Encouragement Students do better when they know that they are making real progress. Your teaching needs to give opportunities for your students to do good work, and to receive positive feedback when they do good work. You can do this in class as well as in written work, through classroom exercises and tests. Responsiveness Students like it if, within the many constraints which operate, and about which you need to be explicit, you can respond to some of their legitimate wishes and needs. They also like it when you value and use some of what they bring, including their experiences, viewpoints, good question Variety

Students can get bored and confused. To a student, an hour's lecture in which they are lost and baffled can feel like an unpleasant lifetime. A variety of appropriate activities in the class - activities for you and for them - is the best way to prevent boredom- and confusion-induced classroom difficulties. Ground rules Agree or specify some ground rules about behaviour in class - your behaviour and theirs! These ground rules could address:

· · · · ·

start and finish times your seeking and using student feedback the use of a variety of activities during the class the various student activities that can cause disruption to the class and also issues particular to your discipline and type of class - for example a laboratory class will have a very detailed list.

Your institution's Student Charter should say things about your and your students' obligations. It may, however, not be very detailed. It may, for example, suggest only that students show consideration or respect to fellow students and to university staff.

Dealing with classroom difficulties

First, know what is possible There may well be constraints on what you can do in class, and also on what you can legitimately ask or tell students to do. Make sure that you know ahead of time what these constraints are. If you try to go beyond your rights and powers in class, then you can get into further difficulties. But, despite your best efforts, things sometimes go wrong. A classroom difficulty arises. What to do? Ignore it If you're the only one who's being irritated, you could choose to ignore the behaviour. You need to ask yourself 'Whose problem is this?' But if other students are being disrupted, and/or if you find the disruption intolerable, you certainly have rights in this; you could, among other things: Wait for silence If the difficulty or disruption takes the form of conversation or other noise, you could simply stop talking; in midsentence is particularly effective. Say nothing. Look, in a non-threatening way, at the student(s) making the noise. The rest of the class will rapidly realise what you are doing, and why. Peer pressure will very often quieten the offending student(s). Repeat as necessary. You might have a ground rule that says that you will instantly stop talking if you hear a mobile phone, a personal stereo, a portable games machine or other such sound. (Make sure that your own phone is turned off.) Reduce your volume If the problem is low-level background noise and conversation rather than a single disruption, then speak a little more softly. Students will strain to hear you. They are more likely to ask the talking students to stop talking than to ask you to talk more loudly. Increase your volume Students may (understandably) become restive if they can't hear you. So, ask near the start of the lecture if they can hear you. (Try to smile if someone says "No.") If you have to speak uncomfortably loudly to be heard, take voice classes and / or ask for sound reinforcement. Be calm

It's great to get excited about your subject and your teaching. Students respond well to such enthusiasm. But it is very important to stay calm if you face classroom difficulties. Calmness will help to reduce the temperature. Anger or sarcasm from you would probably raise the temperature. Be polite; don't argue or confront Have one or two phrases prepared, such as "I'd like to continue with the lecture now" or "In about five minutes I'll ask you to (do a particular activity). These next five minutes of the lecture will help you to do the activity." Courtesy is vital, even if you don't feel courteous. Don't get into an argument. Bribe "This topic will be on the examination paper" will normally buy you at least a few minutes of undivided attention. Take the disruption seriously If you hear a student make a comment that contains an interesting idea or question, you could choose to take it seriously, whether or not it was meant to be serious. Respond to it. This could encourage serious comments from other students in your class. Specify consequences, and follow through If none of the above is working, then you may to take need more drastic measures. Each of these measures is subject to the advice above under 'know what is possible'. You could ask the student(s) whose classroom behaviour is causing difficulty to leave - if you are sure you can make it stick. You could leave. If you are going to take such a drastic step, though, you need to give prior warning - still calmly. You could say "If the noise continues at its present level for another minute, I shall end the lecture." If you say such things, you need to follow through on them and do what you've said you'll do. You also need to tell the programme leader or head of department what you have done, at once. Outside the class, ask some students what was going wrong, and what you and they could do to prevent its recurrence. If you can, talk with the particular student(s) about their disruptive behaviour, the reasons for it and its consequences. But it rarely gets this far.

Sources

This topic is not well served in the literature on higher education. Cowley, S. (2002). Getting the buggers to behave, Continuum. This directly-titled book is written for school teachers. It contains many ideas that may be of value in higher education.

Acknowledgements

I thank participants in the workshops I have run on this topic for their willingness to work hard and openly on a difficult issue. I thank my mother Anne Baume, who could still a class with a single glance but very rarely needed to, for conversations on the topic over the decades.

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