Questions From Faculty

I know my syllabus isn't as specific as it could be about my expectations about classroom behavior, but there's this one student who, from the first class, has made sarcastic comments about my teaching style and the other students have started to have side conversations about his comments. I feel utterly alone and defeated. What can I do now to address this student's behavior?

If you think you might include for the next semester a line in your syllabus about civility and how to communicate dissatisfaction or questions appropriately, do it. If you don't, you might consider at the first class telling a story about such a situation and how it was both unproductive for the student, you the instructor and the rest of the students who were disrupted by this student's grousing. When you see students disagreeing on an issue and without being disrespectful with one another bring this example of civility to the attention to the others in the class - "Well done! A disagreement and no unpleasantness and good discussion!" Often a student's non-direct complaints about a professor - their teaching, their assignments, etc. is really an expression of not feeling they can do the work, or being confused and overwhelmed by the coursework. If you think this might be the case, talk to the student after class and note that they seem to be having some difficulty in class and asking them if they need help with something.

There was a student in my class last semester that was clearly having some personal problems. He started off the semester well, but then started coming to class late, sometimes in what looked like pajamas and - just kind of unkempt looking. The last week of classes another student said something during a group project and this student looked agitated, stood up and started pacing and muttering to himself. I went over to the student to try and figure out what was going on and the student was very agitated. I tried to calm him down and suggested he sit down or come talk to me outside the classroom. He threw his books down on the floor and the other students looked scared. The student picked up his books and left. It was our last class and I never saw him again. What do you make of this behavior and what could I have done?

It's hard to say what might have been going on with the student. He may have been extremely stressed, depressed or even possibly psychotic. His behavior was concerning but also potentially dangerous. Letting him leave unimpeded was probably a good idea. Following up after class with a BIT referral, even though it was the last day, would have been advisable too. However, if you had talked to him when you first noticed some changes in his behavior, it would have been a good thing to have talked to him about your observations and concern and suggested he talk to someone in Counseling Services. Of course, not everyone follows through with these suggestions, but he may have. If he had not followed through with the suggestion and you continued to see concerning behavior, a CARE referral would have been the next step.

I have a female student in my class who is very disruptive, but unintentionally so I believe. She sits in the front of the class and picks her nose. She seems oblivious to the other students who imitate her and laugh whenever she talks. It doesn't help that she has an odd voice - very loud and high pitched and she often asks questions that most people would consider kind of common-sensical. She also has a tendency to share information - extremely personal information during class discussions indiscriminately. I don't want to embarrass her, but at the same time I'd like her to know what she is doing is outside normal behavior and it is creating a distraction for other students which make it harder to teach.

This is an increasingly common problem - seeing students in the classroom who may have the intellectual capacity to do well in school but because of severe deficits in social skills have a great deal of difficulty fitting in with peers and/or otherwise appropriate classroom behavior. Without knowing if the student has had a formal diagnosis of Aspergers or some other mental health diagnosis it is hard to know exactly what to suggest specifically. In a situation where a student is being targeted or made fun of because of their odd mannerisms or behavior, a classroom can become the Wild West. Your best bet is to take the student aside after class and offer your concern that she may, through her personal disclosures be creating distractions to the other students. Approach the student with empathy- they may be extremely aware they do not fit but very confused as to why or how to "be" like everybody else. This would be a good consult with one of the Counseling services social workers who might be able to give you additional ideas about how to manage a student who may have a neuro-biological disorder like Aspergers.

I have several students who fall asleep during class and it really ticks me off. What do you suggest?

There are natural consequences to our actions. If a student sleeps in class they will miss lectures, assignments, nuances that might help them get through the course and not get the class participation points you might be giving out. A sleeping student might be a student who has partied, or worked the night before but dragged him/herself to class only to fall asleep. They might also be sick but didn't want to miss class and so came but fell asleep. Or, the student seems to be demonstrating their belief that what the instructor says is so boring as to cause a person to nod and fall asleep. All of them will have consequences. If it is a pattern that a student comes to class and falls asleep you might inquire if they are getting enough sleep and if not suggest they work on a better schedule that will mean they don't fall asleep in your class.

I have twice had students who were in crisis, post-daytime hours. Both demonstrated suicidal ideation, one ten minutes before my 6:00 class, the other much later than that (during evening Writing Center tutoring.) What to do about these problems after-hours?

Counseling Services is open Monday - Friday 8am-5pm which means that if a student is experiencing a crisis after 5pm, call Campus Safety to come to your classroom. Calls are responded to immediately. If student retracts and insists they WON'T kill themselves, parents/families CAN be called. There is no confidentiality when potential threat to life/safety.

I have several students who appear to be having personal problems and who will let me know what's going on but expect me to be able to keep them in class through email communications. I feel badly for some of my students, but I cannot afford to spend an hour a day on emails when they aren't making it to my class. Any suggestions?

The expectation of attendance is one that can be clearly articulated in the syllabus. There are times when personal or health crises will prevent attendance. It is the instructors' decision whether or not they can accommodate the needs of the individual, and the instructor needs to communicate this clearly. Sometimes students will need to withdraw, or accept that they cannot pass if they cannot attend. The instructor can communicate empathy while explaining the options available. Sometimes the personal concerns are financial, relational, etc. and a referral to Counseling Services can help the student deal with their personal issues and succeed academically.

What are three things an instructor can do to reduce the incidence of disruptive behaviors in their classroom?

  1. There are lots of reasons to consider making your behavioral and academic expectations clear, but the best reason is that instructors who do this have already thought about and anticipated and planned for behavior issues. Some instructors present their syllabus as a learning contract between the students sand themselves and review the syllabus the first class so everyone is clear from the get go what is expected.
  2. Along the same line, if you anticipate some of the problems you are likely to encounter, and you have a plan for each eventuality, your students will have the advantage of having a prepared and more confident instructor and will be less likely to challenge your teaching. I would make a list of all of the challenging student behaviors I could think of - from students who are text messaging throughout your class, to those who monopolize class discussions, to students who are hostile to other points of view and what you can do to address those behaviors should they come up.
  3. Lastly, if you can see a problem student, or a student with problematic behavior, as needing something from you, rather than seeing them as rejecting what you are offering, you are less likely to take behaviors like complaining about the readings or assignments or lectures as personal and therefore less likely to get defensive. If a student offers a disparaging remark about your teaching or some aspect of your class, acknowledge their disappointment, don't take it personally and try and determine if they need something. Sometimes students are uncivil because they are stressed and/or lack the skills to do the work that is assigned.