Managing Disruptive Conduct in Learning Spaces

Managing Disruptive Conduct in Learning Spaces

Table of Contents

The university encourages all instructors to strive for free and open communication within their classrooms. However, for student learning to be most effective, classrooms must maintain a civil environment, free from intimidation, disruption, violence, and harassment.

Review the 10.5 Policy for Addressing Disruptive Conduct in the Learning Environment on the ISU Faculty Handbook website.

When disruptive behavior takes place, many Iowa State University faculty members recommend addressing it immediately. Their advice: remain calm, assess the situation, listen to student concerns. We recommend that you provide a clear, firm response consistent with the responses you’ve given other students. The information found in this resource will help you prepare for these moments before they occur.

Essential resources

Recommendations to minimize disruptive behavior

Researchers note that the most effective way to minimize disruptive behavior in the classroom is to prevent its initial occurrence through effective classroom management, principally organization and communication.

The communication of policies, requirements, and expectations on the first day of class via multiple modalities is an important practice. This means including information in the syllabus as well as within the classroom setting. The course syllabus should be explicit regarding what constitutes disruptive behavior, and, where relevant, should direct students to university resources containing more in depth explanations of policy and procedure. For example, defining what constitutes cheating is helpful especially in light of increased collaborative activities. Respectful and non-confrontational dialogue regarding policies and expectations establishes the beginning of a relationship between instructor and students, allows for clarification and student input as appropriate, and sets a tone for the learning environment. Dialogue can be accomplished both face-to-face and via online formats such as video chat. Hostile conflict has been found to be more common in the classrooms of instructors that demonstrate insensitive or uncaring behaviors towards students.

Instructors who make an effort to build community within their classrooms tend to have less disruptive conflict in the learning environment. Instructors who know their students’ names are viewed as more approachable by students. Even when a class size is large, faculty members can make themselves accessible to students by posting and encouraging students to visit office hours.

Classes in which students participate in peer-to-peer education tend to have fewer instances of incivility and unethical behavior. When a sense of the classroom as a learning community has been established, students take more responsibility for their learning and hold each other more accountable for behavior. Inattentive behavior such as reading non-course related materials, having sidebar conversations and sleeping was found to be more common in lecture courses and less common in classrooms with interactive teaching such as discussions and active learning techniques. Small group work, even in large classes, can reduce inattentive behavior and positively affect learning. Using active learning strategies requires advanced preparation on the part of instructors to thoughtfully develop and use appropriate activities to keep students engaged as a group.

Instructors who seek students’ feedback regarding the class and their learning provide students an opportunity to think about their learning, which faculty can then utilize to improve their teaching in tangible ways. Instructors can provide opportunities for plus/delta or other classroom assessment techniques to ensure delivery of content and instruction is effective. Within the plus/delta technique, students are asked to anonymously respond to four questions: what is helping them learn within the classroom, what could be improved within the classroom to help their learning, what they are doing to learn content, and what they could improve in order to increase their understanding and retention of course content. Instructors then synthesize this information, share with the students in the class, and make appropriate adjustments to improve the teaching and learning environment.

Responding to disruptive behavior

Classroom disruptions can broadly be categorized as incivility or ethical misconduct and may be exacerbated by mental health challenges. The uncivil behaviors most commonly observed by instructors and students include students arriving late, not paying attention in class, and actively surfing the web for non-course related information. Recommendations for faculty include the following:

Both faculty and students agree that ignoring classroom incivility is not an effective technique for stopping the behavior. When surveyed, students reported that the most effective ways to respond to classroom incivility are to address the behavior immediately when it is hostile, or confront the student in private for inattentive conflict. The type of response inevitably will vary based on the observed behavior. Students can be given quizzes due at the beginning of class to ensure classroom readiness. Active learning techniques such as Think/Pair/Share or One Minute Papers can refocus students on the topic at hand. When cheating is observed on homework, a reminder of academic integrity policies to the whole class may be appropriate. If a student is observed cheating on an exam, the instructor may choose to take away the exam immediately and assign a grade of 0.

Conflict resolution strategies can allow the instructor and student to develop a long term solution that is mutually acceptable. When instructors are discussing a problem, first identify the problem, highlight the impact on the classroom environment and acknowledge the student’s emotions when repeating their perception of the problem. Instructors can help students think through alternatives when, for example, discussing group conflicts.

Iowa State University has a myriad of student services to address student conduct. See Key Campus Resources at Iowa State University on the last page of this toolkit, download CELT’s Effectively Managing Disruptive Classroom Behavior Toolkit (PDF)

One of the recommended techniques for handling classroom disruptions is ending the class. If attempts to address a problem result in further escalation, the faculty member may opt to end the class and reconvene at the next class period in order to diffuse the tension. If the disruption is severe, the faculty member may have no choice but to end the class. Recognizing it is not a regular occurrence to engage in interactions with students that may be disruptive, oppositional, frustrated, anxious, and disrespectful, the following suggestions are helpful tips for engaging with these individuals.

Do –

  • Keep your voice low and calm.
  • Acknowledge the student’s frustration or irritation (“I hear that you are frustrated.”)
  • Allow the student to share what is upsetting or concerning them.
  • Rephrase what the student is saying (“It seems you are frustrated primarily because you had to miss the quiz, and course policy doesn’t permit a retake, and now you believe you will fail the course.”)
  • Be directive and clear about the behavior you will and will not accept (“Please step back; you have moved too close.” “I will not engage in an interaction where you continue to yell and gesture like that.” “I will not engage in an interaction where you use profanity and curse repeatedly.”)
  • Be honest and transparent; do not make false promises to pacify the student (e.g., if you are not willing to change the student’s grade, don’t tell them you will consider it. Instead, it is better to inform them that there is a process for appealing your decision, or they can schedule a time to meet to discuss the syllabus and coursework expectations / policies. This can be scheduled to occur with a second staff available to assist with difficult facilitation and documentation.)

Do Not –

  • Get pulled into an argument or shouting match.
  • Become hostile or punitive yourself (“You can’t talk to me that way!” “How dare you speak to me like that!”)
  • Discuss retribution without process (“You won’t be in this class any longer!”)
  • Press for explanations for their behavior (“Why do you insist on behaving this way?” “What makes you think this is acceptable behavior?”)
  • Ignore or disregard the situation.
  • Touch the student, as this might be perceived as aggression or otherwise unwanted contact.

An anxious, frustrated, or irritated student might speak at a high volume, continuously, and / or not permit you many opportunities to respond. If this type of interaction has been identified, it is often best to calmly state (don’t yell over the student) something to the effect of, “Student, it is clear from this interaction that this will not be a productive conversation right now, so I am not going to engage in a discussion about this issue. You can contact my office to schedule a time to meet when you are calmer and are better able to engage in a respectful and calm discussion.”

You may have to repeat this, “I am not going to engage in a discussion right now; you can call to schedule a time to meet later,” until the student understands. If they are in your office, it is acceptable to get up and open the door or go into the hallway, so they have a clear indicator that the conversation is over.

Important: If the student is refusing to leave, call the ISU Police Department 515-294-4428 and share that you would like some assistance as a student is refusing to leave your room. If at any time you are concerned for your safety, call 911 or leave the space and / or building.

Watch a previously recorded webinar

Webinar, Effectively managing disruptive conduct in learning spaces​

When disruptive conduct takes place, some Iowa State University instructors recommend addressing it immediately. Their advice: remain calm, assess the situation, listen to student concerns. Especially recommended: provide a clear, firm response that is consistent with what you’ve given other students. The strategies and resources in this workshop will help you prepare for these moments before they occur (no matter the course modality). Learning objectives: recognize the appropriate responses to disruptive conduct, include language about behavioral expectations and mutual responsibility in course syllabi, and identify strategies, resources, and possible interventions in and out of the learning environment. 

Watch the condensed webinar Effectively managing disruptive conduct in learning spaces video (8m 44s) in Studio.

Adapted from the following
  • Oluwakemi Ladeji-Osias, J., & Wells, A. M. (2014). Best practices in classroom management for today’s university environment. Paper presentation at the 121st ASEE Annual Conference and Exposition. Indianapolis, IN (June 14-18).
  • Passow, H. J., Mayhew, M. J., Finelli, C. J., Harding, T. S., & Carpenter, D. D. (2006). Factors influencing engineering students’ decisions to cheat by type of assessment. Research in Higher Education, 47, 643–684.