Behavior Management

Things might be bit different in the classroom. In the USA, we are now seeing undergraduates who spent the last two years of high school at home and online. Healthy psycho-social development and adequate academic preparation for college, in decline long before the pandemic, might be at a new low. Your students may be exhibiting behaviors that make classroom discussion more difficult to manage than in the past. It might be a case of the socially cueless, the know-it-all with verbal diarrhea, or the off-topic tangentialist. Or, worst of all, the rage-filled misogynist.

I’ve never been a fan of tossing out a question to the whole class. The practice often leads to complete silence or one of the above types of students derailing the discussion. There are several alternatives, many of which we’ve outlined here before. Splitting the class into small groups for a few minutes gets the whole class involved in discussion rather than just one person. Given the perceived social ramifications, students are often more likely to communicate, civilly, with each other than with the professor. Soliciting a concise verbal report from some groups immediately afterward also tends to filter out irrelevant or objectionable remarks.

The result of a previous exit survey, a.k.a. the muddiest point technique, can be used at the start of class as a small group discussion prompt.

Cold calling — directly addressing a question to a single student — can also work. The trick, however, is to ensure that all students, not just those eager to talk, get an equal chance to speak and feel safe enough psychologically to do so. This can be done via a random number generator, seating chart, or Cards of Fate — a deck of note cards on which are written students names. Shuffle the deck with names face down, and pull the top card each time you ask a question. A student can choose to pass once in a specified time period — per class, per week, per semester. Just write a “P” on the card to record this and set the card aside the next time it is drawn. Names of students absent from class can be removed from the deck beforehand, if it’s convenient — this doubles as an attendance-taking method.

If a student who is called on does begin to ramble, interject with something like “That’s an interesting topic, but right now I need to keep the discussion focused on X.” Then ask a different student the same question.

The last remedy for the over- or inappropriate-talker is the one-on-one meeting in your office. State that while you appreciate the person’s interest in the course, other students need an equal opportunity to participate. Then set a rule that limits how and when this student can speak. Document the meeting with, for example, an email to the student’s advisor. If needed, ask your department chair to be present.