Responding to disruptions in the classroom

Passionate disagreement can become disrespectful. That’s when discussion sheds more heat than light, impairing the ability to make arguments based on fact or to listen beyond preconceptions.

When disruptive behavior takes place, a number of UW faculty members 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 responses you’ve given other students.

The strategies and resources below may help you prepare for these moments before they occur.

Before the quarter begins: Syllabus design

The syllabus provides both the instructor and students with a contract and common reference point for learning throughout the course. Consider including guidelines for discussion and student conduct in your syllabus along with norms about engagement and disruption — even good faith disruption.

Before the quarter begins: Syllabus design

  • Focus norms on observable conduct and behavior and plan to discuss them with the class.
  • For the syllabus and first day of class:
    • Discuss disciplinary assumptions & practices
    • The purpose of discussion as a course practice
    • The rules of engagement*
    • What to do when discussion breaches the rules of engagement*
      *The rules of engagement and what to do when they are breached can be developed solo, in collaboration with other instructors, in collaboration with students, by students without the instructor, or some combination there of.
  • Make a clear statement that in your classroom, discriminatory language or conduct is not tolerated. Include the statement in the syllabus, on the class website, and state it verbally in class.
  • State the course learning goals. Specify what you want students to learn and why. For example: Why do you ask students to discuss things (as a class, in small groups, online) beyond disciplinary or higher education tradition? They may not know. Connect these goals and practices to the rules of engagement.

Below are examples of syllabi statements designed to facilitate a more inclusive classroom environment and set the ground rules for constructive dialog.

Student/faculty responsibilities: Class dialogue/discussion/participation

We are co-creators of our learning environment.  It is our collective responsibility to develop a supportive learning environment for everyone.  Listening with respect and an open mind, striving to understand others’ views, and articulating your own point of view will help foster the creation of this environment.  We engage our differences with the intent to build community, not to put down the other and distance our self from the other.  Being mindful to not monopolize discussion and/or interrupt others will also help foster a dialogic environment.

The following guidelines can add to the richness of our discussion:

  • We assume that persons are always doing the best that they can, including the persons in this learning environment.
  • We acknowledge that systematic oppression exists based on privileged positions and specific to race, gender, class, religion, sexual orientation, and other social variables and identities.
  • We posit that assigning blame to persons in socially marginal positions is counter-productive to our practice. We can learn much about the dominant culture by looking at how it constructs the lives of those on its social margins.
  • While we may question or take issue with another class member’s ideology, we will not demean, devalue, or attempt to humiliate another person based on her/his experiences, value system, or construction of meaning.
  • We have a professional obligation to actively challenge myths and stereotypes about our own groups and other groups so we can break down the walls that prohibit group cooperation and growth.
    [Adapted from Lynn Weber Cannon (1990). Fostering positive race, class and gender dynamics in the classroom. Women Studies Quarterly, 1 & 2, 126-134.]

We are a learning community.  As such, we are expected to engage with difference.  Part of functioning as a learning community is to engage in dialogue in respectful ways that supports learning for all of us and that holds us accountable to each other.  Our learning community asks us to trust and take risks in being vulnerable.

Here are some guidelines that we try to use in our learning process:

  • LISTEN WELL and be present to each member of our group and class.
  • Assume that I might miss things others see and see things others miss.
  • Raise my views in such a way that I encourage others to raise theirs.
  • Inquire into others’ views while inviting them to inquire into mine.
  • Extend the same listening to others I would wish them to extend to me.
  • Surface my feelings in such a way that I make it easier for others to surface theirs.
  • Regard my views as a perspective onto the world, not the world itself.
  • Beware of either-or thinking.
  • Beware of my assumptions of others and their motivations.
  • Test my assumptions about how and why people say or do things.
  • Be authentic in my engagement with all members of our class.

Statement courtesy of:

  • Gino Aisenberg, Associate Dean, Diversity and Student Affairs, The Graduate School; and Associate Professor, School of Social Work
  • Adaurennaya C. Onyewuenyi, Predoctoral Lecturer, The Graduate School

University of Minnesota Duluth: Responding to behavioral disruptions in the classroom

[From the University of Minnesota Duluth: Responding to Behavioral Disruptions in the Classroom—Faculty and Staff Information (p.3)]

Syllabus Suggestions

The UMD Uniform Syllabus Policy provides guidelines for the content of your syllabus. Including a clear statement of your classroom expectations in your syllabus can be very helpful in minimizing classroom disruption. If you find it necessary to make changes to your written syllabus, clearly communicate the changes to students.

In addition to clearly outlining your expectations (e.g., cell phones turned off, raise hand before speaking), you may want to incorporate the following statements in your syllabus.  These are examples which may be modified to fit the philosophy or expectations of your class.

Civility in the Classroom

The following is based in part on suggestions made by Lynn Weber Cannon in “Fostering Positive Race, Class, and Gender Dynamics in the Classroom,” published in Women’s Studies Quarterly, 1990: 1 & 2, pp. 130-132.

We can assume that discrimination exists in many forms (e.g. sexism, racism, classism, ageism, homophobia, anti-Semitism, ableism, etc.). Any critical understanding of these various -isms means that we need to recognize that we have been taught misinformation about our own group as well as about members of other groups. This is true for both dominant (e.g. white, male, upper class, heterosexual, able-bodied, etc.) and subordinate (e.g. people of color, women, poor and working class, gay/lesbian/bisexual/transgender, disabled, Jew, etc.) group members.

  • Based on these assumptions then, let’s agree that we cannot be blamed for the misinformation we have learned, but we are responsible when we repeat misinformation after we have learned otherwise.
  • People and groups are not to be blamed for their subordinate positions.
  • Let’s assume that people are always doing the best they can.
  • Let’s actively pursue information about our own groups and those of others.
  • Let us share information about our own groups with other members of the class, but never demean, devalue, or in any way put down people for their experiences.
  • We each have an obligation to combat actively the myths and stereotypes about our own groups and other groups so that we can break down the walls which prohibit group cooperation and group gain.
  • Let’s create a safe atmosphere for open discussion.

Additional syllabi statements

First week of class: Establish ground rules

Establishing expectations for behavior early in the course can support students’ willingness to engage in learning activities and prevent possible conflicts. Involving students in establishing those ground rules helps build relevant and meaningful guidelines with greater consensus.

First week of class: Establish ground rules

  • Consider asking students to help establish norms. Methods for doing this can include silent whiteboard discussion or concept mapping. For example: “What do you mean by respect?”
  • Use silent whiteboard discussion as a method for students to decide on classroom rules of engagement.
    • On one side of the board students list what helps them learn.
    • On the other side of the board they list what doesn’t help them learn.
    • Post the lists on the course web site. This strategy helps multilingual students and others who may prefer writing to speaking. (It is a useful alternative to traditional or online discussion for other topics as well.)
  • Poll Everywhere allows a version of a silent board discussion for larger classes. It’s useful as a check-in, but note you cannot grade responses, even as participation.
  • Ask students to provide examples of the difference between excitement and disruption in the classroom.
  • Give students a starter list of discussion guidelines on day one:
    • In small groups, students review the starter guidelines (which were developed by other students in other classes).
    • Students can add to, revise, and subtract from the guidelines.
    • The final version goes up on the course website and serves as a resource and go-to document for the class.
    • Afterwards, discuss the guidelines and include talk about respectful communication—because it’s not just what we say it, it’s also how we say it.
  • Choose or invite students to pick a “pause word.” When someone is offended or confused in class, they can say the pause word. The person using the word signals that they would like the instructor to deal with it, or they would like to unpack the moment.
  • Preview the conversations that will take place in the course (especially those about stereotypes and social constructions) by showing or assigning Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s “The Danger of a Single Story” (2009, 18 min. & 9 sec.) This TED Talk explains how dangerous it is to think you know something about a person when you only know one thing about them, one “category.”  Discuss the TED Talk in class and link it to discussions and assignments to come.
  • Explain to and practice with students the difference between criticism (feelings and opinions) and critique (engagement with the text).
  • Clarify with students the difference between being uncomfortable — often necessary to learning — and having the classroom be a safe space.

  • What might students need to know about each other in order to function as a learning community in this particular course? What are their skills, experience, education, what they can contribute to a small group, what do they want to learn, how many languages do they speak, what kinds of jobs or service have they done? Collect these data, aggregate and anonymize them, then share them with the class.
  • If you have a personal experience of exclusion in an educational setting, consider sharing it with students. This personalizes the experience for students and creates community.

Responding in the moment

A number of UW faculty members recommend addressing disruptive or uncivil behavior immediately. Their advice: remain calm, assess the situation, listen to student concerns. Especially recommended: provide a clear, firm response that is consistent with responses you’ve given other students. The strategies and resources below may help you prepare for these moments before they occur.

Responding in the moment

  • Reframe a difficult discussion from personal and political to ethical. Then help students exchange “frames.”
  • Call out the moment.
  • When navigating micro-aggressions, ask the student for clarification while recognizing that you need to reserve your energy — the aim is to create a learning opportunity for all but know when not to.
  • Give students the opportunity to reflect individually (this also buys the instructor time to reflect).
  • Ask students to explain or unpack their comments: “I’m not getting that,” “What does that mean?” and “How does this relate to the class?” Asking for this can challenge students to think through what they just said.
    • Question: How do we ask the student to explain in a way that doesn’t cause more damage or provide a platform?
    • Suggestion: Take a break. Park it. Let the student know you’ll swing back to it at the end of the class session or at the next class. Then do it.
    • Suggestion: Invite the student to discuss the topic with you after class. Doing this may defuse tension, allow discussion to proceed, and keep the student from feeling attacked. .
    • Suggestion: Open things up to the rest of the class.  This disrupts the “instructor-student — instructor-same student” rhythm.
    • Suggestion: Use a “writing-to-learn” strategy.

Writing-to-learn strategies

  • Ask the class an open-ended question germane to the moment. Then ask students to write individual answers to the question. Before they start writing tell them why you’ve asked them to do this:
    • To help them clarify their thoughts and connect the moment to the course goals
    • To help them prepare for discussion
    • To give you a sense of where they are on X learning goal
    • Tell them who, if anyone, will read what they have written (it’s only fair that they know their audience)
  • Build consensus by having everyone write about a question or topic:
    • Post the questions/topics for all to see and go through them one by one without discussion
    • Ask students to raise their hands if they agree with the topic or value the question
    • Erase any question or statement that lacks complete consensus
  • Give students note cards at the start of every class and ask them to write down their questions. They may write anything that has to do with class.
    • The instructor can read the questions and respond; read some of them and respond; read them and not respond; or not read them at all.
    • The cards can be anonymous or not. It’s also possible to do this via WebQ or another online tool.

If you consider the topic germane to the course learning goals, take a quick show-of-hands to find out how many students would like to continue the discussion or extend the moment. Let them know how many hands were raised.

  • If 30 of 40 raise their hands, keep going.
    • Be very transparent. Example: “For the next ten minutes, we’re going to talk about something that will be very difficult for some people and we’re going to do this with love.”
    • Allow people to leave if they need to.
    • Manage time carefully. Never let things run up to the bell when tensions are high. In the last 5-10 minutes, have an activity or conversation that settles people.
    • Follow up on the topic or moment via email or Canvas announcements.
  • If only 3 of 40 students raise their hands, ask the 3 if they could chat with you about it after class or in office hours.
    • Inviting the student(s) to discuss the topic with you after class may allow them to be heard without derailing the class discussion.
    • Schedule one-to-one or small-group conversations online.

Tie your decision (to discuss or not discuss), to course learning goals.

Self-care throughout the quarter

Most faculty members experience some form of work-related stress during the course of their careers. Developing effective self-care practices that sustain them through difficult professional times is crucial to their long-term success as instructors, as well as to their health. UW faculty members across campus provide the following suggestions on self-care.

Self-care throughout the quarter

  • When you feel triggered, or when dealing with your emotions take a moment to zoom out and breathe.
  • Have a strong core group of people you can talk to for support, reality checks, encouragement, venting, and debriefing.
  • Depending on the issue, consider letting data drive your decisions. Beware the squeaky wheel. If 2% of your students are concerned about X, avoid having those 2% drive your instruction. (Obviously, a lot depends on the X.)
  • Don’t exceed your expertise or your charge. Refer students to department, campus, community, or other resources.
  • Consider the way you make referrals. Talking about the resource to the class as a whole? Referring one person at a time?
  • Avoid pathologizing anxiety and frustration by referring every student to the Counseling Center. Instead, include the Counseling Center among other resources.
  • If students have problems with the material, the advising office can be a helpful place to refer them.
  • Refer to the Student Conduct Code: Prohibited Conduct. It’s prohibited to disrupt or impede the learning of other students.