Documentation:Guide to Teaching for New Faculty at UBC/Resource 6: Classroom Incivility

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Many teachers lament the disruptive student behaviours that they now see in their classrooms. A Student may show up late, walk to front of class and seemingly happily walk between the instructor and the class mid-lecture! Another student may talk, read the newspaper, and answer phones and emails. Behaviours like this generate thoughts like – “it wasn’t this way when I went to school”. Maybe things are different, but there is certainly a generational effect at play as well – parents have been complaining about youth for thousands of years.

I see no hope for the future of our people if they are dependent on frivolous youth of today, for certainly all youth are reckless beyond words... When I was young, we were taught to be discreet and respectful of elders, but the present youth are exceedingly disrespectful and impatient of restraint.

- Hesiod, 8th Century BC

We need to recognize and acknowledge the behaviours that we will and will not tolerate. The longer inappropriate behaviours are tolerated the more acceptable they become. Defining your expectations and creating a respectful, positive atmosphere at the very first class meeting is extremely important. You need to let student know what you want from the outset that you will hold them accountable for their behavivour. Respond to inappropriate behaviours carefully so you do not set up an adversarial relationship.

When students are asked about their pet peeves about follow students, many of the same behaviours you disapprove of are mentioned – I don’t like it when they arrive late – I don’t like it when people talk in the back – I don’t like when people have their laptops open on Facebook in the front row. If there is shared disapproval, it is worth talking about to the entire class. On the very first day you could put students in ad hoc group to come up with their top 2-3 bad classroom behaviours – collect their response and generate a set of “Ground Rules”. You can also include a section in your syllabus, describing acceptable behaviours and classroom conduct. It is best if you communicate clearly your expectations for classroom decorum and address any unwanted behaviours early.

Suggestions for Dealing with Specific Situations

Student Arriving Late

If the lecture starts slowly or late, you are reducing student incentive to arrive on time. Some Instructors will use the couple of minutes before class start to discuss assignments or examination questions. There can be a drift to starting more slowly, but it is likely better to drift the other direction and start on time and deliver value right away. This will send the message that it is worth coming on time to this class.

If you know the name of students, make a point of welcoming by name. Sends a subtle message that you have noticed. This should not be public humiliation, but an attempt to make the student publicaly own their behaviours.

Students Leaving Early

The book levitation factor occurs in most classes – students begin packing up both mentally and physically before the end of the class. The last few minutes is a great time to incorporate short activities and refocus student attention – half page written reflections, muddiest point, everyone write an exam question – lots of possible activities. If you use a lesson plan model, then there is lot of value in the last few minutes as you thoughtfully close the lecture. Give them value and they will stay.

Talking and Inattention

Students will talk during lectures, but sometime the conversations can be disruptive for nearby learners, you may need to intervene. Try making eye-contact with the offending group or move physically closer to the students talking, You can direct a question to students in the area – this get class attention on the area, makes most people in the area pay attention, and does not directly confront the offending individuals.

If subtle queues do not control the situation, you will need to directly confront – ask them to stand and tell the whole class what was so important. This needs to be used with caution – since public embarrassment can make many students quite angry.


You need to have a clearly stated policy for missed deadlines with clear penalties for lateness. You must enforce this policy consistently to be fair to all students – you can’t accept one student story and not expect other students to try for leniency or in the end be upset by your inconsistent behavivour. Typically you need to tell the student “to be fair to the whole class, I need to consistently enforce this….sorry”

There are UBC polices directly relating to legitimate excuses for missed assignments or exams (see Chapter 1 of this volume).

Challenges to Authority

From time to time a student or group of students may get upset. Upset students usually want to confront the “offending” instructor. The most important tool you have initially is listening. Listen to their concerns and resist initially the urge to confront and debate. Some of these discussions are best held in the classroom with all students, so all students’ voices are heard. This often dampens the upset minority. If the discussion continues not towards resolution, you should invite the students to discuss this later, perhaps in office hours.

Some issue will be resolved through discussion, and others may not. At this point you may need to gently, firmly and fairly remind the students of the requirements of the course they need to fulfill.

Hostile or threatening behavivour need to be reported to your department, so adequate measures can be taken.