Teaching Tip #10: Classroom Conflict, Classroom Climate

You may have seen the YouTube video of the Milwaukee student who was forcibly removed from a classroom by campus security after a dispute with the professor about a test question that escalated into abusive language and refusal to leave the classroom when asked.   http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S-KFA1U8iOw While it is unlikely that you will experience a situation as severe as this one, we all deal with disruptive classroom behaviors on a regular basis.  What do we know about minimizing these behaviors?

Recently, Weimer (2010) reported the results of a survey of college professors that examined both the types of disruptive behaviors they experienced in the classroom, and their own classroom behaviors (Myers, Bender, Hill & Thomas, 2006).   The survey results identified two types of disruptive behaviors:  inattentive (e.g. leaving early, arriving late, texting, talking in class) and hostile (e.g. challenging faculty decisions and authority, refusing to comply with faculty requests).   In contrast to earlier studies, the authors found no relationship between demographic variables such as faculty gender, experience, age or ethnicity with the type or incidence of disruptive behaviors.  What they did find were associations between teaching methods, classroom emotional climate and specific types of disruptive behavior.

Inattentive behavior was directly correlated with lecture methods, while active learning was inversely related to inattentiveness in this study.  This finding seems fairly obvious since students are less able to “hide” when they are required to participate actively in class.  Thus, if you are interested in reducing the amount of inattentive behavior in your classroom, consider using active learning techniques such as clickers, small group discussions, cooperative learning or case-based sessions regularly in your classes.  The study also suggested that asking students to help solve classroom behavior problems can be effective, but is not often used.   The CTE has a wide range of resources to help you develop and implement active learning techniques in your classes, and your disciplinary organizations and colleagues can provide a wealth of examples specific to your courses.

Hostile student behavior appeared to be related to the emotional climate of the classroom.  Faculty who expressed warm, caring and respectful attitudes toward students (or at least reported that they did) had the most success at minimizing and managing hostile incidents.  Faculty who did not use these methods reported higher levels of hostile conflict. Improving the emotional climate in your classroom is a very personal and individual matter since your comments and actions need to be grounded in your own personality and style in order to be authentic and believable.  If you do experience this type of conflict in your class more than occasionally, you may want to reflect on how you are coming across to students – do you seem disrespectful or brusque without meaning to?  Do students feel that you are “out to get them” even when you are not?  Or, do some students feel threatened or isolated in your classroom because they are different and don’t feel respected or included? Asking a trusted colleague to observe in your classroom might be helpful in identifying how students are misinterpreting your intent.  The CTE can arrange for classroom videotaping so you can see yourself in action and identify issues to work on, and can also conduct brief focus groups with students to get additional feedback.  Your colleagues also are a great source of suggestions for improving classroom climate. One thing you don’t need to do: changing grades or course requirements appeared to be counterproductive in this study, suggesting that you don’t need to be a “pushover” to manage hostile students successfully.

It’s important to point out that even the best instructors encounter students with serious issues who are going to be disruptive in class, regardless of the instructor’s positive actions and good intentions.  However, we can all be more aware of how the structure and tone of our classrooms influence student behavior.  Interestingly, Myers, Bender Hill & Thomas report that 61% of the faculty in the survey reported ignoring disruptive behaviors; this strategy resulted in poorer outcomes.  So, before you decide that nothing can be done about student behaviors, check in with your colleagues and try some new approaches.

What are you doing in your classes that you think contributes to positive student behaviors and prevents disruption?    What situations do you have the most difficulty managing?

Weimer’s summary:

Weimer, M.E.  (2010). Conditions associated with classroom conflict.  Faculty Focus, January 29.


Original study:

Meyers, S.A., Bender, J., Hill, E.K., and Thomas, S.Y. (2006). How do faculty experience and respond to classroom conflict? International Journal of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education, 18 (3), 180–187. http://www.isetl.org/ijtlhe/pdf/IJTLHE115.pdf


Teaching Tips #9: Spring Semester Funk

Does this definition ring a bell?

“Spring Semester Funk: physically and mentally exhausted, annoyed with colleagues, can’t stand to hear another talk, students working their last good nerve, and hopelessly behind on writing and research.”  (from The Monday Motivator e-newsletter by Kerry Ann Rockquemore, PhD)

Probably due to our winter disruptions, this year’s Spring Semester Funk (aka burnout) appears to be more severe than usual.  Being a great teacher means taking care of yourself and helping your students learn to do the same.  So, where to start?

  • Recognize what’s going on.  What are your sources of stress, both in and out of the classroom?  What do you need that you’re not getting?  Sleep? Decent nutrition? A pat on the back? Relief from caring for others or someone to clean your house?  A feeling that you and your students are making progress?
  • Assemble your support group. Professors tend to be very independent, and they often don’t think about asking for help.  Here are some things to try:
    • Identify the things that only YOU can do, and look for ways to delegate the rest.  For example, can you refer your students to the LRC for help with editing instead of finding every error yourself?  How about having students write their own study guides?  You also can ask students to evaluate their own work before they turn it in, or have a peer do so.  This can shorten your grading time. All these methods are excellent learning opportunities for the students as well as taking some of the burden away from you.  At home, can you afford someone to clean, even occasionally?  What can other family members do for you?  Cook, clean, make their own lunches?  Do you need to be at this meeting or event, or could someone else go? (These are good learning experiences for family members too!)
    • Misery loves company – find a colleague.  If you’re writing, edit each others’ work or discuss ideas.  Or buddy up to get a fresh perspective on handling a class that’s driving you nuts.  Get referrals for dog walkers or cleaning services, or walk your dogs together. Or just eat together and tell war stories.
  • Do less to accomplish more.  Don’t over-prepare lecture notes for class; use problem solving or class discussion to deepen learning. Why assign letter grades if a simpler, easier, faster option is all that’s needed (like check, check-plus, check-minus)?  Look for places where the return on your time is low, and see if you can do things more efficiently.
  • Laugh. Make time for something you really enjoy even when it isn’t “required”.  It may not last long, but it gives you something to anticipate and a motivator to keep working.  Some people schedule “joy breaks” a few times during the day — 15 minutes to do something that makes them happy.  Even if you just get up, walk around and admire the daffodils your mood will improve.
  • Quit. (sometimes).  Lots of people drag their work home with them every night and weekend, feel guilty about not getting to it, or not doing as much as they should, and never really relax.  Pick a night (or more if you can) and don’t bring anything home.  You‘ll have more energy for later.
  • Don’t forget your body. Sleep, eat, exercise, etc.  Your brain only works well when your body does. Better health means improved energy and mental attitude.
  • Know the enemy. Invest some time in planning.  If you record everything you need to do, then you can prioritize with the confidence that you aren’t leaving out anything important (which helps you relax).  You can also make sure that those odd little blocks of “between” time can be used productively for small tasks OR enjoyed as a break.   Try to leave some margin time to cover yourself when unanticipated events (student in crisis, illness, last minute meeting) come up.  If you don’t need it – celebrate!
  • Share with your students. With just a few word changes, that definition of Spring Semester Funk applies to students as well as faculty.  Spend a couple of minutes in class acknowledging their stresses and sharing ideas with them about how we can all get through this time successfully. It’s important for students to know that everyone (even their professor) has extra busy times, and the solution isn’t to give up or do shoddy work, but to work on finding the balance and perhaps making better decisions next time.

So, how do you cope with Spring Semester Funk for yourself, and how do you help your students? What is hardest for you to manage?

If you are interested in more thoughts about taking care of yourself and combating spring semester funk, here’s a link to Kerry Ann Rockquemore’s blog:


Although it’s targeted toward new faculty, the blog has great tips for anyone coping with the stresses and joys of academic work.

How Do You Write? Let Me Count the Ways

Thanks to MU librarian Marcia Dursi for steering me to the “How I Write” page at Stanford University.  For eight years, Hilton Obenzinger,  associate director of the Honors Writing Program at Stanford’s writing center, has been inviting professors across the disciplines to come talk about their writing process.  The site includes a video of political science professor Rob Reich talking about his (written) work on the ethics of homeschooling and charitable giving.

Obenzinger’s point: Students struggling alone with writing need to realize that they’re surrounded by “a thriving community of experienced writers,” whose varied ways of going about the task offer models.

Teaching Tip #8: Helping students use their brains

In honor of Brain Awareness week, this week’s teaching tip asks the question:  how is what you do in the classroom affecting your students’ brains?

Learning is a physical act.  Some neural connections become stronger and others weaken or disappear as new experiences literally shape the brain.  In The Art of Changing the Brain, biologist James Zull does a fascinating job of describing what we know about brain processes and how this knowledge relates to teaching and learning.

Zull describes four cortical processing areas:  sensory, temporal integrative, frontal integrative and motor, and he links the functions of each of these areas to the four phases of the Kolb experiential learning cycle (Kolb, 1984).

Kolb’s Learning Cycle and Brain Processes

  • The first of Kolb’s phases, concrete experience, is the acquisition of new material.  For example, I read a book, watch a video or listen to a lecture.  Zull connects this phase to the sensory cortex functions of retrieving and processing sensory data.
  • Reflective observation is Kolb’s second phase, which Zull relates to the temporal integrative cortex.  During this phase, learners relate the new experience they just had to existing experiences stored as neuronal networks in memory.  Now, I compare what I just experienced to what I already know and remember.  Learners need time to reflect on what they have been exposed to in order to activate these deeper learning processes. Otherwise new information remains unconnected to existing structures in memory and quickly disappears.
  • At the abstract hypothesis stage, the frontal integrative cortex becomes involved as students try to integrate and transform what they have experienced and what they already know into a plan, a conclusion, an idea or a product.  Learners need encouragement and support to make this transition. They also need motivation.  Zull points out the importance of engaging the pleasure centers in the brain to enhance intrinsic motivation.  Engaging problems and interesting applications of knowledge help to awaken pleasure and interest in the topic being studied.
  • During active testing learners use their motor cortex to do something concrete with the results of their phase 3 thinking.  Taking a test, writing a paper or creating a new work all involve active testing.   Finally, this product can become the basis for a phase 1 experience and the cycle begins again. 

Traditional classrooms tend to go from Phase 1 (presenting material through lecture or reading) right to Phase 4 (testing).  Zull advocates making  Phases 2 and 3 more explicit and intentional in order to  deepen learning.  How can we do this?

From Phase 1 to Phase 2:  Giving students time to reflect on their learning is important – a good reason to develop a syllabus that does not overwhelm students with so much new information that they cannot reasonably process it all.  Developing assignments that prompt reflection such as reader’s logs or writing prompts that specifically ask students to relate new information to what they already knew about the topic is also helpful.  Assessing student’s concepts (and misconceptions) about a topic prior to presenting new knowledge also gives you the basis for an assignment where students can compare what they thought before with what the new information tells them.

From Phase 2 to Phase 3:  Now that students have had time to reflect on their experience, what new questions can they ask?  What working hypotheses can they generate?  How can they apply this information to a situation?  How can they make decisions using this information?  As students transform information into something useful to them, their new neuronal connections are reinforced and the learning is “stickier”.   Assignments that specifically ask students to make take this step, and problems that are engaging enough to make them want to do so help in this phase.  Because students’ brains are different, what activates their pleasure centers is different as well, which argues for a range of interesting options for phase 3 assignments.

From Phase 3 to Phase 4:  Once students have reflected, analyzed and created in phases 2 and 3, they need active ways to test their new knowledge. This can be a traditional written test or paper, a debate, a research or thought project, or any other activity that requires students to actually write, speak or act. Clearly, from Zull & Kolb’s standpoint, this testing should be more than just repeating disconnected knowledge from Phase 1.  Application, analysis, independent projects and creative works all demonstrate the students’ new neural connections while strengthening them still further.

Now that you have encountered a small amount of new knowledge (I hope), how would Zull and Kolb tell you to proceed?

  • Reflect on it:  How does this information fit with your experiences in the classroom, or as a learner yourself?  Where do you agree or disagree?
  • Use it:  How could you try out some of these ideas in your classroom?  Change an assignment?  Focus a class discussion differently? Ask for a reader’s response to a text?
  • Test it:  If you made a change, what happened?  Was it what you expected? How does it change what you thought at the beginning of this process?  Now you’re back to Phase 1 again, but with a deeper understanding.

This is a fairly simplistic description of Zull’s arguments, and leaves out many of the interesting points he makes, the good stories he tells, and some of the gaps in his arguments.  For a more detailed review of the book, check out Pierce Howard’s review at  http://www.dana.org/news/cerebrum/detail.aspx?id=2320.  Or, even better, read the book!  We have a copy at the CTE in Rowley you may borrow, or you can get copies through the library.

Kolb,D.A. (1984). Experiential learning. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Zull, J.E. (2002). The art of changing the brain. Sterling, VA:Stylus.

How Many of Your Students Really Belong in a Four-Year College?

A listserv post pointed me to Charles Murray’s somewhat hardhearted answer in the Wall Street Journal.  According to Murray, you need an IQ of at least 115 to do well in college, so really only 25% of the population has the aptitude.  Yet more than 45% of high school graduates enroll in four-year colleges.

3 Qualities of an Outstanding Teacher

I saw this post on a writing program listserv and thought the insight transferred well beyond composition.  It’s not enough to know your field and know how to draw students into the class; you have to be able to figure out where their learning is breaking down:

I saw the NYT article as proposing that neither pedagogy nor content knowledge along was adequate to the job of effective teaching, that both were needed. Lemov appears to believe that, no matter how well teachers know the content, they will be ineffective if the students aren’t paying attention. The case of “Wilma” illustrates the complementary point of view that it’s not enough for students to pay attention if the teacher doesn’t have a good grasp of content and of how and why students might be misunderstanding it. There’s actually three kinds of knowledge required of a good teacher:

 1. Strong knowledge of content

2. Knowledge and command of strategies to engage students’ attention

3. Knowledge of how students are likely to understand or misunderstand what they are learning.

 It’s the last one that knits the first two together. The last one was Mina Shaughnessy‘s most important contribution in her attempts to figure out the genesis of the kinds of syntactical errors that student make in their writing.  She gave meaning to “awk.”

 When my kids were small, I became really interested in teaching them how to ride a “two wheeler.” I knew how to ride a bicycle (#1 above). There was no problem with #2 above; the kids were engaged and motivated, if a little nervous. What I didn’t know was what the kids, who were tricycle experts, didn’t know about riding a bicycle. Once I got to thinking about the problem in that way, it became pretty clear that they didn’t know what “balance” was (or, more precisely, what balance felt like). So, I set them up at the top of a gently sloping driveway and had them just coast to the bottom a couple of times using their feet and legs as outriggers. Without worrying about pedaling or falling, they could discover balancing. After a couple of coasts, they just rode away. By late afternoon they were standing on the seat.

 David E. Schwalm, Assoc.Professor, Emeritus

ASU at the Polytechnic campus

7001 East Williams Field Road

Mesa, AZ 85212

Phone: 480 727-1418  david.schwalm@asu.edu

Home:  480 897-0804

Teaching Tip #7: Passively Failing Students

At some point, you meet the “passively failing” student.  He or she attends class sporadically, does not seem engaged when they do show up, does not complete assignments and generally makes you wonder why they don’t just drop the course.  How can we understand such students? Is there anything we can do?

Buskist & Howard (2009) report on interviews they conducted with 23 “passively failing” students who ultimately changed their behaviors and became successful. While they found no single profile that fit all of these students, the researchers identified several reasons behind the passive failure phenomenon.  Many students gave multiple reasons for their behavior.  Their explanations can be categorized as following into one of three categories: their motivation for college; their achievement motivation and academic self-confidence; and their personal problems.

Motivation for college: The most common reason given by students for their passive behaviors was that they did not know why they were in college, what they wanted to study or why.  These students had difficulty tolerating uncertainty and were overwhelmed by making academic choices. Many of these students were only in school because someone else (parents or peers) expected them to be there.

Achievement motivation & academic confidence: Many of the students interviewed were not strongly motivated by getting good grades.  They hoped to pass their courses, but they underestimated the effort this would require.  When they realized what they needed to do to pass, (usually late in the semester), these students were unable to change their prior pattern of inertia.  Other students started out positively, but lost confidence after early set-backs (usually low or failing grades).  These students felt inferior and were too embarrassed to seek help.

Personal issues Family and relationship problems (e.g. parental conflict, family illness, breakup of a relationship) negatively impacted these students’ coping ability.  Substance abuse alone, or used as a way to cope with negative feelings about other problems was frequently cited as a reason for passive failure. These students also reported feeling too intimidated or embarrassed to talk to a faculty member about their problems.  Some students also became so distracted by extra-curricular athletic or social activities that they failed to focus on their school work.

What can faculty do to help these students?  Clearly, your intervention will depend on the student’s unique situation, so the first step is to try to find out what is going on, and the sooner the better.  Some writers suggest giving fairly low stakes quizzes in the first two weeks of classes to identify students who are at risk for becoming passive failures. Once identified, the instructor can try to help these students develop more accurate expectations and better habits early so that they do not continue to experience academic failure.  Others suggest requiring students to stop by during office hours during the early weeks to begin laying the foundation for a relationship.

These are excellent ideas to try out, but what if it’s mid-semester and you have a student who is avoiding your class despite your best efforts to be inviting and open?

Understand that the classroom has become a negative and anxiety-provoking environment for this student.  See if he or she will meet you in your office or communicate via email (remember to use the MU email system to maintain confidentiality).  Try to get a sense of the reason or reasons the student is failing.  If the problem appears to be a lack of interest in college, then you can validate their feelings.  Often students believe that we are on their parents’ side since, after all, we are college professors and clearly value a college education.  Letting them know that you have seen other students in their situation and that everyone is not ready for or interested in college at the same time lets them know that they are not alone.  Treating them as adults able to make their own decisions may help them begin to take responsibility for those decisions.  A referral to their adviser, the Academic Success Center or the Counseling center may be appropriate as they struggle with their uncertainty and their choices.

You can try helping a student who does not have strong achievement motivation to relate the course content to one of their interests, boosting their intrinsic motivation.  If they seem to lack confidence in their academic skills and ability, you may want to focus on helping them develop better academic habits during office hours, through study groups and/or referral to the LRC or the Academic Success Center for more in-depth help.  You may become aware of potential learning issues and make a referral to Disability Support Services.  Letting reluctant students know that these services have helped students like them can help them overcome their embarrassment and avoidance. Students often believe that we think our courses are the most important thing in the world and we only like A students.  Being practical (let’s focus on you passing this course!) may be more effective. This is tough with a student you know could do better than passing, but if you push too hard, you will just be one more person they are disappointing and they will avoid you.

Personal problems can be very difficult for professors to handle.  Your main focus needs to be on getting the students the support they need to consider their options and whether they can manage their work or need to withdraw. Acknowledging that the situation is tough, offering to meet with them to help them plan to complete their work if they decide to stay in the class and referring to the Counseling Center staff and the Dean of Student Services is usually most effective.

Who are your allies when working with the passive student? In addition to the offices mentioned earlier, the student’s academic adviser, another professor, coach or MU staff member may be able to reach the student if you are having trouble.  Try to find out who the student has connected with (if anyone) and encourage them to talk to that person.

Obviously, we can’t help every student who is passively failing our classes.  However, with some of these students, reaching out at a critical time can make the difference, so it’s certainly worth the effort to try.  The final date to drop a course is this Friday.  Is there someone you should be contacting?

Buskist, W., & Howard, C. (2009). Helping failing students: Part 2. The passively failing student, APS Observer, 23 (1).  Accessed electronically at http://www.psychologicalscience.org/observer/getArticle.cfm?id=2609