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


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