We moved into our new house on top of mountain in NC–no time to write, so this is a repeat blog post. I’ll be back ‘live’ next week!
It’s bound to happen at some point in the academic term: a student will break one of your classroom norms. Maybe the student is using a phone, or using a calculator when you have asked them to calculate a solution by hand, or the student who tries to turn in an assignment after the deadline, or a student might storm out of class – whatever behavior it was, it violated the behavioral code in the syllabus.
How will you handle it? I won’t claim that there is one right way, because there isn’t. What I want to suggest is a set of questions to consider as you think through what to do next.
–Where in the term did the violation occur? Is it day two or the last day of class? Early in the semester it might well be that the student was unaware of – or forgot – the norm. That’s less likely to be true the further into the term it is.
–How many others were impacted by the norm violation? If I, as the professor, were the only person impacted I might be more willing to listen to a student’s explanations than if the student’s behavior impacted the other 300-some students in the class. If a phone call interrupted my large class, it would bother me more than if it was a class of ten students.
–Does the behavior seem deliberately hostile to other students or result from a lack of consideration of others? Again, for me, if the behavior hurts others – for example, members of a group the student is a part of – I would be more upset than if it seemed aimed at me or if it seemed to be just venting to no one in particular. Students who were late and who took a seat on the edges of the class didn’t bother me, but students who were late and wanted to sit in the middle of a row and demanded other students to stand and let the student through, would. I would always be more tolerant the days that major assessments were returned because I understood that a student could become flooded with emotion, be it anger or frustration.
–Has the student tried to blame others once the behavior was noted by you or others? I know that we all struggle with owning our errors, but a student who would apologize for a norm violation versus ignoring it or trying to shift the blame to me, is more likely to learn from the violation versus repeat it. And students who repeatedly break the same norm, well, they try my patience the most.
Two last pieces of advice. Do you share with your students why you have created the norms for your class? Each of my class rules stem from one or more past incidents. As we go over the rules during the first week of class, I share some of these stories. For instance, I had a rule: if you know you have to leave class early for any reason—to let me know in advance. I won’t challenge your reason, but I wanted to know before class started. Why? Because several times I have had a student run out of class. I’d try to carry on with class, but half my mind was worrying whether the student was ill. “Should I send a graduate assistant out to check on the student or not?” I shared with students when I was mentally “split” like that, I was not at my teaching best, and I believe they deserved my best. So I asked them to just let me know if they had an appointment with their advisor or had to go to work early, etc. Then, when I noticed the commotion, I understood and could block it out and stay focused on the rest of the class. Once I explained this, I never had a student violate this norm—they got why I asked this of them. So share your rationale with your students—they feel more involved, more respected when they understand why you are asking them to follow a certain rule.
Second, I’ve found that it was easier to be strict about rule enforcement early in the term. Then, later on, I can relax a bit as I get to know my students more and they, to know me. About midterm, I would often have my students fill out an anonymous evaluation and one of the questions I would ask would be “What one class norm would you like to see modified? Why? And what would you suggest instead?” I’d aggregate answers and then we’d have a good conversation and sometimes changes ensued.
So yes, a violation of the class rules is bound to happen. I encourage you to use the incident to think about why you have the rules you do, and if you have shared your rationales with your students.
Please share your experiences with when students violate a norm in the comments.
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