Classroom Management Tip: What Now? When Class Norms Are Broken

College male in class, looking at his smart phoneWe 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.

Two rows of college students, all asleep in class–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.

Please visit the Pedagogical Thoughts website to contact me about institutional or individual consulting or dissertation editing.

Pedagogical Tip: “It’s in the Syllabus” But How Can I Get Them to Read It?

At the start of every term, it happens: the great debate about how to construct a syllabus. Academics take sides on how long the syllabus should be (see Tom Deans’ argument for a short syllabus) or if it should be written as a contract (to get a flavor of this debate, I suggest reading Amber R. Comer, Martha M. Rumore, Kevin Gannon, Faye Hardy-Lucas, Kent D. Kauffman, and John Warner).

I think those worries are, ultimately, not important. Instead, the abiding question for syllabus construction should be if we as faculty members are communicating what our course is about in ways that the students we will have (not the students we’d ideally wish we had, who stay up late reading syllabi for fun and who read more than what’s required for the course!), will read the syllabus. In fact, my goal is for students to read the syllabus (or parts of it) repeatedly. So how did I do that?

First, the social context of the course is important. Think about the level of student and how many students who will be enrolled. These demographics can effect the syllabi construction. I primarily taught large sections of Introductory Sociology (270-350 students). In the fall term, all were new first year students; most were in their first term at the university (a few had attended college classes while in high school). They were very anxious, unused to a learning management system, and for the most part, eager to please. I handed out a 4 page “short syllabus” on the first day (2 pages, front and back). It explained how to log into the course management system from my university’s home page, how to find our course in the course management system, information about me (name, title, how I would prefer they address me, office location and office hours) as well as the basics of how they will earn their final grade. I also enclosed some key university policies (all that are required would run several more pages – see here for the list). I ended with a brief calendar and a teaser – come “commit sociology” with me.

Tip 1: During that first day, I broke the class into small groups of about 5-7 students and assigned each a part of the longer online syllabus. They had to explain it to the class and they had to come up with at least 2 questions they had about their section. By the end of the first day, students were peppering me with questions and wanting to read more. So far, so good.

Tip 2: In the first five days of the semester, each student had to take a syllabus quiz. I created 40 questions and each student’s quiz included 17 randomized questions drawn from that pool of questions. Since I began to assign points for the syllabus quiz (versus it being optional), I saw a drop in what I would call “basic questions” that one reading would have answered. Instead, the questions I now would get were nuanced and were asking me to clarify wording that they found confusing. If a question was asked more than three times, I would change the language for the next term.

Tip 3: Your goal is for students to read the syllabus more than one time per term. As part of each assessment, I would link back to the part of the syllabus that referenced the assessment or the sociological concepts needed to succeed in that assessment. Thus if students followed the link, they would taken back to the relevant section of the document, thus ensuring they were rereading it multiple times.

Tip 4: Make the syllabus interesting to read. About six years ago I wanted to get more students to read the syllabus thoroughly and so I incorporated humor and pop cultural memes. I also made the syllabus more like a newsletter than a formal syllabus.

So for example, I used the Dos Equis man as a meme to introduce my missed test policy and a Bart Simpson meme before my plagiarism policy. Some other memes that I incorporated were based on The Game of Thrones, Star Wars, and so on. I tried to change at least five of the memes every term to stay current with television and movie themes.

Dos Equis guy saying, "I don't always give make-up exams, but when I do, it's an all essay exam"

Bart Simpson character at blackboard writing, "I will not plagiarize another's work" repeatedly


I believe the syllabus revisioning was a success; many terms I had sixty or more students send me memes for possible inclusion in the next term’s syllabus.

Tip 5: Gamify answering syllabus questions. If a student asked a question that I knew was in the syllabus, I would split students into small groups and give them a few moments to find their syllabus in their notebook. Then I set a timer and the first five groups to find the answer for the student who asked, earned a bonus point. [I had a set amount of bonus points that students could earn included in grade calculations.] The first time that I did this, only a few students even had the syllabus with them. By the third time, nearly all the class did. There’d be a lot of laughter, camaraderie, and teamwork – all things that I wanted to encourage in our large class – during these syllabi hunts. This might have taken four minutes of class time but met many of my pedagogical goals.

For me, these changes to my syllabus constituted pedagogical wins. From the first week, when 95% of the students took the syllabus quiz and earned an A or B grade on it, to repeated journeys back into the syllabus as they did each assessment, to gamifying finding answers to syllabus questions, students came to view our online syllabus as a living document, not just a bunch of rules and regulations (though they were that too).

How have you constructed your syllabus to include students and get them to read it? Share in the comments so that we can learn from you.

Please visit the Pedagogical Thoughts website to contact me about institutional or individual consulting or dissertation editing.

The Teaching Diary: First of Two Posts

How a teaching diary aided syllabi revision and led to increased student success (part 1)

Diary, opened to blank page, pen, smart phone, and 3 plants, on a deskEver had this experience? During the first three years I taught, when I was preparing to teach a class for the second time, I just “winged” it. I often tried to remember what went well and what didn’t, but I had only fuzzy memories to guide me. Then I learned about a tool that changed my life as a teacher and in a series of posts, I want to share with you what that tool was and how I used it to grow as a teacher and to have more engaged students and see if I can encourage you to use it too.

So what is it? A teaching diary or as Purcell1 labeled it, post-class reflective notes. I would pour out my frustrations, excitement, and the oh-so-private thoughts I had about that day’s class. I’d note what worked well, what pedagogical techniques fell flat, what readings students responded best to, and everything in between.

The diary allowed me to express the good, the bad, the frustrating, all as near to the end of class as possible. For the first few years, I only reread my entries during the break between terms, when I would be working on revising a syllabus, and only then if I was teaching the class that next term. I was using the diary solely as a “what worked, what didn’t” perspective. Eventually, I came to realize that I needed to review at least a bit of the diary before every class.

Before I started my teaching diary, I would write on sticky notes as reminders to myself in the class notebook; they were notes like “start here,” or “be sure to circle back to this concept at the start of the next class,” or “this example didn’t work well.” But I would throw them away once I had taught that class and may or may not write new ones to enlighten my future teaching self about how that class had gone. These early notes did not really help me to think about how I was measuring student learning and student success.

The teaching diary not only was a better system of communicating with myself across time, but entries became highly useful qualitative data which I could analyze in order to improve my teaching and my students’ success. Initially I brain-dumped pages at a time about each class, sharing my feelings about what I did poorly and if I felt anything went well, my thoughts about how students engaged with the material (or didn’t); even the room temperature appeared in these free-flowing diary entries. Over time I learned to pare down what I said and designed a form which I saved in the cloud for future reference, thereby killing fewer trees! With smart phones, it would be easy to record yourself and then upload it to software which will turn it into text and save it.

Try this out over the next month. Journal after every class and think about what pedagogies worked well, which did not, how did students respond to in-class questions and discussions, what readings were “hits” and which ones either proved to be too dull or too difficult. Most important, focus on feelings – yours and your students’ – what feelings were they and why? In my 2nd post about using a teaching diary, on February 16th, I will copy an entry and explain how I used it to improve that same class in subsequent academic terms. Tell me how it went in the comments or ask any questions about using teaching diaries which you might have.

          1For more ideas on how to use self-reflective journal entries to improve teaching, see David Purcell’s article entitled “Sociology, Teaching, and Reflective Practice: Using Writing to Improve” in Teaching Sociology 41(2013):5-19.



The Importance of Day 2 — Start on Your Classroom Routines

Many individuals have written about the first day of classes and how important it is to have a thoughtful, inquiry-based beginning. Here are just a few links (Bigsby 2018 and UC Berkeley 2019) and of course, the most comprehensive summary of all, is Lang’s (2019) “How To Teach A Good First Day of Class: Advice Guide.” Lang’s four key principles—curiosity, community, learning, and expectations—are excellent ways to break down goals to be accomplished during that crucial first interaction. Yet even the best advice must be modulated to take into account the class subject, the physical environment of the classroom, the time of day, the number of students, as well as the ways you express yourself in the classroom (or what I call your teaching persona). So while these pedagogical resources are a rich source of ideas to get the new term off to a strong start, nuance them to fit your class context.

But what about the second day of class? I would argue that the second day is, in many ways, even more important than the first. For starters, there is a different mixture of students than on the first class, where everyone was partaking of the class as a new experience, together. On the second day, there are the students who came back because of how well the first one went, in addition to those who came back just because they have to take the class, but there are also the students who, for whatever reason, were not with the group on the first day. So now you have a mixture of students who met you and the course the class before and are ready to get going as well as those who are “taste-testing” still to find a class they want, but also the students who need to be there but who, for whatever reason, were not there on the first day. They (hopefully) are focused on doing well, but want you to go over the syllabus and class rules so that they understand what’s going on, something that you might not want to take the time to do. Briefly talk with them before class, give them a copy of the syllabus unless it is on the web, and welcome them, but don’t let them derail the class starting on time. So how should you mesh these various types of students together for another engaging educational experience?


Settle into your class’ routine. The students who were there the day before – and you – need to get comfortable with your class patterns. These are some of my interactional routines that I establish by the second day of class.

Daily Assessment

assessmentMany students think that the first week or so of classes should be “freebies,” meaning that faculty shouldn’t assess learning in any meaningful way. Based on the literature about the role of repetition in learning, I assess students every single class period.  I assign students a small amount of pages from the text to read on the first day of class. I realize that not all students will have completed the assignment, for a variety of reasons (the campus bookstore under-orders the amount of texts, so many won’t have it yet; many wait for financial aid excess checks to purchase books, etc.) but I want students to be comfortable discussing the assigned readings every day. So that I don’t embarrass anyone, I note which students brought the book to class as they walked in and only ask them or ask for volunteers. I model the type of questions I’ll ask and coach students how to read the text in order to obtain the answers. By the second week of the class, we begin using “clickers” (audience response systems) and students can earn up to three points per day for correct answers.

For my Introductory Sociology course, I tell them that definitions of concepts and being able to apply that concept to real-world scenario are what we’ll focus on during the term. Every class I had at least one scenario to which we applied the concepts from that day. For a mathematics class, it might mean that formulas and practicing become part of every class. Whatever works for your subject area, find ways to engage students in showing you their learning every single class meeting. Small successes lead to bigger ones and if a student struggles, daily assessment can act as an early warning system.

Frequent Listening and Communicationlisten

Talk with a set number of students you don’t yet know before every class. Try to mix it up, so that within a few weeks you have talked with each of them. I prefer to ask them about their lives versus just how this class is going for them. They frequently open up easily, telling me if they are homesick, or struggling in another class in our learning community (I can alert that professor if the student gives permission), or if they are struggling with balancing classes and employment, etc. I try primarily to listen and always follow up with students if I said I would find resources, etc. I bring a small notebook to take notes with me, so that I don’t forget. I was amazed at how open and honest the conversations were in the 15-20 minutes before class began.

Even in my 300+ person classes, I or my graduate assistant made sure to email every student who was absent from class. In a class that size, it is easy to assume skipping class will go unnoticed – we tried to give the opposite response – that we noticed and missed the student.

While we didn’t necessarily email every day, we made sure to email any student who missed two classes in a row, checking up on them, reminding them of our office hours, that an edited version of the presentation slides were available after class and reminding them where to find them in the online learning management system, and urging them to come see one of us. Try to make these ‘chatty’ versus “mom’s mad at you” kind of messages though!

Questions Are Always Acceptable

I encouraged questions at any time in the class period. All I asked is, if the question would soon be answered, that the student allow me to continue on and then when I got to the answer, I made sure to circle back to that student, by name, and say, “here it comes!” or something like that. I created a “parking lot” on the white board behind the screens for questions that might need a longer length of time before we had the conceptual knowledge to answer them. Each day until we arrived at the answer, I’d recopy the question, so students knew we were working toward that answer and to honor that the question was asked.

Mistakes Are A Part of Learning

Constructing an6-steps-to-overcoming-failure-successfully environment where it is okay for mistakes to be made is vitally important to student success. Own your own mistakes promptly and honestly (e.g., more than a few times I have forgotten to save the clicker points file and had to award all the students the 3 points for the day). Don’t be afraid to say “I don’t know but let’s figure it out together.” Encourage, not discourage, a student who made an error in logic or an error in calculation. This is especially important if the student’s error is made in a public way – at the board, online where other students would have seen it, or in a live discussion. Don’t let the error go, either, just to save the student embarrassment. I tried to point out the error gently and see if the student, other students, and myself could work backwards to the point where the error occurred and then move forward. Inevitably, other students will jump in to say that they too made the error, which helps build a sense of group cohesion.

These are some of the pedagogical routines that will set you and your students up for a strong academic term. Good luck!


Please visit the Pedagogical Thoughts website to contact me about institutional or individual consulting or dissertation editing.

Note: This is a ‘bonus’ post because for many individuals, the academic term is about to begin. I’ll post again on Friday. See you then.

Tech Tip: Class Symbology

Whether we use PowerPoint, Prezi, Keynote or some other presentation software during class, I’ve found that students are often “forward looking.” They often seem to be more interested in the next slide than the one we’re on! Part of that can be related to their desire to “not miss something important.” So how can we help them to settle into the presentation in order to maximize their learning? I’ve found that a shared symbol system works best.

Let me first explain a bit about my class. I taught Introduction to Sociology in a room that held up to 350 students. Usually my class averaged between 270-320 students per term, although that number shifted downward many a day! The room was set up as an auditorium—two sloped aisles and another one across the front, breaking the room into six sections. There was an elevated stage with a standard podium and behind the podium were two drop down screens. I would start and end the class on the stage, but otherwise I would be walking the entire class period, up and down the aisles as we learned together. By the second week of class, we began to use “clickers” (audience response systems). I would post a question, each student would have 30 seconds to respond. Most days I asked 10 questions throughout the class period, with 3 of them earning 1 point each, for a total of 3 points per day. The other questions were opinion ones, to spark sociological discussion. Exactly at 9:30 AM, when class started, the first question (which was for a point) went up (lateness quickly stopped being a problem). About midway through the class was the second one for a point, and the last graded question was at the very end of class.

The first day of class, students often struggled, turning around in their seats, in an effort to follow me wherever I walked. During the first two weeks, I would have to remind them frequently that I wanted them to follow the presentation slides, not to keep an eye on me. Then, when we began using clickers, some of them missed the 30-second window because they would put the clicker in their backpack or on the floor, etc. It was watching these struggles happen every class period  that I came up with this symbology.

I created a shared symbol system that gave them advanced notice about what the next slide would be. So I began to use the same “what is our topic for today?” slide. Before, I’d sometimes had a joke or a few pictures up before the first slide for a point. Now I used a slide of puzzle piece and the key concept of the day (each class the slide would add a new one to the ‘picture’) – we called our class, “puzzling over the social world,” so I kept that puzzle symbol active throughout the entire term. But they learned that they would need the clicker every class period (except test days) for the second slide. So they’d get it ready before class began.

I used a small image of the clicker and put it on the bottom of the slide before all subsequent clicker slides. But the clicker icon would move. For the “opinion only” clicker questions, the symbol was in the far left corner of the slide before the question, whereas for the question which earned a point, it was on the far right corner.

And we’ve all experienced that students want to know exactly when class is over! So I routinized that too. I created a “Concepts of the Day” slide which listed key concepts and theorists covered. That signaled that the next slide would be the last clicker question for a score. Students would stick around just long enough for the correct answer to show on the slide, and they’d be off to whatever was next in their day.

Between these symbols and the color-coding of the background of each slide (discussed here), students and I were able to address many of their classroom anxieties. Don’t forget to get students involved – query them about your symbols and what they mean frequently during the first few weeks of the term. But they’ll quickly catch on, so long as you use a limited number.

So what are your class symbols? How do you use them? Are they working well for you?



Learning to Construct a Class – It’s You AND Students, Together

Hope, anxiety, excitement, tension, maybe even a bit of fear: it’s the start of another term. Every semester I would try to find balance – between amount of required readings and student engagement, between amount of required work and assessing just to assess, between the work required for each class compared to the other, balancing when assessments are due across multiple classes, between doing everything I think my students will need and having a private life, between striving to be a good professor and being human.

I often failed at that last one, sometimes spectacularly. Looking back, I realized I often sacrificed personal relationships for getting grades back quickly. How many times did I down cup after cup of hot tea (sorry, I hate wine and coffee!) in order to stay up to get grades done by Friday, when the class didn’t meet again until Tuesday? What was I thinking? I’d see on my Facebook feed that professor friends were away for the weekend or were out to dinner or meeting up for a movie – something that seemed more fun, at the time.

I own my choices, don’t get me wrong. But now that I am retired, I wonder if different decisions about how to construct classes might have led to a different life. Not necessarily a better one, but different. So what can I share that might help others?

First, I didn’t realize until far into my career that it was okay to “write myself into” the syllabus. What do I mean? That things like our wedding anniversary, or medical procedures known far in advance – those are okay to schedule assignments and tests around. You deserve not just a life, but a quality one, one that feeds you emotionally as well as professionally. So as you are planning your syllabi, give yourself permission to include your activities while constructing the course calendar.

Second, I used to plan each class separately. My philosophy of constructing a class was that it was a relationship between me and those students enrolled that term, not any others, even students in the other classes I was teaching. So I’d never look at one class’ calendar compared to another, until the semester had started and I was putting assignments on my office white board. And often – oops – I had tests on the same weekend or a set of tests and essays in two other classes. I’d just swallow and suck it up, because those were the best due dates to assess student learning. Finally I learned to construct each course separately, but then to adjust deadlines and tests if needed. I still privileged student learning, but I stopped ignoring that I was part of their learning process. I should be the best possible versus going into a term too stressed at certain times—we all know that a term never goes as planned. There will always be twists in life and we have to adapt, but why start out with too much stress?

The moral is—self care is not being selfish. Life as a professor is a juggling act between students, advisees, colleagues, administrators, our personal relationships, our need to research and publish, and just to breathe. So schedule yourself into the term – be it down time to read for pleasure, binge-watch a favorite show, or be present to yourself and the people you love. Your students, and you, will benefit from it.

How do you “put yourself into” your classes? Share tips with us.

Note: I’ve decided to write 52 blog posts this year. So stay tuned!