When Things Go Badly: Escalating Student Behavior In The Classroom, pt 1

While few of us, we hope, will ever face an incident of extreme violence in the classroom, many of us will face a student who continues to escalate beyond acceptable student behavior. So let’s talk about what are some options to contain the behavior, allowing you to continue in your teaching mission.

In this first blog post, I will talk about how, in this kind of an escalating situation with a student, there are three elements of the interaction—two of which are more under your control. In next week’s blog post I will continue the discussion by sharing a way of assessing individuals, based on literature about how hospital emergency room staff assess and intervene with a patient or family member who may be escalating toward violence. And in a third post, I will discuss ways to seek help with a student conduct problem.

Three circles intersecting; one is "Your Teaching Self; another is "The Classroom Environment;" and the last is "The Student"

Your Teaching Self

I’ve written before that it is important for each faculty member to discover what behaviors by students bother you the most. These behaviors can likely be categorized as:

1) Attitudinal, e.g., rolling eyes during class, disengagement, rudeness, anger

2) Disruptive to learning, e.g., excessive talking during class, texting during class, arriving late and interrupting others, or leaving early

3) Communicative, e.g., talking back, hostile posts to discussion board, intentional negativity aimed at you or other students, threats [verbal or written].

Be sure that statements and policies in your syllabus address any of these behavioral categories which concern you. In particular, have you specified clear consequences for normative violations? I recommend at least a “one time” warning system before consequences begin. Let the student know, normally in private, that today’s conduct meant that another incident of the same behavior would lead to negative consequences. Sharing the reasons for your behavioral norms can help students to understand them. I tell several stories (anonymously) about the origination of some of my classroom norms—these stories help students to remember my norms, I have found.

Be sure that you hold yourself to the same standards—for example, in 32 years of teaching, I never was late to a class and I expected students to be on time unless there was a scheduling issue (e.g., sometimes my institution’s bus schedule was not always on time and students coming from a part of campus several blocks away might be late. But on the third day of class, I asked students to tell me their schedule and where their classes were so that I could have that information and memorize it. I asked students to tell me in advance if there was a one-time personal reason that they might be late, like meeting with their advisor or an appointment at the Student Health Center.)

My teaching persona is what I have sometimes called “pedestrian pedagogy.” In my class of 300 students, after I start the class on the stage, I was constantly walking around the classroom. I usually put 5000 steps on my Fitbit during the class period. My graduate assistants and undergraduate embedded peer tutor also were constantly walking during class. If I headed to the back of the classroom, one of them would walk to the front and another would walk the row that was perpendicular to the stage. We’d just keep crossing paths. So students knew that any member of my pedagogical team could be directly behind them, by their side, or in front of them, at a moment’s notice.

There was another part of my teaching self: my grey hair and age. Being the oldest person in the room gave me a wisdom and interactional advantage that—while I tried to not use it often—was a source of power. I learned non-verbal ways to convey the “don’t mess with me and we’ll all enjoy class better” message.

The Classroom Environment

Where will you be teaching the course? The built environment can impact student success, for better or worse. For example, if there are alcoves in the room that make it nearly impossible  for you to see the students who sit there, that space will likely draw students who might be thinking of breaking a class norm, thereby complicating your pedagogical strategies. If you are assigned to a room where the seats are bolted down, that could make active learning activities more difficult and might stress some students out (e.g., “I have to sit on the floor to be in a group? Oh no I won’t.”).

Course content can also influence classroom discussions, thereby increasing the likelihood of troublesome behaviors, especially attitudinal and communicative ones. Controversial topics—common in political science, anthropology, sociology, religion, philosophy, and psychology courses—can lead to disagreements. In particular, these often involve moments when students’ personal values conflict with course content (e.g., a student’s faith might contradict with a marriage equality law being studied). That doesn’t mean that mathematics and natural science classes will never have this kind of conduct violation, but they are more likely to involve the student becoming so frustrated over her or his inability to master how to work a certain type of mathematical problem or chemical formula, for instance, than hostility about the course content itself. The student might shift quickly, for example, from frustration with themselves to anger at you.

One way to help is to apply behavioral norms consistently, especially when students might come talk to you before or after class. Know that there will be other students listening just to see if you are being consistent and fair. However, I’m not saying that you must follow your norms rigidly. If compassion was needed regarding one student’s special circumstances (e.g., death of a family member necessitating a change in an assessment’s due date) I either asked the student to come to my office for that conversation or we would negotiate over email—but never in the actual classroom, in front of others.

Class policies need to follow best practices for the type of class you are teaching. For example, a laboratory dealing with dangerous chemicals might need more behavioral norms (e.g., no running with chemicals, etc.) than a class where students are seated for the entire class period. A class with graduate students will likely require different norms than a large class of all first year students, and an asychronous online class might need more norms about communicative misbehaviors because individual students (and you) might see a discussion post which is offensive at different times, across different days, and tension might build quickly, which will require more intervention.

Recognize the days in your class which are likely to stress students the most, such as test days and days when tests or assessments are returned. These are frequently the days when student behavior could violate classroom norms. I try approach these days with an especially tolerant attitude. I want students to care about their grades and recognize that some will likely have less practice coping with what the students might perceive to be “bad news.”

The Student

The more you know about your students in general, as well as individually, the more you will be able to personalize interventions. Are they first year students, transitioning to college or seniors who are more focused on finding a job and starting to pay back loans? Does the student appear stressed or tired, sad or lonely? Are they primarily enrolled because the course is required or have they chosen the class more out of scholarly interest?

Cartoon which shows 2 females with "word bubbles" above each one's head. Title of cartoon is "Can I think about this differently." One side says "he's just trying to get attention" and the other says "he must be going through something"If you can situate the student in his or her social context, you are better able to deal with behaviors outside of the norm. In next week’s blog, we’ll continue this conversation by thinking about how to react when students misbehave.

Please note: Institutions have policies about student conduct in classrooms, residence halls, and other spaces on campus as well as rules about guns on campus. Each faculty member needs to consult these local policies; these three blog posts are general comments about how to deal with escalating student behaviors and are not meant to supercede local norms and laws. For this reason, these posts will not be addressing situations involving weapons in the classroom.

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

Do It In July…For An Easier Start to Fall Term

Summer is an awkward time for many faculty. It might be “time off” if you are not teaching during the summer…but not really. You’re probably conducting research or writing up a research project. Or if you are teaching, it is likely in what I call the ‘fast forward’ mode in order to cover all the course content needed for students to be successful during a summer term.

So the last thing faculty want to think about is fall classes! Some of you know your fall courses but many do not, especially if you are teaching in several school and you might not know if you’ll be teaching any fall classes or which ones you might be teaching in the fall, during the month of July.

So let’s think about small steps to make—taking just a few hours each week in July—which could help you to prepare for fall classes.

Week 1: Create a Draft Class Schedule

This is a good time to create a skeleton class schedule. What do I mean? Go to the online Academic Calendar at your institution(s) and make a calendar. I do it on paper but if you’d like, go straight to the software you normally use to create your syllabus.

Here’s what mine looked like for a Tuesday and Thursday, 75 minute class, once I had typed it into the syllabus. I create a table with five columns: date of classes, module number in learning management system, topics to be covered, readings, and due dates and other reminders. I usually make mine using landscape orientation, so that I have more room to write without adding significantly more pages to the length of the syllabus.

For this week, don’t worry about the last four columns—just update the dates of classes. Then add in any institutional dates (i.e., holidays/days off, when in-progress/midterm grades must be posted for students to see, when student evaluations open for students to complete (if this is an established date for online completion, etc.). Note the finals week dates, even if you do not know the date of your actual course’s final examination.

Be sure to proof your dates versus an actual calendar one more time before you save the file—and be sure you save the file in a way that identifies which term it was for, so for example, I might save this as 1101fall2019TTh: 1101 is the course number for the Introductory Sociology class, “fall2019” identifies the term, and “TTh” tells me it is the twice a week (versus MWF) class schedule.

If you’ve taught the course before during the same time of year, call that up the basis for your course schedule (but remember to rename the file!). But I have found that using a spring course schedule for a fall course is more work for me—my school didn’t have a week-long fall break versus the spring break, etc., so for me, if I was teaching the course in a different time of year than I had done before, I would just start a new file.

Week 2: Update Topics and Readings

College student sitting on the floor of library, surrounded by stacks of booksPull up the file you saved last week and begin to decide the topics and readings you want to require students to read. I realize, especially for introductory-level courses, that texts are often chosen by others (e.g., department committee or department head) and so there might not be a lot of choice involved in some of the readings. But even then, many faculty can add in some readings if you feel they could help student learning.

Here are some questions to ask about each reading:

1. Is there a newer edition of a textbook, if you are using one?

-If so, how much content has actually changed in the new edition (versus pictures  and supplementals like presentation slides, etc.)?

-Will your institution’s bookstore allow you to continue using an older version  of a textbook or does it require you to order the most current edition? Older textbooks tend to be cheaper.

-Will your institution’s bookstore allow you to order a used textbook as an option for students?

-Is there an open educational resource available (e.g., OpenStax) instead of a text by a publishing company? These are usually free or low-cost options. However, be prepared to be more active “editing” of OER readings,  particularly to ensure that the definitions of concepts match how you are  defining them or how your program defines them.

 2. Update non-textbook readings

-Consider short blog posts as readings. There are so many scholars now who blog, so spend some time Googling the key concepts you will be covering and examining blog posts about it might allow you to find engagingly  written newer examples which might resonate well with your students.

-Add the URLs to the draft class schedule, perhaps highlighting the new additions so that you can easily spot them later on, when you will do your final  editing of the syllabus.

-Choose more readings than you need now, that you can re-read them, looking for nuanced differences (for example in readability and tone of writing) for reviewing at a later date.

Week 3: Update Video and Audio Segments for Class

Picture of audio headset connected to cell phoneThis week’s goal is to spend a few hours examining the audio-visual materials you are using in and out of class. Start with going through your presentation slides if you use them. Here are some things to review:

3. Was there any slide which seemed to confuse students more than clarify a concept? If you are using a teaching diary (see these part 1 and part 2), you will likely have noted it there. See if you can reword the slide or perhaps, find a different example to illustrate the concept, etc. Be sure to save the file with a new name.

4. Consider spending some time Googling podcasts about your discipline and the specific topics your course is covering. Students could watch or listen to these  while working out or late at night in their room, etc.

5. Look for YouTube videos or similar sites which might have videos which could be useful in the course. Think about whether you ever want to use student-created videos (there are lots on this website) or only those produced by scholars or  institutions of higher education.

6. Be sure that all your videos are captioned. See if the source also has a transcript  available to post for students or else make one.

I recognize that different disciplines will have different levels of availability of free audio-visuals for use in class or to assign for out-of-class use, but many scholars are blogging with a pedagogical focus now.  To get you started, here are some sociological sites that are pedagogically focused:

The Society Pages: Open-access social science project headquartered in the Department of Sociology at the University of Minnesota and supported by individual donors. Houses multiple blogs on a variety of sociological topics.

Everyday Sociology blog: Team of bloggers (primarily associated with W. W. Norton     sociology texts), writing about current events from a sociological perspective. Short  posts, readable style.

The Sociological Cinema: Annotated video clips which illustrate sociological concepts,    as well as podcasts about media and pop culture, and other curated content.

Week 4: Consider Assessments

Wordle with about thirty words linked to assessment, such as "grades," "learn," "expectations", etc.This week spend some time thinking about the assessments you have used before, reviewing your teaching diary about how well each has worked to build student success, and deciding on if you still want to use those assessments or spending time outlining possible new ones.

As you are reviewing them, pull out your class schedule and decide on due dates. Put them on the directions for the assessments, on the class schedule, and change the dates in your school’s learning management system, if necessary.

And finally,

Week 5: Review the Entire Syllabus

Hopefully by now, you will know for sure which courses you will be teaching, on what day(s), and at which time slot. Now you can look at the rest of the syllabus—your introduction to the course and to yourself, your class policies, and institutional policies which need to be listed in the syllabus. Tweak them as needed.

Then you’ll just have to load all the files into the learning management system (if you are using one) or put all the parts of the syllabus together into one document and give it one last read through in those frenetic days before the academic term starts. So use July to accomplish small goals that will help make the start of the term easier for you and for your students.

Good luck!

So readers, how do you use the month of July to get ready for the fall term?

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







Teaching as Storytelling

Multi-tonal sign that says "Tell them your story"The best teachers, I believer, are exceptional storytellers. They tell many stories simultaneously—the story of their discipline’s founding; the stories of key theorists in their discipline; the story of how those in the discipline think (theory) and act (methods, ethics, data collection, and analysis). They also share the story of how to learn their discipline. Hopefully, they also share the story of how they came to love their discipline. These stories will both illustrate and entice students to see the world differently.

As a sociologist, the stories I get to tell are often less distant from students lives than say, accountancy or astronomy might be, so student interest is less of a storytelling “hurdle” for me. Students are interested in themselves and people like them. But luckily, as a sociologist who studies “new religions” (what some might call “cults”), students are also interested in people my students perceive as different from themselves.

Elements of a Good Story

All stories require certain elements: a cast of characters, a plot, and a storyline which naturally ebbs and flows, and stories usually have tension or conflict to push the story forward. Good stories weave these elements together in ways that captivate, motivate, and activate their audiences.

            The Cast of Characters

Stylized words: "A Cast of Characters"Students are fascinated by the details of the individuals they are studying. They want to   learn more about what made each scientist research that particular topic, and so on. So do some research on the theorists you are about to teach; humanizing a (usually dead—at least in sociology) theorist, students can relate better to him or her.

            The Setting

In sociology, we often talk about the cultural context of a person or a group’s behaviors.  What about that society or group’s ways of thinking, feeling, and acting have shaped  how individuals will respond, in that particular time in the society’s history? Students, for    example, might research the context of why, for example, the structural functionalist theoretical perspective emerged post-WW II before we begin to analyze the perspective’s components. That way they can understand how, in a time when the US was experiencing superiority in political and economic power, that a US adult who             was poor might be perceived as weak or problematic, and needed to start working harder.

            The Plot

Black background with grey words, "The Plot"What is the cast of characters doing, and why? A benefit of the social sciences is that there is such an extensive range of behaviors and motives, that the stories we can study are endless. When I would teach about the intellectual debate between Karl Marx and Max Weber over what factor(s) in society created social change, I would have students role-play how particular Calvinist believers would live out their beliefs (what Weber called “The Protestant Ethic”) and along the way, they would make a profit. Then I  would go very quiet, usually for nearly two minutes. Then, in a whispered voice, I would say, “Did you hear it? Did you?” Students would look around and at each other,  wondering what on earth I meant. Then I would say, “Did you hear Marx rolling over in  his grave, because Weber just proved a central argument of Marx’s to be wrong.” Some who “got it” on their own, would look happy, but most would look perplexed. That plot confusion allowed me to circle back to each theorist’s arguments one more time, showing how they were interwoven. Frequently on the end-of-term course evaluation,     students would comment on how I told the story of Weber and Marx helped them to see the implications of each one’s theory and helped them to master the sociological content.

           Tension or Heat

Life usually involves conflict, tension, or what television producers of talk shows call “heat” between individuals or groups. The stories we tell will make more of an impression with students if they involve this element of human interaction. Are there scientific research teams with complex personalities, and a leader has to get all members of the team to see strengths and weaknesses of each member and how to weave them together into a cohesive unit? How has a concept evolved over time? Were there debates between scholars as to its validity? Share those stories of intellectual challenges leading to change with your students.


Narrative theory argues that not every story has to have a resolution given by the storyteller. Sometimes it is better to allow students—solo or in groups—to create solutions and test their applicability.

Sometimes, the stories I use are about me. I grew up in a big Irish Catholic family. My parents were married over fifty years before they both died, and I have four older sisters. I grew up more middle class than not, in pre-Starbucks Seattle. My family moved to Seattle from Butte, Montana when I was not quite two, so Seattle is the only home I remember. Our house was a two story home, with open beam ceilings on the top floor.

Open bag of marshmallowsI tried to use stories about my life which would both be interesting and memorable for my students…especially the “marshmallow norm” or rule in my family. What is that, you ask? Well, sometime when one of my two oldest sisters started dating, my dad imposed this rule for first dates. My dad would walk to the kitchen and grab a bag of marshmallows, at some point when our date was talking with my parents. He’d hand the bag to our date and tell him to throw the marshmallow up and over the beam and catch it in his mouth. Now that sounds easy. But let me tell you—for many first dates, it wasn’t. I remember clearly a date where we were going to a 4:30 PM movie. We were still at my house at 6, with him still tossing marshmallows. In fact, the date never really happened. He left my house at 10:30 PM, without succeeding in conquering the marshmallow rule. Many didn’t make it to the beam or over it, let alone to his mouth.

None of my family remembers how the rule came to be, exactly. But it was the rule. Believe me, my sisters and I tried to keep relationships going as long as possible, so that we had very few first dates! (Imagine as a teen, trying to prepare your date for this rule!)

I met, dated, and became engaged to my now-husband while at graduate school in New Jersey. My family had talked with Frank over the phone, but never met in person until after we were engaged. We went to Seattle, the Christmas after our engagement. On the plane, I was prepping him to meet my large family by quizzing him on my sisters’ names, their husbands, and their children. And then…it hit me. I hadn’t told Frank about the marshmallow rule. He laughed; he was sure it wouldn’t apply to him, because it wasn’t our first date, after all. I wasn’t so sure. I must have told the story well and perhaps a bit loudly, because the entire row behind us in the plane also laughed and asked me more questions about this quirky family norm.

We arrived at the airport and drove north to my family home. Would Frank or would I be correct? We’d soon see. [When telling the story in class, at this point in the story I would do a clicker question, asking the students if I would be correct (he’d have to throw marshmallows) or if Frank would be right (no marshmallows)]. The front door opened to a small landing area with a staircase up to the main floor and another one down to the basement. And there it was, on the steps to the main floor—a bag of marshmallows! (And he accomplished it on the first try!)

Telling the students about my family’s marshmallow rule set up several sociological discussions, which continued for four class periods. We talked about how the origins of many rules and laws are not remembered, which allows for creation stories to be told which may or may not be accurate; about how every group—including families—construct their own rules, unique unto them; and how sociologists are fascinated by this rule-making process. It is one of our main areas of study in fact.

When I told the story in class, I would take longer, pausing for dramatic effect at various moments, and altering my voice to represent the different cast of characters. Students were fascinated and appalled, engaged and enraged. And the moment I was done telling the story, the room burst with kinetic energy as they turned to each other and started sharing stories of their family’s unique social norms. The stories they were sharing helped them to routinize the concept of ‘social norm’ into their sociological memory.

Since I started telling stories (and testing about them too), student assessment scores rose by nearly 15%. It didn’t happen all at once—I had to better learn how to tell stories in ways that contained all these story elements while engaging a class of several hundred students.

So readers, how do you tell stories in your class?

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








Student Reminders: When Is Enough?

Clip art of hand, with red string around index fingerFor the past fifteen years, I taught primarily first year college students—many in their first term at college. So part of my teaching job was to socialize them into college expectations. My class could be challenging to many, for a variety of reasons:

–Many students struggled academically because they were so socialized by popular culture to think psychologically, rather than the sociological explanations for behavior that I was introducing to them.

–The course made extensive use of technology, which for many students, involved learning new skills.

-We used audience response systems (“clickers”) every day but test days. I would ask  10 clicker questions—3 earned one point each and the other 7 were to elicit discussions, but earned no points.

Graphic: computer screen with LMS and person; surrounded by images of cell phone, clock, book, notes, target, and lightbulb-We used a learning management system (LMS), organized in weekly modules. Not only were the required assessments in the LMS but I also had many additional resources  available, in modules clearly labeled as “Additional Learning Tips” such as: notetaking tips; links to 2 colleagues’ YouTube classes which could offer more ways of understanding and listening to the material; and the discussion board which I created  which had all the suggestions from past students about how to be successful in our class.

-I required an interactive text, where students took pre-class “quizzes” which were  embedded in the text. Students could take the quiz until they received a score they  were satisfied with, but only in the 36 hours before class.

-There were post-class quizzes in the learning management system. These were auto-graded; each was worth 5 points and students had 26 hours after class ended, to take  the quiz.

-At the end of every class, each student handwrote an “exit question”—a question or comment about the material we covered that day and I would individually respond to each student. In addition, every Tuesday and Thursday evening (about 8 hours after class, after I had done all the commenting on the exit questions), I posted in a dedicated discussion board on the learning management system, the top five questions asked that day and I would answer each.

Yellow M&M character, with shoes on, saying, "Oh No! I forgot...something...but what?"Not infrequently, students forgot one or more of these frequent assessments. They wanted me to send out daily reminders. I did send out LMS email reminders or announced reminders in the class for the first two weeks, but then I stopped…deliberately.

A few students would beg me to do more reminders—on Twitter, the class’ Facebook page, and on the LMS. I refused…and while this was a constant stressor for me, I believe it was the right thing to do. Here’s why:

1) I had shown students how to send notifications to their phones from the LMS (which meant they would get reminders for all work due in the LMS) and I created a “How to use the tech in our class” PowerPoint presentation (and we took one complete class period to go over the tech requirements). That PPT was available to all students for the entire academic term.

2) I encouraged students to use a daily planner (preferably color coded by class) that listed all their assessments and when they had to be completed. We talked at length about how to keep track of all the assignments that they had.

3) The last page of the syllabus was a “here’s what to do every day of the week” guide (What To Do Every Day In Our SOCI 1101 Class). I urged students to print it out or to pin a PDF version of it to their computer screen, so that it was always available to remind them.

So I felt that students had the tools to stay (or learn to stay) organized. After week 2, the graduate assistants, the embedded undergraduate peer tutor, and I would offer to help any student who was struggling with the assessment schedule—but the student would now have to seek out the help.

About a week before major assessments were due, I would ask, near the end of a class, an open question, “Is anything due soon?” And then I’d let the class talk together to answer the question for each other (I wouldn’t answer the question). If a student was stuck, I would gently refer her or him to the syllabus for the answer, because I knew it was there. Over a third of the syllabus was a day-by-day schedule that listed all readings, what was due that day, etc. I wanted students to turn to the syllabus as a guide for succeeding in class and the more they had to read around in it, the more likely that would happen.

This amount of reminders felt “right” to me for a class that was almost entirely new first year students. We helped them with the first two weeks, so that they found the rhythms of our class and would repeatedly offer help if these rhythms were problematic, but we tried to help students to become less dependent on us (the graduate assistants, and the embedded peer tutor, and me) and more self-reliant. Cultivating these habits could help socialize them into successful academic habits.

Corkboard with paper pinned to it. Paper says, "No more excuses."Many wrote on the end-of-term student evaluations that they appreciated the detailed calendar, the “typical week” handout, and that I made them learn to check the class calendar frequently. A few made comments like, “You provided all the tools I needed to succeed—the online quizzes, the open discussion board for questions, the exit question where I could tell you where I was confused and get answers, plus the PPTs and your detailed class lectures and activities. I knew if I made it—I earned it. So thanks for making me learn how to do college.”

With upper division classes, I still created a detailed day-by-day syllabus which listed due dates, readings, and all assessments (I don’t know how to construct syllabi in any other way!). But I would do fewer in-class or online reminders. Every first class I would carefully go over the syllabus and the learning management system, so that students could identify where to find all the assessments.

But each term, as I wrote or revised syllabi for every course, I always debated whether I was “doing enough” reminders. Could more reminders lead to more student success or would more lead to less independent learners? So readers, how do you balance reminding versus encouraging students to become self-sufficient? Let’s talk in the comments.

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