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My approach to behaviour management

This week on the PGCHE, the subject under discussion was behaviour management. I have lots of Thoughts about this, so decided it would be a good idea to try to get some of them down in blog form.

Behaviour management is something I’ve always struggled with a little. I’m not a naturally authoritative person, so where disruptive behaviour has cropped up in classes I don’t feel hugely comfortable in dealing with it. My own experience with education has always been as the stereotypical nerdy swot in the front row: it literally would have never occurred to me to disrupt a class, so I’m always at a bit of a loss as to why it is happening when it occurs!

That being said, I’ve never had any major incidents to deal with. The worst experience I’ve ever had in a class involved an online polling tool I was trying out: one of the features was a “back channel” allowing anonymous questions to be posted. As possibly I should have predicted, the students quickly started using this channel to post rude comments about each other, their lecturers, and me. Nothing was said out loud at any point, it was all online, but it was pretty clear from early on that they were not paying attention as they were all nudging each other and grinning at comments on their phones rather than engaging with the lecture.

That wasn’t fun, but it also wasn’t the worst that could have happened! Most of the behaviour problems I’ve ever had to deal with have been that kind of low-level disruption: people talking at the back of the lecture and distracting other students, using social media on their phones, and refusing to engage with learning activities.

In this week’s class, one of the things we discussed was understanding what lies behind “challenging” behaviour. It’s very easy to take an authoritarian view that learners are there to pay attention to the teacher, and anything outside of this dynamic is disruptive and unwelcome. However this view places all the responsibility on the learner and none on the teacher.

My own view, developed over my past few years’ experience teaching, is that it is my job as a teacher to keep my learners engaged. It is impossible to pay attention for a 50 minute lecture if you have nothing to do in that time except listen. Naturally, your attention will wander, and if you have a device in your pocket that can connect you to any form of information or entertainment you want, then it’s only natural to reach for it.

This is why I don’t have any time for the argument that laptops, phones and tablets should be banned from the classroom. Quite apart from this being ableist (some students may depend on these devices to be able to do their work, and it’s not fair to single them out or force them to disclose their status by insisting devices should only be allowed in the case of a disability), I also think this is counterproductive.

Students’ attention has always drifted during lectures or boring work (I particularly like these comments in the margins of manuscripts, from bored monks complaining about the laborious task of copying them out!). The only difference is that where in years gone by, students would have just drifted off, doodled, or passed notes to each other, now they have a far more accessible form of distraction easily to hand.

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The result of a Pixabay search for “bored students“. Do those expressions look familiar?

In some ways, this could be an advantage to the teacher. Part of the skill of teaching (particularly in a lecture theatre) is learning to “read the room”, notice when your students are switching off, and use that as an opportunity for a “reset button”, an activity or change of pace to keep students engaged. If you’ve spotted that half the room is browsing on their phones, that’s a pretty clear indication that you need to shake things up a bit.

Another point I think is important to bear in mind is why students may be switching off. Among adult, post-compulsory learners, you have to assume that they do have some motivation for being there, so if they are disengaged it’s worth asking why. I like this quote from “A Handbook for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education”, Fry et al, 2015:

are students not turning up because they are bored by classes? Or because many of them are working 20 hours a week in supermarkets? Are they failing to prepare because they have not yet been taught that universities expect them to study autonomously? Or because they just don’t understand what to do? Are the classes so teacher-centred that they have nothing active to do? Or because they are, seriously, studying the topic in parallel with what you are doing? (p162)

When I look back at times when it’s been clear the students in my class are not engaging, I think a lot of the time it’s because they don’t understand why they are there, and how what I am talking about relates to the course they are studying. To tackle this, I now always begin my classes by explicitly linking what I am teaching them about information skills to the assignment criteria they are going to be marked on.

For example, the criteria usually includes something like “using a wide range of academic sources”, so I use this wording and continually link what I am teaching them about scholarly information back to this point. I believe this has had a noticeable impact on behaviour in my classes.

The other problem is that, quite frankly, lectures in particular tend to be boring! I’ve always tried to vary the content of my lectures by using things like video clips and live database demos, so I’m not just talking at them for 50 minutes, but what I hadn’t taken into account previously is that even varying the content like this isn’t varying the activity they are doing, which is passively listening.

I now make it a rule that I will not let more than 10 minutes go by without changing what they are doing: whether it’s using an online quiz, discussing a point with their neighbours, or just asking the students to take a minute to write down (on paper or on their phones) some key points.

I also think more carefully about the level I am pitching the content of my lectures, and build in some flexibility if the learners are either more or less advanced than I’d expected, as I think that boredom at content which is too basic, or frustration if it is too complex, is the root of a lot of disruptive behaviour. I certainly think this was the case in the lecture mentioned above where I had lots of rude comments posted online: I had misjudged how much they already knew, and made the lecture too basic for their needs.

The most common problem I experience is people talking in classes or in lectures. In smaller classes I find this is actually fairly easy to manage: I just stop talking and look at the people who are chatting until they notice me and stop, which usually doesn’t take long. I also find that in smaller classes, other students are more likely to tell each other to shut up if they’re finding other people’s conversations distracting.

However in lecture theatres this approach doesn’t work so well, I think because in a large group students assume you don’t really notice a few of them chatting. I think they also probably don’t realise how far their voices carry, even if  they think they’re being quiet!

When this happens (and it always does in a lecture), my approach is to call on the people who are talking. I start from the assumption that they must be talking about the content of the lecture. Because for all I know, they could be – they might be struggling to understand a point and trying to explain it to each other, which I wouldn’t want to interrupt!

So I start by saying something like “Does anyone have any questions so far? How about you three at the back there: you look like you’re discussing this, is there anything you’re unclear on?”. I say this as a completely friendly, genuine question (not in sarcastic teacher voice!). Nine times out of ten, the people in question will look sheepish, shake their heads and stop talking: it’s been effective in letting them know that I can see/hear them, and I’ve called on them directly without telling them off. Occasionally, I have had the chatty students actually ask a question at that point.

Occasionally this acknowledgement doesn’t work, and the students go on talking over me. If that happens, my next approach is to ask again if they have any questions. If they still say no, I’ll then say something like “Ok, well I can tell that you are trying to talk to each other quietly and not distract anyone, but I’m not sure you realise how far your voices carry in here. We can all hear you, and it’s making it difficult for others to hear my lecture. We’re going to have some discussion time shortly, so please could you keep comments to yourself while I am speaking, so that everyone can hear?”. I then just carry on with the lecture.

This approach has almost always worked for me. However I did have a lecture recently where a particular group of lads at the back were talking continuously throughout, and didn’t respond to my usual attempts to remind them to be quiet. I ended up calling on them three separate times, to no avail.

They actually left the lecture early (a few students had told me at the start that they had to leave early due to other commitments: when the students I knew about left, so did the chatty group. I have no idea if they had the same commitments, or if they just saw others leaving and decided to follow!), so removed themselves as a problem. The last 15 minutes of the lecture passed without incident.

Had they stayed any longer, I’m not sure exactly what I would have done. I think I would have had to be firmer with them, as my usual polite approach was clearly having no effect! I discussed this with a colleague who had observed me for this lecture: her suggestion was that after my first couple of attempts had failed, I should have asked them to either stay quiet while I was talking, or take their conversations outside.

I’m nervous at the thought of this: I don’t like the idea of asking people to leave the lecture, partly because I’m actually unsure if I have the authority to do this, and partly because I think that would back me into a corner if they then refused to leave.

Does anyone else have thoughts/experience on how to handle this? I’d particularly like to hear from other librarians or support staff who do one-off guest lectures, as I think the dynamic and the ways of handling this behaviour is totally different with a group you see regularly.

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2 comments on “My approach to behaviour management

  1. Even in a lecture theatre I used to walk around and often I’ll walk up and down the room so that I end up standing really close to the chatty group. That can quieten them down. I think you absolutely have the right to ask them to leave and I don’t think they would refuse to go. I think there are ways of doing it though and I think your friendly/non sarcastic tone is the way to go and I don’t think doing it from the front of the whole class is the way to it either. I would set the group off on a task and then go and talk to the group quietly. I’d see if there was anything specific that wanted information on. I’d then talk to them about the disruption to others and the fact they can leave if they want to.

  2. A really thoughtful post, thanks! This is a topic I’ve been thinking about and blogging about recently too – We (I’m a learning developer) have a different relationship with the students than lecturers which means that there’s conditions specific to our practice which create disruptive behaviour in our sessions and not all the methods that lecturers have are available to us! Asking a student to leave the lecture is a nuclear option for me, partly as you say, I’d be wary of making a demand that I’m in no position to enforce, but also as it’s a lose/lose situation- once out of the room they are not going to learn anything at all, so I’ve failed, in a way. I would resort to the less exclusionary tactic of offering them the opportunity to leave if they were being really disruptive and clearly didn’t want to engage. But my first instinct, like you, is to look at what’s happening overall and how I might have contributed to it, before blaming the student!

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