Sometimes someone suggests initiating a learning activity to get students’ attention. We are staunch believers in active learning, but we want to use activities when they fit, not just because we happen to see someone sleeping.
Best response to disruptive behavior
Ignoring disruptive behavior is not a viable option. If you allow disruptions to proceed, they will become increasingly widespread and frequent until the class is out of control.
Our nomination of the best response requires some preliminary explanation. [We are indebted to Rebecca Leonard of the N.C. State University Department of Communication for the analysis that follows.] Speech communication experts tell us that there are three categories of responses to objectionable behavior: aggressive, passive (indirect), and assertive. Yelling at students, throwing things at them, and throwing them out of class are aggressive responses. Doing anything non-aggressive other than clearly stating what you want is a passive response. Calmly and clearly stating the problem and asking for what you want is an assertive response.
Do aggressive responses work? In the short run, they generally do. As an instructor, you hold a great deal of power over the students: if you scream at them to shut up, chances are they will. But while you may win the battle, you are likely to lose the war. When you resort to aggression, you effectively admit that the only way you can control your class is to lose control of yourself. You will lose the respect of the students, and the rest of the semester could be grim for both you and them.
What about throwing the chalk or an eraser? Everyone has stories—some fond, some bitter—about teachers they had or knew about who used to do that sort of thing. That was then; this is now. Can you say "law suit"?
Then there are passive responses. Ignoring those two chattering students—the ultimate passive response—is clearly a poor idea. Falling silent and waiting for them and other noisemakers to quiet down themselves might work eventually, but it wastes valuable class time (especially in a large class, where you might wait for a long time) and penalizes the non-disruptive students as much as the few miscreants. Locking the door penalizes chronic latecomers, but it also penalizes the one-time offender who may have a perfectly legitimate and unavoidable reason for being late.
Some professors argue for the ever-popular "Why don’t you share that joke with the rest of us?" That is, first of all, a passive response. You are not asking for what you really want: the last thing in the world you want is to know what those two birds are twittering about. You know, and they know, and the rest of the class knows, that your goal is simply to embarrass them into quieting down. Will it work? Again, probably in the short term, but once you resort to sarcasm or anything else that has embarrassment as its objective you again lose respect that may be hard or impossible to regain.
Which brings us to our nomination: the direct, assertive response. Look in the direction of the offending students and calmly say "Excuse me—that noise is disrupting the class. Could you please keep it down?" They usually will. The talkers may be mildly embarrassed but your primary objective was clearly not to embarrass them—it was simply to quiet them down. You maintain control without having to use aggression or sarcasm, and the students’ respect for your authority stays the same or increases.
Finally, what if you have to quiet down the same students in several classes, or the same student keeps coming in late? We propose doing the same thing we suggested for repeated non-disruptive behaviors. Talk to the offenders outside class, telling them that their behavior is offensive and must stop, and then ask them why they’re doing it. Regardless of what they say, you will probably achieve your objective. In our combined years of teaching, we have never had to do this with a student more than once. Barring pathological cases, neither should you.
Interestingly, the assertive response—simply asking the offenders to stop doing what they’re doing—is usually not on the list of possibilities brought up during the initial brainstorm. It’s almost as if instructors don’t know it’s legal to do it. It is legal. And it works.