How to deal with disruptive university students who are determined to ruin the course and the tutors?
November 12, 2006 6:14 PM   Subscribe

How to deal with disruptive university students who are determined to ruin the course and the tutors?

The course I am teaching on has two students who's only interest in the course it seems is spoiling the experience for other students and for the teachers. Their behavior includes acts of sabotage in the class and aggressive standoffs with the tutor about trivial matters, emails to student's forums with rude comments about the teachers, semi-racist remarks (most teachers and some students are immigrants), and repeated challenging of the content of the course and the validity of the syllabus. In addition, these two keep telling other students outside classes how bad the course is, how useless for their future and they are using their influence to stop as many of the other students as possible to take active part in the learning process. In addition, they are also trying very hard to undermine the authority of the teachers. These two are mature male students, probably more articulate than most younger ones and they seem to have some influence on the others. When one or two students tried to stand up to them and speak for the course, they were excluded from student meetings, now other students prefer not to interfere.
These guys are careful not to do anything that can get them expelled, and they are clearly co-ordinating their behavior, so when one of them is disrupting the class, the other is demonstratively polite, next time they swap.
So far each one of them was invited to a discussion with senior members of the teaching team to discuss their attitude and suggest some alternatives, such as transferring to another course. They don't seem to be interested. It looks like they are taking pleasure in all the attention. The question is how to protect the rest of the class from their influence. I post anonymously for obvious reasons, but if you like to email me use this:
posted by anonymous to Education (32 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
I was in something of this situation with much younger students, but a college-like setting. (This is from the tutor's standpoint.) They were asked to leave because of their disruption to the learning environment and withdrawn from the program entirely. It was a decision made by the instructor and the head of the program, so I would suggest talking to the head of your department, if you haven't already.
From what you've said, I don't see why the same solution can't be applied. They're disrupting a safe learning environment, and instructors have various methods at their disposal to protect that academic environment.
So the real question is - are you prepared to use those tools that you have?
posted by lilithim at 6:26 PM on November 12, 2006

Institute a new policy. No one talks unless they are called on, or they get points deducted from their final grade.
posted by banished at 6:27 PM on November 12, 2006

Or introduce negative participation points. You add something that doesn't contribute to the class, you get whacked. (So to speak.)
posted by lilithim at 6:29 PM on November 12, 2006

Talk to people higher up than you on the food chain and see if you can't get these students dropped against their will. They don't need to be expelled, just dropped.

Alternatively, just enjoy failing them at the end and hope you don't get them again.

Alternatively alternatively, make a change to the grading policy so that two disruptions earn you an automatic F for the course.

A third course of action would be to be openly derisive towards them and their hijinks, while being supportive of students who are trying to make an effort.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 6:42 PM on November 12, 2006

In case there is confusion - in the UK a tutor is what in the US is generally called a teaching assistant.
posted by k8t at 6:42 PM on November 12, 2006

Have the Registrar remove them from the class. That's what I did when I was a T.A.
posted by davcoo at 6:45 PM on November 12, 2006

You say they have been careful to not commit expellable offenses, but is it possible to talk to head of something to simply go up the chain of command. I'd think if you went with a documented list of things they have done (things said in class, messages posted on boards, undermining of the validity of the class), you can at least get somebody of importance to reprimand the students.

I don't think the clever type solutions are the answer here.

I think the best course of action is to get them out of the class. Go high up enough in the chain of command and there will be somebody who can do it.
posted by cschneid at 6:47 PM on November 12, 2006

I have to disagree with banished. Changing the rules in response to their antics will only feed their sense of self-importance and get them to adapt tactics to match. It's a pointless exercise and worst-- it highlights that you're unwilling (or unable) to hold them accountable for what they've done already.

Why is alternating their rude days relevant? Maybe it makes it harder to prove that their actions are coordinated, but the fact is that each individual has been disruptive, repeatedly. Ask you department chair for his/her backing in holding any student fully accountable for disruptive behavior in the classroom. If the department won't back its tutors/TAs on the straightforward matter of classroom management, you're screwed.

It's a shame that the younger students have given up speaking in defense of the class, but in fairness: they shouldn't have to. It's up to the instructor and department to maintain the educational environment. The students are the consumers here, and they're getting cheated.

Stating opinions out of class is a different matter. Yeah, it's part of the scheme to undermine the tutor and the school, but these dumbases have a right to voice their opinion on their own time. Ignore that aspect of the harassment, and focus on keeping the in-class time productive and useful (including promptly ejecting anyone who interferes with the course objectives outlined in the syllabus).

Making it a good class for those who have remained determined to learn, despite such obviously trying circumstances, will ultimately be more persuasive than snide comments made by guys who so obviously have an ax to grind.
posted by nakedcodemonkey at 7:00 PM on November 12, 2006

I had a similar student in my class recently. (I am the instructor.) I spoke with the head of my department and with the registrar, and had this student removed from my class. It was immensely satisfying.

And I'd like to add that I disagree with banished for the very same reasons that nakedcodemonkey does.
posted by Dr. Wu at 7:06 PM on November 12, 2006

High school teachers of evolution are having problems like this, in some cases as part of an organized effort centered around local fundamentalist churches.

You have only given the vaguest of hints about the contents of your course, but if I were you, I would certainly try to investigate the possibility your course is the target of some group with an agenda.

If that turns out to be the case, I would go to the media, starting with your school newspaper, and make your case.
posted by jamjam at 7:16 PM on November 12, 2006

I had a long description of how to proceed all set to go, but then I decided nakedcodemonkey & Dr. Wu had it right, and shorter too.

If you can, fail them. If you can't fail them, get them kicked from the class.

If your institution won't allow either of these outcomes, then unfortunately you're working for a bunch of spineless hacks and there's basically nothing you can do.

There are few things more satisfying than telling someone "one more outburst and you get an F" and then seeing the look on their face when they realize you weren't kidding. Watching someone go from wannabe thug to crestfallen and begging for mercy is just deeply deeply rewarding. Maybe that makes me a bastard, but wow is it satisfying.
posted by aramaic at 7:20 PM on November 12, 2006

I'm guessing that you're in the UK (since you said tutor) and as such, the majority of a student's mark is based on the exam, which is month and months away. I think that a lot of the commentors are coming from an American perspective where an instructor has a significantly larger amount of power in determining a final mark. Therefore, the ideas about failing the students, while ideal for the U.S., may not work in the UK. (In my UK courses 75%+ exams, 10% one essay, 15% another essay... no "participation".)

I don't have any great ideas, but I want to share this with others, in hopes that some other ideas emerge.
posted by k8t at 7:29 PM on November 12, 2006

I'd imagine the students are perceiving you as a 'pushover' and taking advantage of your niceness. I'd suggest that, next time they're disrupting class, you ask them to leave the classroom. (You could probably do well to offer a warning the first time, but make sure that, on the second offense, you follow through.) While they'll probably try to cause a confrontation the first time (campus police at my school had to be called last year to remove a student from a classroom), I'm willing to bet that, once they see that you're not going to put up with them anymore, they're going to stop. And if they don't, the fact that you've ejected them from class repeatedly would probably be a great reason to get the registrar to drop them from the course. (Or to fail them... Although I would also expect them to raise hell if you fail tensely dislike students like the ones you've mentioned, hem, so be prepared to back it up.)

Handling this privately as much as possible is probably also advisable, as they're probably doing it largely for the attention. (Although perhaps the first warning ought to be given in front of the class, so that students can see that you're not going to put up with crap.)

As others have said, you'd probably do well to consult a department head or similar supervisor before carrying a plan like this out.

(Disclaimer: I'm a college student, not a professor. I've put up with my fair share of classroom antagonists, though, albeit as a peer.)
posted by fogster at 7:33 PM on November 12, 2006

I guess I'm basically summarizing some of what's already been said, but...

If they are breaking no rules and yet their behaviour is so disruptive, then the rules need to change. The teachers should be able to set the protocol for how lessons are conducted in the classroom, and you need to talk to someone higher up about the rest.
posted by winston at 7:35 PM on November 12, 2006

Any reason you can't send them out of the classroom when they misbehave? That seems like a pretty basic first step.
posted by nebulawindphone at 8:24 PM on November 12, 2006

I had two students like this in a class. In the end I just threw them them out -- I just said "OK I've had enough, get out of my class".

One of them was immediately contrite and promised to be quiet. I said "no, you're going to leave my class".

He looked as if he was going to sit there and challenge me to physically throw him out, so I said "I'm not going to throw you out, we have security guards for that" and finally he went. The other guy just left quietly. Next week at the first hint of trouble, I just threatened to do it again and they stopped.

The interesting thing about this is, two of the girls in the class came and talked to me afterward and said "you only needed to throw one of them out". "How do you mean?" I said, and they explained that those two guys only ever caused trouble when they were together, that by themselves they were normally OK.

So, just kick them out of class as soon as they start being disruptive. In fact, I'm wondering why haven't you done so already?
posted by AmbroseChapel at 8:27 PM on November 12, 2006

Oh, and this?

>semi-racist remarks

confuses me in conjunction with this:

>These guys are careful not to do anything that can get them expelled

I'm not sure what a semi-racist remark is -- not "the jews are responsible for all the wars in the world" but "half the jews are responsible for all the wars in the world"? -- but most educational institutions take any kind of racist behaviour very very seriously. If my students had done anything like that I think I could have had them transferred or expelled pretty easily.
posted by AmbroseChapel at 8:31 PM on November 12, 2006

I think it's wrong to kick these students out if they're not technically breaking any rules, regardless of how annoying they are. I'm an ex-classroom antagonist, reformed now. If someone kicked me out of a course that I was paying for when I didn't do anything wrong other than hassle the prof and TAs about how boring the class is, I would make them pay. College kids have infinite time and resources. This could mean poor ratings for you on, starting facebook groups about how stupid your class is, or launching an all out word of mouth campaign against your class. That's if they're tame. If they're good at what they do, they'll find a way to get you fired.

I think kicking them out when you don't have a very good reason will get angry parents involved, and start an all out war. If you're ready for it, do it. Instead, you need to take control of your classroom, and you do that by doing what I mentioned, or what lilithim mentioned. Why? Because that way you make their actions hurt themselves, instead of making their actions get them attention. If you were to kick them out, they win... because they get the attention. Attention is what this whole thing is about.
posted by banished at 8:57 PM on November 12, 2006

I teach in a Russian university and face this problem constantly. The only effective recourse has been to remove the student from the class. Some of them permanently.
posted by fake at 9:23 PM on November 12, 2006

I'm a part-time Tutor at a University in London, and would suggest that you more aggressively engage Administration.

As UK Universities are now rated, at least partially, on student course completion rates, make sure they acknowledge the negative impact the actions of just these two students in your class can have on the entire University. Demonstrably link Administrations lack of action on this point to the continued, disruptive behaviour.

Surely you've approached and have the support of your Line Manager? I had similar issues at times in the past (I only teach Masters students now, but some Undergrad students just don't wanna be there!) but between my Manager and Administration it really didn't go on for more than three or four weeks.
posted by Mutant at 10:29 PM on November 12, 2006

I'm with AmbroseChapel here. What's a semi-racist remark? It sounds like you have many, many reasons that these guys *should* be removed from your class, but you only need one or two big things to get them kicked out. Anything that comes close to blatant racism should be enough to get them out immediately.

I say choose several of your strongest arguments for removing these students, document their behaviors meticulously for a few days, and then speak to someone with the authority to remove them immediately. The other students in your class deserve a better learning environment than what they have now.

Oh, and although it probably seems obvious to you that these guys are tag-teaming, I think you should make it clear that each student has separately done enough to warrant being kicked out.
posted by folara at 10:31 PM on November 12, 2006

Agreed that at the first sign of disruptive classroom behavior, you should say "Ok, since you obviously can't handle being in a respectful environment with other adults, you're going to have to leave.". And then, remain silent and impassive at the front of the room, refusing to engage with them, and making clear that the class won't continue until they leave. Remember that you -- or the lecturer -- are in charge. You can't get drawn into a battle of wills with people like this; you are the final authority in your classroom, so there's no battle to be had. (It's agonizing to stand there, but has worked in the one instance when I needed it to. Took a few minutes.)

In my case, it was first-year students who just hadn't twigged to the difference between high school (forced attendance, hard to kick a student out) and university (voluntary attendance, voluntary compliance with adult norms of behavior). I told them they had to meet with me in my office, and explained that their behavior was childish, disrespectful to me and fellow students, and that if they did it again I would work with the registrar to remove them from the course. They were contrite and totally shaped up after that.

Sounds like your guys might be more hard-case than that; good luck!
posted by LobsterMitten at 10:34 PM on November 12, 2006

Yes, they need to be removed from the course. At most universities in the states, the type of behavior you are talking about would be just as much academic misconduct as plagiarism or harassment. In fact, it is a particularly insidious form of harassment. Your first step should be to meticulously document everything that you consider to be ruinous. Your next step should be to go to the head of department and share the documentation. Then you may or may not have the department head visit your class (probably useless, as the behavior will go on holiday). With the support of the administration, inform them that you are failing them for academic misconduct, show them the documentation you have collected, and inform them about their appeal opportunities if there are any.

Retaliation of the kind that banished is talking about should be expected, but you should document it, keep your department head informed in a very professional way (periodic updates, not in the office every time something else happens). Eventually it should blow over.
posted by ontic at 10:35 PM on November 12, 2006

Oh following up on the points made and k8ts comment about the UK base of OP - in England the Tutor can't really fail anyone. Students pass or fail themselves.

When I grade a second set of eyes are later brought to bear on all scripts, double marking them. The final grade is an average of the two markers. Any failing script must be confirmed by a third, external Tutor. The External will also look at a random subset, between 25% and 50% of the passing scripts as well.

I tutor in a mathematical discipline ("Quantitative Finance") where the answer is either correct or not; I guess one might be able to arbitrarily fail a student in one of the social sciences, however keep in mind students not only have the right of appeal, but they use it.

I recently participated in an appeal that had been kicking about the University for almost three years. It was clear the students answers were not only wrong but very, very wrong. Nobody had an idea why he kept appealing but he did.

If only he'd persisted in his studies so much we wouldn't have had a problem in the first place.
posted by Mutant at 10:39 PM on November 12, 2006

It's a shame that the younger students have given up speaking in defense of the class

The educator of this class needs to assert their authority. Are the comment made by these 'trouble' students valid? If not, the instructor needs to be able to respond in an authoritative manner and specify exactly why the trouble student's assertion are wrong.

Challenge these shit-disturbers to back up their claims. Formulate a coherent argument against their propositions and be prepared to defend your syllabus.

I was in an intro Phil class (as a far liberal non-USian senior student in a roomful of shit-disturbiing neo-conservative bible-belt thugs) where something similar went down; the professor, when put on the spot, would ask the griefer to back up their positions and I'd jump in when they attacked the professor on personal levels.

Don't back down - but make sure you have fact to back yourself up.
posted by porpoise at 10:40 PM on November 12, 2006

On a second read-through, I'm not sure that the steps I described above are entirely warranted. It depends how serious the rude emails are "semi-racism" are, as well as how disruptive the trivial challenges are. I'd like to withdraw them as advice for this situation, but provide it should the situation escalate.

The situation seems to me now to require a Herculean PR and classroom management effort on your part. Refuse to discuss the syllabus and trivial matters in front of class, but offer to discuss it outside of class with the students. Start sending unsolicited emails to students you think these two are winning over complimenting their performance in the class and giving them encouragement. You seem to be fighting a battle for hearts and minds, so your attention should be directed at those the others are trying to sway. Make a new study group for the excluded supporters and make it better.
posted by ontic at 10:44 PM on November 12, 2006

I'd avoid trying to fix this problem with any sort of dramatic in-class confrontations. As others have noted, that's just the sort of thing that these alpha-male type students are looking for. You want to involve departmental higherups as soon as possible, making them aware of the problem and asking their advice. Document incidents and problems as they occur, perhaps sending emails to yourself or someone else using in order to record and datestamp events.

Then, as soon as the departmental/college higherups are willing to help out, you should have *them* meet (separately) with these students. This will often solve problems with Alpha-male types who need to be presented with an authority figure.

If it doesn't, your chair/head etc. will at least understand your situation and will be correspondingly willing to see to it that these kids are dropped from the course, as they should be since they are interfering with other students learning.

One other thing: a less elaborate way of solving the problem would be to find a way to talk to one or both of these students individually. Do they both always attend class and depart together? If not, just call one over to your desk as class is leaving and have him sit down for a minute. See if you can figure out what's going on. I has a similar though less severe situation with two older female students. It turned out that the "follower" was ambivalent about being so difficult and concerned that she wasn't getting some concepts. She eventually shaped up and had a falling out with her friend, who stopped showing up and then dropped the course. (The fact that I teach at an American university using "continuous evaluation" helped with this, but you might still have some luck along these lines).
posted by washburn at 11:26 PM on November 12, 2006

Didn't you have a 'learning contract' with all the students at the begninning of the course? Every course I have been on (university or not) has ALWAYS had a learning contract. Sometimes this will be with the course tutor, sometimes the lecturer, and sometimes they agree to this with the admin. It might just be that the lecturer put this contract on the board at the beginning of the course, and everyone, unless they say otherwise, has agreed to it. It includes things like respecting others opinions, to challenge opinions and not the person, to respect others wish to learn, and not disrupt the class.

Did anyone make one of these with those students? I'd find out from their other classes on the course, as it will apply to you too. That's a good way to get them removed, if only temporarily, from the class.

You need to do something. These students are effectively paying for this class, and YOU, as the tutor, are not delivering because of these other students.

If they don't already have a learning contract, then try setting one up. Maybe with input from the other students, it will bring these disruptive people into line.
posted by lemonpillows at 7:39 AM on November 13, 2006

banished might be one of those students. I'd talk to the department head/dean about the kids, have them talk to the kids, and see if that doesn't get them to shape up.
posted by Mr. Gunn at 7:46 AM on November 13, 2006

Is this a political thing?

semi-racist remarks (most teachers and some students are immigrants), and repeated challenging of the content of the course and the validity of the syllabus

Perhaps they're on the right end of the political spectrum and view the course as promoting left wing ideas? I don't know what the situation is in the UK, but here in the US there are a lot of student organizations for conservative students. They spend a lot of time talking about the "liberal" (I put the word in quotes because it's not a word that I, myself, use) bias of the teachers and trying to depict themselves as a persecuted minority. Is it possible that these two want to be kicked out of the class so that they can claim you did it to silence their point of view?
posted by Clay201 at 7:55 AM on November 13, 2006

If someone kicked me out of a course that I was paying for when I didn't do anything wrong other than hassle the prof and TAs about how boring the class is, I would make them pay.

Absolutely. Because you are the only one who paid for the class, and therefore deserve to disrupt the other students. Profs and TAs (or tutors) should not expect respectful and safe work environments. It's completely inappropriate to see payment of tuition as the payment for access to resources. Tuition, in fact, procures the right to entertainment, and the right to abuse the resources of the university and other patrons of the university for one's own amusement when entertainment is scarce or lacking. Any attempt to regulate the way in which tuition-payers access and use the resources of the university should result in swift and extreme retaliation.

anonymous, you describe an atmosphere of intimidation for the other students and the tutors. If you have a union, go to them. If not, go to the administration. Brush up on your labour laws. Their behaviour may not be enough to get them expelled, but it may be of the type that your employer must protect you from. Find out whether your institution has any policies towards student's rights to safe/comfortable learning environments. Get your department's support, tell the students if they don't stop their disruptive behaviour they will be kicked out, then kick them out at the next disruption.
posted by carmen at 8:02 AM on November 13, 2006

If you listen to banished the two assholes will take it as a huge victory. Policies like banished are exactly what they want: broad strokes that will make the class suck for everybody.

Perhaps academia is specially different but I'd agree with others that your best bet is to tackle the problem straight on. Do not dance around the problem. If there's a problem affecting the entire class than the entire class should know about it and should work to fix it together. Write a letter to the entire class and publicly call out the two students and list all of the stupid things they've done. Then have a class meeting and, with the whole class there, talk about the problem and see if any solution can be arrived at. Most likely the two fools will shape up once they're called out but even if they don't the entire class will be aware of the problem and will be able to better work around it.
posted by nixerman at 11:19 AM on November 13, 2006

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