How to keep college freshmen quiet and respectful during a lecture?
September 4, 2007 8:17 AM   Subscribe

How to get freshmen college students to shut the hell up during a lecture?

My wife is an English instructor at a two-year college. Her students primarily consist of students fresh out of high school, but many are older as well.

The average age group is between 17-21. She is only 24 herself. She does a variety of group and discussion oriented activities each class period and appreciates student input. However, she's finding that she's having difficulty bringing the class back to order and maintaining her control over the "floor" after such activities, at the beginning of
class or occasionally just in the middle of lectures.

In particular, she seems to be having trouble with the 21-25 age group -- those closest to her age. She doesn't want to shut them down, or resort to just kicking them out of her classroom. Instead, she's looking for some techniques to make it clear that "she has the floor" and "she has control of the room" without coming off as being mean or bitchy.

Does anyone have any techniques for controlling the floor while giving a lecture so that the students are quiet and respectful? Any suggestions of books or anecdotes are helpful as well.
posted by fallenposters to Education (42 answers total) 29 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: Also, her class size is typically between 20-25 students.
posted by fallenposters at 8:19 AM on September 4, 2007

In my experience, when the tests are hard the students will listen. That is only from a student perspective though.
posted by milarepa at 8:19 AM on September 4, 2007

To expand on milarepa, I often found that when a professor would state, "this next part is going to be on the test," we'd all shut up pretty quick and listen.
posted by Sassyfras at 8:24 AM on September 4, 2007

Having been a J.C. student -- Junior College aka 'High School with Ashtrays' in the past, I think I respected the bitchy teachers more than the ones that tried to placate people by being polite and let people walk all over her. That's basically what it sounds like she's doing.

Basically, one instance of "Shut the hell up right now or everyone loses ten points off of the next test." -- and a glare around the room as if she's daring the next person to speak up and lose for everyone... and she'll have a quiet room.

People going to JC mostly fall in two camps -- adults who weren't ready for college the first time around, and children who didn't get into a 'real' college. Both parties are best trained like an aggressive dog -- with a firm hand, discipline when misbehaving, and rewards when behavior is correct.
posted by SpecialK at 8:25 AM on September 4, 2007 [3 favorites]

I suck at this myself (which is one reason I no longer teach college freshmen), but I've seen a lot of really good advice on this topic in the Chronicle of Higher Education discussion forums, specifically the one titled "In The Classroom." Doing a search on "classroom management" turns up some potentially useful stuff. Members there are also generally helpful and responsive to questions, so she could try posting there.
posted by Kat Allison at 8:29 AM on September 4, 2007

She doesn't want to shut them down, or resort to just kicking them out of her classroom

Well, she can either have control of the class or not. Sometimes when students behave like children you have to treat them like children. A sharp "Hey guys!" followed by a pause usually gets everyone's attention. If that doesn't work singling them out and asking them to continue their conversation in the hall always shuts it down.

A couple of other strategies that seem to work:

• Stopping the lecture and staring at the offender. If the rest of the class is paying attention, they will follow her gaze and eventually everyone is looking at the talkers.

• Not talking over the students conversing. If she keeps her voice at the same volume as the other people talking or lower, some the other students paying attention may tell their classmates to be quiet.

• If it really becomes a problem, go to the dean of the college or program director. They are there to help her and will no doubt be willing to talk to the students about their classroom behavior.

It's the beginning of the semester and it is important to establish who is boss of the classroom early. If she lets the students rule and tries to be too friendly, then it will be hell until intersession. You don't have to be an ass but you do have to firm.

I am teaching a class full of freshmen and sophomores this semester.
posted by fair_game at 8:36 AM on September 4, 2007 [2 favorites]

In my experience the teachers who are obviously new and let their class go wild in the beginning never get control over their students. I think its important to make an impression on day one that no hooligan antics will be tolerated. When a professor comes in after half a semester of not being able to wrangle their students attitudes with a brand new approach to applying their authority the kids will brush it off because they know that they can probably still get away with their actions. Kicking them out of class is not too harsh at this point. It is college after all and that means no more talking over your professors no matter what.
posted by pwally at 8:37 AM on September 4, 2007 [1 favorite]

If you elect to go the group punishment route, make damn sure you are permitted to follow through on your threat (I'm serious). Also, make sure you mention the offender by name, and briefly explain the punishment.

Eg: "Thanks to Mr. X, you have all lost ten points on the next exam. This means you will now need to score at least ## in order to pass."

Empty threats are worse than meaningless; they encourage further misbehavior.
posted by aramaic at 8:43 AM on September 4, 2007

she's looking for some techniques to make it clear that "she has the floor" and "she has control of the room" without coming off as being mean or bitchy.

If her long-term fate doesn't hinge on having uniformly glowing student evaluations, that is your answer right there:

Don't worry about seeming mean and bitchy, at least until she acquires enough teaching-confidence to feel more in charge. Students sense fear.

She's not there to be their friend.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 8:44 AM on September 4, 2007

In my experience, you can always get nicer, but you can never get meaner. Be like the month of March; go in like a lion, and out like a lamb.

Hit 'em hard and quick. Accelerate your early semester schedule; bury them with high standards and piles of useful and relevant work. Unexpected quizzes are also real winners.

Then, when things calm down, go all nice and nurturing towards the end of the semester, when they need a cheerleader to persevere.

In addition, try to make the class more interactive and less lecture-like. consider adding activities in class like group work, in-class activities, and unexpected changes in the itinerary. Things that break up the drone of a long lecture keep students motivated as well.
posted by answergrape at 8:45 AM on September 4, 2007 [1 favorite]

I've taught elementary and middle school for a decade. Often, college kids behave like the children, and you've got to deal with them the same way. Classroom management is a tough thing, but establishing yourself as being the authority right away is key. She may not want to kick anyone out but often, a single drastic action like that will grab students attention and get them to pull themselves together. Its much easier to be tough and then loosen up than it is to start out easy going and try to reign in an out of control group.
posted by blaneyphoto at 8:45 AM on September 4, 2007

This is what I do, and it works, but my population of students is a bit different.

5% under 20
44% 20-30
50% 30-40
10% over 40

Most students (80%) are Middle Eastern or Eastern European. 10% are Hispanic and 10% are Asian. None are American.

I say "(Karl), do you have a question?" Or "(Karl and Emma), what's your question?"

The student usually says "I don't have a question." But he/she knows that I saw them talking and stops it about 85% of the time.

The next level is to just say "Karl, stop talking." And make eye contact with a "got it?" sort of look. I have to do this about 14% of the time.

And the next level is to move Karl (he/she is inevitably in the back of the room) to one of the desks near me or near one of the older or more professional students in the class. I have to do this about 1% of the time.

I don't yell any of this, but YMMV. I use a polite/non-upset/friendly-but-matter-of-fact voice that I have perfected. My message is not "I AM PUNISHING YOU", but just "We have to get through this activity/lesson/whatever by the end of the class so let's just get down to it."

I guess the next step would be to ask the person to leave the room, but I haven't had to do that yet.

This works for me. Others may hate or shun this method, or find that it does not apply to their population of students.
posted by TheClonusHorror at 8:50 AM on September 4, 2007 [2 favorites]

Forget points on an exam. That's lame junior high school mode. You have to kick the students out. I had a thirty-year professor do that with a classroom full of unruly assholes at Columbia. He pointed at them from across the room, said something like, "You two! No talking in my class. Get out." They left with much huffing and astonishment on their parts but by God, it was dead silent in there for the rest of the semester and attendance was very good. Heaven. Same for late arrivals: they were simply not allowed in the room and it was explained plainly: get here on time, shut up, or miss out.
posted by Mo Nickels at 8:52 AM on September 4, 2007 [1 favorite]

Stop the class, call on one of the offenders and ask them if they have a question. This will typically interrupt the conversation. IF they continue, ask them to see you after the lecture. Politely inform them that their talking is disrupting your lecture, the other student's learning and that they should not continue to attend class if they can not be quiet.
posted by bluesky43 at 9:07 AM on September 4, 2007

Mo Nickels, I love you. I'd love to do exactly that.

But it's hard. My students aren't the students of even five years ago. They have no clue about being students. If I kick them out they aren't learning anything. Usually I'd rather have them late then never, if they can come in quietly.

Talking: I usually go stand by them as I lecture. That helps. I've also leaned over and told students -- quietly -- to leave, and come back when they were in a mood to be part of the educational experience.

But this whole teaching job seems to be changing. This semester I've had to had sections to my syllabus about not wearing headphones, and on makeup or body lotion. It amazes me. They truly don't understand why I don't want them doing their eyes and treating their skin during class.

Whoops, I'm starting to rant.
posted by cccorlew at 9:13 AM on September 4, 2007 [1 favorite]

I had to add a policy to my community college classes about that as well. Kids will actually wear headphones and text message obviously during class.

I did a brief "these things are rude to me and rude to your fellow students and you need to not be here if you can't live without them for an hour."

It's also detailed as a formal policy in my syllabus.
posted by answergrape at 9:16 AM on September 4, 2007

She needs to closely monitor the activity in the room during group discussions and stay engaged with her students. Most of them will stay on topic for the first 5 minutes or so -- but there will be a few bad apples who jump right into socializing. Going from group to group, she can give a knowing glace to anyone not discussing classwork, and ask him/her a question about the work at hand to get them on track.

After 5-10 minutes, the noise level will begin to pick up as discussions veer off the classwork and into socializing. As soon as this happens, it's time to end group discussions and get back to the lecture. The longer you allow "unstructured" discussion time to go on, the harder it is to get your class back under control.

2nd SpecialK that a firm hand is needed during lectures. I've been known to call out a student's name and issue a firm, "Don't talk while I'm talking" order. If it happens a second time, they're out the door.

I'll never forget the first time I completely lost control of a class and couldn't get them back on track for the rest of the evening. It's humiliating, but it happens to everyone. The longer she teaches, the better she'll get at recognizing the warning signs and knowing when it's time to get firm.
posted by junkbox at 9:16 AM on September 4, 2007

Mo Nickels, dropping points may be "junior high", but my experience subbing Junior College suggests that a lot of the students are at about the junior high level, but academically (and that's being generous) and emotionally.

Look around the room for the "cool"est looking person that's actually paying attention. Usually, that person is hanging on the periphery of the noisemakers. Give them the head tilt, like, "well, these are your friends, that are keeping you from learning. Do what you have to do." Often enough, that person will do your dirty work for you and tell the rest of the class to shut the fuck up.

I learned this trick in the inner-city community college I part-time (and have subbed full-time) at, where I was explicitly told by black students that they weren't gonna listen to no "whitey". On one such occasion, a very large, mean looking (but as it turns out, incredibly sweet) black woman was in the front row, and with one look from me turned around and said, "if you won't listen to him, you listen to me. Shut the fuck up." And the class fell silent.

On preview, cccorlew speaks truth.
posted by notsnot at 9:18 AM on September 4, 2007 [5 favorites]

I had two professors last year - one that wanted to be everyone's friend, and one that couldn't care less what people thought of him personally. I guarantee people learned more in the latter professor's class, and that class was dead silent all the time. He set the ground rules (no food, no cell phones, no talking) on the first day, and everyone knew what to expect. No one LIKED him, but we all respected him. In contrast, the other professor tried to handle conflicts on a case-by-case basis and ended up looking inconsistent, so people would see what they could get away with.
posted by desjardins at 9:21 AM on September 4, 2007

TheClonusHorror's suggestions are great. I usually add a step of, "disturbing other students by talking out of turn is not fair to the other 24 students in the room who are trying to learn." This way, you're sending the message that talking out of turn negatively impacts other students' learning. You've instantly created a group that includes the instructor and the other students, against the disruptive students.

But it sounds like students talking while your wife is lecturing is less frequent compared to getting students to stop talking so that she can begin her class, or re-group after a group activity. For those situations, try techniques below.

1) When it is time to start the class, simply stand at the lectern and stare out at the class. Students will quiet down, in about a minute or so, and the time to quiet will grow shorter as the semester progresses. This takes patience on her part, and she needs to give off the "I'm in charge here" body language, and if she's giving off the "I'm not sure what I'm doing" body language, won't work so well.

2) Prepare ahead of time 1-2 multiple choice questions on Powerpoint/transparency, etc. When it's time to start the class, simply turn the projector on.
Let the students know that you will review the material learned the previous class this way, and that no other review for the exam will occur. Also, let the student know that the exam will include the questions that were (either exact copies of, or are similar to ) those shown on the transparency/Powerpoint. If the student misses the question and/or the answer because he/she was talking, then they've missed out. If the student is even just 1-2 minutes late, then they've missed out. This method works extremely well. She can also use this method when she is re-grouping after a small-group discussion segment.

3) Flick the light switch off/on. This works well after small group discussiond. Also, letting the students know ahead of time how much time they have for the small group activity, and how much time is left, is good. For example, let them know they have 10 minutes, and turn the light one and off when time's up. If the light switch is at at an inconvenient location, and it doesn't work to walk back and forth, she can also just turn on the transparency projector when it's time to reconvene. Or, if she has powerpoint capability, create timer/count-down slides. Even if she doesn't use powerpoint in her lectures, she can use it just for the group work portions.

4) Raise her hand. This method works well for re-grouping after small group activity, when the instructor would like to say a comment, but not quite ready to resume lecturing.
posted by jujube at 9:26 AM on September 4, 2007 [1 favorite]

My trick for getting students to class and settled in on time was to have at-least-weekly pop quizzes. Dead simple stuff, usually, just very basic questions about their reading assignments and such. Heck, sometimes I'd ask them to spell my name correctly, or tell me their favorite color. I'd have 15 or so of them a semester, then drop the lowest 5.

The trick, though, was that I had us all synchronize our watches at the beginning of the semester. I would then tell them I'd start the quiz one minute after the start of class--and I would not repeat a question. Inevitably, someone would slip in mid-quiz and ask me to repeat the first question, and I would refuse.

I offered no make up quizzes, and would accept no absence excuses, even perfectly legitimate ones. I'd drop so many quiz grades that good students weren't affected by the occasional lateness or absence. The quizzes made up only 5% of the final grade, but they did a great job of getting everyone focused.
posted by MrMoonPie at 9:41 AM on September 4, 2007 [1 favorite]

I'm sure that a big part of the problem is her age and (perceived) inexperience.

The thing that has always worked best for professors whose classes I've been in is:

• Stopping the lecture and staring at the offender. If the rest of the class is paying attention, they will follow her gaze and eventually everyone is looking at the talkers.

The other thing is to just stop talking. Mid-sentence. Just stop. They'll keep talking for a little while, but then they'll catch on that the teacher is just standing there. I've seen that work really well too.

There are a lot of stereotypes about two year college kids, and I'm sure many of them are true for her group. But please don't resort to treating them like elementary kids (clapping, flicking the lights off, etc). These ARE adults, and they should be treated as such, even if they aren't exactly acting like adults. Treat them the way you want them to behave.
posted by misanthropicsarah at 9:46 AM on September 4, 2007 [1 favorite]

Here are my pearls:
Tell them they're excused from class, and may return after visiting your office. To be a real kicker, tell them that they're still responsible for homework and quizzes until they return.

Stop talking when they talk.

Talk quieter when they talk.

And lastly, give them an in-class writing assignment. When they turn it in, make a note on it that says that you don't wish to bring attention to them in class, but that their interruptions need to cease immediately, or they will be excused.
posted by TomMelee at 9:54 AM on September 4, 2007

Forget everything about "students today" and the crap about "high school with ashtrays." These are old saws, and neither is fair or accurate. Of course there are dunderheads in college classes--there always have been and probably always will be. This is not an issue particular to (or even more frequent in) community colleges--it happens everywhere (and I've seen it at Oxford, even). Moreover, two-year colleges today attract huge numbers of students working on the first half of their BA/BS degree because it is simply more affordable--make assumptions about their background at your own peril. In fact, the most dedicated and ambitious students I have taught have been in courses at two-year colleges--the variety is enormous.

That said, if your wife is having problems managing her class, she can do several things: (1) Greet students at the door and give them something to work on as they come in, even if it is a very short assignment. It's a strategy that works for learners of all ages, and is one that keeps students focused on the topic at hand and working the instant they set foot in the room. It also establishes the room as her territory. (2) Talk with disruptive students outside of class, one-on-one--never, ever in a group--and remind them of the context and consequences. (3) Keep students close to the front of the room--nothing breeds chatter like lots of secluded islands of students who are disconnected from the rest of the class. I cordoned off the rear fifteen rows of a giant lecture hall I taught in and would not let students sit far from me during the year. (4) Liven up the work--if her course isn't engaging (and this can take thousands of forms), people won't pay attention. Don't assume the problem lies solely with the students.
posted by yellowcandy at 9:57 AM on September 4, 2007 [1 favorite]

I am an English instructor at a 2-year college. This problem is almost nonexistant now for me and it used to be severe and constant, so I must have improved somehow.

It is not my experience that you have to be a stickler for rules. I break the tardiness rule myself all the time, so my credibility on that score is sadly challenged. Besides, I can't be a hardass and keep a straight face--it's just not natural to me.

They have trouble with boredom management, so I liven things up with frequent scene changes and lots of "participation" (which is to say, judicious doses of fear). Call on them, I'm saying.

Assuming you haven't learned their names and won't 'til mid- to late-semester, just yell out their shirt color. "Yellow-shirted male who is yammering incessantly to red-shirted male, what does Mr. Eliot have to say about relations between the sexes in late-middle-aged upperclass social circles?... Nothing? Red-shirted male? ... Isn't that interesting. I had thought of course that the two of you were making all this noise because you were so excited about discussing this important question and forgot yourselves. THE REST OF THE CLASS has been talking of little else for FIFTEEN MINUTES and we have been having A FANTASTIC TIME. Well, then, you two find a part of the poem that seems to have something to say about that. You can work quietly together. Feel free to use your... texting telephone sets, or whatever your crazy youthculture machines are called, or you can write notes to each other. Just remember, we don't want to hear any noise whatsoever out of you. I'll come back to you in ten and we'll all listen to what you've discovered. Meanwhile the rest of us will move on to something even more interesting." I deliver these PSAs in a put-on, hyper-teacherly tone. I am trying to convey not "student X, I loathe you, the rest of the class hates you, and you are doomed to fail," which just encourages more Tom Sawyer tomfoolery because they think they have nothing to lose, but more, "Student X, this situation we are in, 'the classroom environment,' is untenable for all of us. You are bored and in pain, and that is normal and we alll sympathize, but you must reign in and remember that the suffering is general."

I do NOT find that punishments like rage-induced quizzes or ten points taken off everybody's tests (somebody actually DID this?) are a good idea. I'm trying to get the creatures to read, which they already find unpleasant. Punishment is right out: it'll ensure they never pick up a book again and I'll have failed.

They're going to form alliances--it's only reasonable. They're scared and bored. They think the classwork has nothing to do with them and they think they won't be able to do it. You can acknowledge and exploit their alliances in a friendly, nonscary way.

A tip from early days, in case you're bone-shakingly terrified as I was: bring water. I used to get a can of soda water out of the machine and every time I found myself losing it and starting to shake w/ fear, I'd take a swallow of my lemon La Croix and feel better. It's like a little physical reminder: "I'm still here! My basic faculties still work. They haven't killed me yet."
posted by Don Pepino at 11:10 AM on September 4, 2007 [1 favorite]

Taught freshman comp for two years as a grad student, and learned quickly that students pick up like dogs-- from your stance, your overall body language, your tone and (unlike dogs) what you say.

If you're course-correcting after already letting things go, announce it and back it up. "I've realized that side discussions are disturbing the learning experience for others, and it stops now." Then, hand out the expected behavior and read it or otherwise summarize it in plainspeak for the class: no talk off subject, no student comment unless invited. One warning, then you're out of the class for the day with a specific overall grade penalty applied. And if it happens twice (or three times), you fail.

I didn't have talkers... I had skippers. I issued paper that noted that one skip was allowed, but to "use it wisely, my dears. I don't care if you break up with your significant other or if your car breaks down-- you'll be failing my course."

Further recommendations: next semester, hand out a syllabus that includes expectations for behavior. Make it clear, make sure there are consequences.

And the more hardcore I got, the higher my evals were. You aren't losing your personality-- you're just adding rigor and process.
posted by Arch1 at 11:11 AM on September 4, 2007

If your wife can draw, she should start drawing a picture on the board silently until they stop paying attention to each other and start wondering what she is drawing. When she has control, she can say "I will tell you what it is at the end of class" or "You can tell me what you think I drew at the end of class". Then continue whatever it is she wanted to be doing.

I can't emphasize enough how important it is, especially with a community college audience, to start off strict. My syllabus has a behavior policy that I take seriously. Most students like me because I am funny, but I take "control of the classroom" very seriously. If nothing else, it is not fair to the students who really want to learn to let the others spoil the atmpsphere.
posted by wittgenstein at 11:32 AM on September 4, 2007

I am currently taking some courses at my local community college. This semester they are in the evening and all the students work, so it is a more serious and focused crowd than your wife's, but last semester I was taking them during the day and I also had a 'general studies' class.

Do not do group punishment. That's a joke and no one will take it seriously. You can not bluff. I suppose that if she can follow through with a reduction in everyone's grade it would likely work. But if she can't and everyone knows she makes empty threats, she will hate teaching that class even if the behavior improves.

Throwing people out is the way to go. It doesn't have to be all the talkers, just the worst of the bunch. If that doesn't improve matters, repeat as necessary. And don't give an endless number of warnings. Once is enough, if you have to say it then mean it. She should probably have a game plan if the student refuses to leave, even though that is very unlikely. A quick talk with the administration will clear it up. Knowing what she'll do in all eventualities makes it easier to think of as a viable option.

The 'respect vs. like distinction' is over done. Students like teachers who present the subject in a clear, engaging manner and who ease the road to understanding. It sounds like your wife has some people sitting in her class who are not coming in the role of students.

Many of the above techniques are good but I think at least some of them are class size dependent. I haven't seen any classes at my school with more than 20 or so students. If that's the size of her classes then silence or calling on the student will probably work. But the more students in the class, the fewer options.
posted by BigSky at 11:58 AM on September 4, 2007

seconding special k and well...a bunch of others who basically said "you have to treat them as kids and be a little mean."

And not that I'm saying jujube's techniques will never work, but from my personal experience, not only would that NOT get the talkative kids to shut up, it'd actually be a new topic for conversation & ridicule ("Does she think we're in kindergarten? Who the hell still raises their hand and expect that to work?"). And sadly, yeah, the above is a true story.

The teachers/professors my peers and I respected most (obviously other than because they knowthe subject material and are excellent teachers) were demanding and borderline "bitchy" because of that high expectation. We were to act like adults and if we didn't, we were pretty much ridiculed in front of the entire group of students (whether it was a class of 25 or 300). Offenders were singled out and basically were implied to be little middle schoolers. Pretty harsh but it reinforces the idea of "who's the boss"
posted by mittenedsex at 12:45 PM on September 4, 2007

FWIW, I'm a fourth year student at a top 35 university. We're supposedly more motivated to do well, etc.
posted by mittenedsex at 12:47 PM on September 4, 2007

Set an example by being very polite as in "Mr. Yellow Shirt, yes, you, would you please take your conversation out of the classroom? Your conversation is distracting." and then wait for them to leave. Maybe it's not as authoritarian, but it will work, especially when repeated as needed, and the world needs as much civility as it can find.
posted by theora55 at 12:56 PM on September 4, 2007

I would second these items:

Stop talking when they talk.

Talk quieter when they talk.

Also, consider she record herself teaching. Either video or audio. Is she using passive language - I would like you to pay attention vs. Pay attention. Passive creates choice, and in some instances, as teacher, you are not (or shold not be) offering choice.
Aside from recording, seek out good teachers and ask if you can sit in on their course a couple of times (how do they present themselves, how do they interact with the class, how do they invite participation?)

What does the syllabus look like? That is the starting point for the class and I have seen professors with strong class guidelines create an early impression on the students per the culture of the class. Students are looking for guidelines to work in.

I also recommend the teaching/prof take note that it is their responsibility to create a learning environment. Someone answers their cell phone or is playing on a laptop, it is the professors job to curtail that activity - don't blame the technology.

Lastly, teach. There are several good books out there on the role and philosophy of teaching. You have to find your style because the bottom line is you have to be comfortable.
posted by fluffycreature at 1:01 PM on September 4, 2007

This is going to be on the test. That makes everyone shut up.
posted by thebrokenmuse at 1:33 PM on September 4, 2007

Adult learners should have some buy-in. (Actually, I'd argue that all learners should have buy-in.) Why on God's Green Earth would you punish the group for a minority's or individual's infraction? Let alone, a group of adults who are there voluntarily. That idea is morally reprehensible and outright lazy.

And yes, they might not know it yet, but they are there voluntarily. Their youth and the expectations of their family are not excuses anymore. Clearly they made some choice somewhere for some reason to be in your classroom: "I want to please my mother..."/"I don't want to lose my free room and board..."/"I don't want to work in fast food..." that put them in your classroom.

Remind them that they are there of their own free will. Show them the door. Remind them that the door is open and they are free to come back when they're willing to fulfill the role of a peer learner. Even if they leave and never come back, you will have taught them an enormous lesson that somehow eluded them in their two or more decades on this planet: Everyone is the captain of their own fate.

That being said, I'm new to group facilitation and so far I've only worked with adult learners who are eager and willing to contribute to the discussion. I hope that when the time comes, I'll have the courage to do as I just said, though.

So, one common way to create buy-in with adult learners is to create a group agreement. A sneaky facilitator or teacher will let the group feel like they created it themselves but sneak in a few important items and make sure that the important bases are covered for the particular type of learning that you intend to do.

Some sample group agreement bullet points:
  • Respect for the speaker (don't interrupt, wait to be called on)
  • Arrive with the intent to participate (Implied corollary: If you don't intend to participate, don't show up.)
  • Respect for other learners (don't disrupt, ipods, etc...)
  • Confidentiality/safe space (If sensitive issues are going to be discussed.)
  • Take care of yourself (bathroom breaks/water breaks)
  • Step up/Step back: Try something new. Speak up more often if you tend to be quiet, step back and encourage others if you tend to speak a lot.
The group agreement should always be posted, but I will usually call attention to it every so often, and especially when there are visitors or new group members and summarize it in my own words and then ask everyone again if they can agree to it or if there is anything they would like to add or revise.

That way, when someone is disrupting, you're not falling back on your individual authority and being the bad guy. You're falling back on the authority of the group's common agreement. Seems like a much more structured, adult and fair way to leverage positive peer pressure than group punishment. With any luck, the students who want to learn will also call upon the group agreement and will save you the trouble of intervening so often. I also wish I had college teachers who made office hours seem like a safe and inviting space, since I suffered greatly in college because I was too shy to talk to my teachers one-on-one.

With the group dynamics that I facilitate with right now, that safe one-on-one time is really beneficial for me to suss out invisible elephants and other problems that don't stand out as important during meetings.

I'm really excited because I got a wooden frog noisemaker the other day. I doubt it would work for a big, unruly group like OP's, but I've seen other facilitators quiet a small group pretty fast because they hear this weirdo noise and everyone is all like, "what the heck is that guy doing?!"
posted by Skwirl at 1:44 PM on September 4, 2007 [1 favorite]

There used to be a maxim, "never smile until after Christmas." Obviously, this is hyperbole, but a young female teacher facing a class with even a few disruptive peers has to start out right from the beginning sending a clear message, "I'm in charge."

My college education professor, who was a national "Teacher of the Year" award winner, used some tactics that bothered me, including one she called the "sacrificial lamb." Basically, if you have several people acting up, you pick one and punish that one to an extent that it shuts the others up. I don't like this solution, but it does work.

She also had some other great techniques, though:

You have to master your "teacher voice"--that tone of voice that says, immediately, you will not tolerate disruptive behavior. It's not about yelling, it's more a tone of command.

Flicking the lights quickly can be a sign that group involvement and open conversation is over and the focus needs to return to you.

Recording yourself teaching is a great idea. If your wife can stand it, she should have you or someone else she respects watch the recording and critique her.

You have to have very specific consequences, consistently enforced. Spell them out in a syllabus or a handout, and follow it religiously.

I don't think drawing on a board or raising your hand is at ALL the approach a young woman should take if she is establishing herself as the head of a classroom, but YMMV.

Do NOT worry about being popular or liked. Students respect a professor who can keep order because they get more value for their (or their parents') money. These professors become popular after the fact, anyway, as the students discover which classes have taught them the most.
posted by misha at 2:24 PM on September 4, 2007

I taught in a community college for several years, and I had this problem. The 21-25 year olds ARE more problematic than the younger students (who are still intimidated because you are a "college" teacher). I completely agree with this statement:

Basically, one instance of "Shut the hell up right now or everyone loses ten points off of the next test." -- and a glare around the room as if she's daring the next person to speak up and lose for everyone... and she'll have a quiet room.

I did that, on occasion. It works.

The thing for your wife to keep in mind is that, for every disruptive little shit you have in the classroom, there are five to ten other people who are sincerely trying to learn. I remember, after I had a particularly rough class where I had to threaten a bunch of students in the back row with a grade reduction, some other students came up to me afterward, grateful that I had enforced some discipline on the miscreants. Often, you do not realize who your allies are, until the heads start rolling.
posted by jayder at 4:10 PM on September 4, 2007

I would catch them after class as they're leaving (or even "Tim and Mike, I want to see you for a minute after class) and say "You guys are talking too much in class. It's disrespectful, it's disruptive, and it needs to stop. Talk to each other on your own time." Then the next class period, they get one significant look and if they blow through that then throw them out. The key to throwing people out is just to stand there not doing anything until the person is on their way out the door. Not looking petulant, just looking patient and firm.

For regaining focus after group work, I usually give them a 2 minute warning, a 15 second warning (ok, we're wrapping up now) and then just launch back into class with a big "O-KAY, so, group 1, what result did you guys get for question 2?"

Is she dressing up? Younger faculty, esp women, usually get better classroom silence if they dress up to teach.
posted by LobsterMitten at 5:20 PM on September 4, 2007

Can she use a wireless PA system?
People can't talk over you when yours is the voice with a thousand watts of volume-assist :-)

Most lecture halls these days have PA systems built in, and I assume there would be portable stuff for use in rooms that don't have it.
posted by -harlequin- at 5:56 PM on September 4, 2007

If you elect to go the group punishment route, make damn sure you are permitted to follow through on your threat (I'm serious).

Alternative: Have a pop quiz right then and there. "Well, since you all know the material well enough to not listen to the lecture, we're going to have a pop quiz right now."

So that she doesn't have to keep quizes on hand, they should be the kind where she writes the questions on the board and they write the answers on their own sheets of paper, and the questions can be from her lecture notes for the day (or the previous day, or the next day).
posted by Many bubbles at 7:38 PM on September 4, 2007

*quizzes. D'oh.
posted by Many bubbles at 7:39 PM on September 4, 2007

Let the students know that you will review the material learned the previous class this way, and that no other review for the exam will occur. Also, let the student know that the exam will include the questions that were (either exact copies of, or are similar to ) those shown on the transparency/Powerpoint. If the student misses the question and/or the answer because he/she was talking, then they've missed out. If the student is even just 1-2 minutes late, then they've missed out. This method works extremely well. She can also use this method when she is re-grouping after a small-group discussion segment.

Oh, I second this. If you let people get away with coming in late, they will do it all damn semester. I had a class where this guy came in twenty to thirty minutes late every single day. And the door to the room locked, so it was always him rattling the door and peeking in, then someone getting up to let him in, then him sitting down and shuffling around all his stuff. I thought we should have just let him stay outside until the break, but someone always let him in.
posted by Many bubbles at 7:44 PM on September 4, 2007

Second dressing up. For you rather than for them. This one time? I was wearing these AMAZING spectator pumps, late 60s, early 70s, black and white, blocky heels. I still have them. I came barrelling out from behind the desk to go berate this kid for being unable to find a word in his dictionary and my fancy shoes slipped on the slick floor. My feet flew out from under me and I did a violent John Ritter pratfall--with a feet-higher-than-my-head sprawling butt-landing. Everyone sat in stunned silence while I struggled back up on my feet and then laughed when they saw I wasn't dead. I went on and found the word in the kid's dictionary and whacked him over the head with it or something similar. Another time I was trying to teach 13th graders the Declaration of Independence and there happened to be a map in the classroom, one of those pulldown things, and I had the chalk in one hand and the map string in the other and was pointing out Europe or New England or something and heard giggles and realized it's weird to use your foot to point out countries on a map. You lose all sense of self. Fear and embarrassment ebb slowly away. Eventually it becomes really fun. For me this was years in coming, but your wife may be less shy.

Some people are going to hate you no matter what you do. I'm frequently amazed that I turned out to be this sort, since I always despised "madcap" teachers when I was a student, and furthermore despised other students who liked them. Logically, there have to be a few students with my same preferences in my classes who are groaning and writhing inwardly, however well they hide it. But I'm all about delivering the product: as long as I'm fair and impartial to haters and sycophants alike, I think everybody's getting their money's worth. Be whoever you turn out to be in front of the class, you won't be able to help it, anyway. To make up for it for the people who object to your teaching styles, be a consistent grader, be fair, be generous when possible. Make the rules simple. Make the work challenging and make it fit them and their interests. Be willing to adapt to accomodate them just as they must be willing to adapt to accomodate you. Believe that you have what to teach them. Love what you teach.
posted by Don Pepino at 12:17 PM on September 5, 2007 [1 favorite]

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