Addressing Common Challenges
By Mandy McGrew
Faculty members confront many challenges as they design and deliver their courses. As best practices in education change to address the evolving needs of students, we are confronted with a variety of challenges in our classrooms and it is often difficult to determine what these particular students need at this particular moment in time. When an issue arises, we tend to look for a quick fix, but that rarely exists and can be difficult to execute. Many of these common challenges stem from “classroom incivilities”—a term that describes a wide variety of undesirable behaviors on the parts of both faculty and students. Understanding how students and faculty view incivilities in the classroom and how they deal with them is crucial to overcoming these challenges. Furthermore, incivilities can lead to other concerns like seeing a lack of engagement from students, or a lack of academic integrity. It is not enough to solve these problems as they occur, though; we should anticipate and plan for these challenges to improve student learning and our teaching experiences.
In Robert Boice’s (1996) study of classroom incivilities, he found that they are more common than uncommon. He writes that classroom incivilities most often include not attending class, cheating, not participating in classroom activities, coming to class unprepared, and being distracting to teachers and other students (p. 350). It is important to note that Boice discovered that students and faculty members did not identify incivilities in the same way. While professors may see behaviors like a lack of preparation as a major issue in their classroom, students might be thinking that the professor’s uncaring attitude or pop quizzes are actually the greater of the incivilities occurring in class (Boice, 1996, p. 364). By striving to understand how our own behaviors affect our students’ perceptions of us and of the course material, we can work to overcome some of these issues.
Pre-emptive Strategy: Motivating Your Students to Succeed
Teachers can reduce the chances that their students will express classroom incivilities by employing positive motivators in their classes and by expressing warmth and friendliness to their students (Boice, 1996, p. 350). Research shows that there are two critical components to sparking motivation in students: expectancy and value. If students expect that they can succeed at a task and they value the outcome of completing that task, then they are more likely to be motivated to complete the task and to complete it well. By creating a classroom environment in which students can expect to succeed and value the outcome, you can lessen the chances that problem behaviors will occur (Ambrose, Bridges, DiPietro, Lovett, & Norman, 2010). For more information on strategies to enhance student motivation, click here: link to CETL article on Student Motivation.
Pre-emptive Strategy: Creating a Civil Classroom Community
Another way to limit the occurrence of students’ problem behaviors is to build a community in your classroom. Barkley (2010) writes “In a true learning community, teachers and students are partners in the learning process” (p. 110). In order to develop this relationship, instructors must yield some of their power to students. This can enhance motivation by showing them that learning is a partnership between teacher and student. Furthermore, by developing a collaborative classroom environment, students will be more engaged and will be less likely to resort to disruptive behaviors (Barkley, 2010; Weimer, 2014).
Some suggestions for cultivating a community in your classroom include:
- As a class, develop a set of ground rules for discussions. Allow students to help decide what the rules for discussion will be and also what consequences will occur if the rules are broken.
- Learn students’ names so that they can be held accountable for their comments and cannot remain anonymous in the classroom.
- Give students a clear and easy way to share any concerns they have about the classroom environment with you (this could include having a comment box, gathering regular informal feedback, or even delegating a student to serve as the class ombudsman).
- Address any problems or issues as soon as they arise (Barkley, 2010, p. 111-112).
Identifying and Responding to Problem Behaviors in the Classroom
Despite your efforts to cultivate a positive classroom community, some difficult situations may still occur. It is important that instructors be able to identify when there is a problem brewing in the classroom. An offhand comment about the gender of another student or their appearance may seem innocent, but can affect not only the person who it was directed at, but also others who heard or witnessed the incident. Sometimes students do not know that their comments or actions could be offensive or hurtful to others. Student incivility is a serious concern for many faculty, especially in disciplines where the content can be controversial or uncomfortable for some reason.
When a classroom discussion becomes heated and emotions begin to rise, what will your response be? Do you quickly try to diffuse it and redirect the conversation to less challenging topics? Or do you embrace the controversy and attempt to utilize the situation to help students learn something from the conflict? As an educator, your view of how to handle “hot moments” in the classroom dictates how you deal with those moments. (Warren, n.d.) As the authority in the class, it is the instructor’s responsibility to guide students’ learning; seizing on the opportunity to turn a “hot moment” into a “teachable moment” can mean the difference between untrusting, disengaged students, and inquisitive, critical thinkers. It is important that when these moments occur in class, instructors take the opportunity to address them in a way that makes students feel safe and in a protective learning environment (Warren, n.d.).
Below are some ideas for turning difficult interchanges into learning opportunities:
- Don’t take things personally—try to remove your own feelings from the conversation and see the issue objectively. Warren (n.d.) uses the analogy of going up to the balcony to look down at the dance floor. Ask yourself if there is a larger issue at work here; why might this be coming up at all? Where are these assumptions or attitudes coming from? Can you turn this into a learning experience for the rest of the class?
- Help the students think about the issue without attacking an individual member of the class. Discuss the issue, not what one particular student might have said about it. Point out multiple perspectives and encourage students to listen carefully to one another, especially those with whom they disagree.
- Have the students write about the issue. This could come in a variety of forms from a short reflection about the discussion to a full research paper.
- Don’t ignore offensive remarks—this leads students to believe that this sort of behavior is acceptable in the classroom. You must address uncivil classroom behavior immediately, even if you recognize it at the time and defer your response until later.
- Provide support to any students who may have been made uncomfortable by the interchange (in class, outside of class, or by connecting them with counseling services) (Warren, n.d.).
In recent years, concerns over angry students’ outbursts and unpredictable behaviors have been heightened. It is important for instructors to know their institution’s policies and procedures for dealing with students’ disruptive behaviors (Barkley, 2010). At Kennesaw State University, the Behavioral Response Team (BRT) in the Division of Student Affairs is dedicated to identifying and assisting students who are in distress or who exhibit “abnormal, threatening, or dangerous behavior”. If you encounter a student who causes you concern, you should access the BRT webpage for assistance and use the Red Flag Reporting System that is in place there (http://www.kennesaw.edu/brt/).
Other In-Class Challenges
While not all instructors might have to deal with “hot moments” or controversial classroom discussions, most face the everyday frustrations of disengaged students, poor attendance, and complaints about grades. If you follow the advice of experts and create a motivating, positive community within your classroom, you will encounter these wearisome behaviors less often. Here are some strategies for dealing with these issues when they do occur.
Classroom attendance is important for student success. Research shows that students who attend class regularly receive higher grades than those who do not. Regardless, attendance problems often arise throughout the semester. In order to maintain the highest levels of attendance possible, it is important to make sure students know how the course is relevant to them—be this personally or academically. Clearly explain how your course can benefit the students and they will be more likely to come to class. Furthermore, be sure that you are coming to class prepared. If students feel that the course is a waste of time, they are more likely to be absent. And finally, though it seems obvious, be clear about your attendance policy and remind your students of it regularly. Having the policy in your syllabus may not be enough; state and reiterate your attendance expectations throughout the semester (Davis, 2009, p. 39).
Students often appear distracted or disengaged in the classroom. This often happens when their expectations for success are not very high. This could be because of learned helplessness, a desire to avoid responsibility, or a personality trait. Having low expectations can result in a lack of motivation; hence, disengagement with the course. Every circumstance is different, but utilizing the following teaching strategies could increase students’ expectations of success:
- Scaffold the learning in your course. Construct good assignments. Give students clear instructions. Provide them with a sample structure of the assignment. Divide big projects into smaller sections with individual due dates.
- Encourage students to set goals for themselves and to judge their progress in the course on what they have accomplished previously, rather than comparing themselves to the other students.
- Help students access tutors, study groups, or “study buddies.” Be a resource for your students.
- Support students as they develop metacognitive processes like identifying when they are struggling and need to seek help to understand a concept (Barkley, 2010, p. 92-93).
Students who are Unprepared for Class
Faculty members often lament that students don’t do the reading or other preparation necessary before they come to class. They arrive unprepared and therefore get little out of the lecture, discussion, or activity of the class meeting. Svinicki and McKeachie (2011) argue that students don’t do the reading because “they don’t see what difference it makes” (p. 31). So how can instructors convince students that reading the assigned material or completing the practice problems before class is worthwhile? The following strategies may help motivate your students to better prepare for class:
- When assigning a reading, explain to students why you are having them read that particular piece. Talk to students about how they should read the book or article; help them understand what you want them to gain from it (Svinicki & McKeachie, 2011, p. 33-34).
- Regularly referring to the reading will let your students know that you expect that they have read and assume that they know about what you are referring to. Talking about the reading and asking questions about it also shows students that they may be called on to discuss it, which enhances the likelihood that they will come to class prepared the next time (Svinicki & McKeachie, 2011, p. 30-32).
- Develop a reading guide that includes questions that require higher order cognitive thinking skills. It is important that the guide’s questions not be factual, though, but rather help students think about the deeper meaning of the material (Svinicki & McKeachie, 2011, p.32-33).
- Weimer (2014) recommends that instructors model reading for their students in a three-step process. First, assign a reading and be clear to students that they need to complete it and bring their books to the next class meeting. At the next class meeting, discuss the reading and show the students what you have marked as being important. Second, when going over the next assigned reading, have the students show you what they have marked as being important. Then third, after the next reading assignment, make connections between what was in the reading and what was discussed in class. By leading students through this process you help them learn how to read the course material and you also help them see connections between the text and what is happening in class (p. 132-133). This helps student value completing the reading, thus motivating them to complete it before class.
Another common challenge that faculty face is how to deal with academic integrity issues. When plagiarism or cheating happens, instructors are often baffled as to why students would do such a thing. In reality, though, there are many factors that determine when and why a student might feel the need to behave unethically. There are also specific ways that instructors can lessen the amount of academic misconduct that occurs in their classes. For more information on academic integrity issues and how they can be avoided, click here: link to CETL article on academic integrity.
As diversity on campus grows and professors encounter varied backgrounds and experiences among their students, difficulties anticipating and understanding the needs and expectations of various groups will inevitably arise. By utilizing an inclusive teaching style, in short by being sensitive to gender, ethnicity, and cultural diversity, instructors can limit the challenges they might otherwise face in working with diverse students (Davis, 2009; “Diversity and Inclusive Teaching,” n.d.). If you would like to know more about inclusive teaching practices, click here: link to CETL article on inclusive teaching.
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“Diversity and Inclusive Teaching” (n.d.).Retrieved fromhttps://cft.vanderbilt.edu/guides-sub-pages/diversity/.
Svinicki, M. and McKeachie, W. (2011). McKeachie’s teaching tips: Strategies, research, and theory for college and university teachers. 13th ed., Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.
Warren, L. (n.d.). Managing hot moments in the classroom.Retrieved from http://isites.harvard.edu/fs/html/icb.topic58474/hotmoments.html
Weimer, M. (2014). Learner-centered teaching. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.