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It might be every professor’s worst nightmare: losing control of a class with no hope of getting it back on track. That appears to be what happened this semester at Texas A&M University at Galveston, where a management instructor threatened to fail the entire class for poor behavior before the university intervened. The professor described a class full of students who wouldn't do the work, who weren't performing according to his expectations and who were consistently rude to him.

The specific case certainly appears to be an outlier, and questions remain about how and why the situation got so extreme. It nevertheless captured the attention of fellow faculty members, probably because many have struggled at one point or another with classroom management.

So how can instructors get a class back on course when it’s veered left or right or, better yet, prevent it from straying altogether? Classroom management experts say it’s a matter of making behavioral expectations clear up front, beyond the traditional syllabus. Periodic azimuth checks can identify problems, experts say, and interventions -- when staged early, sometimes with the help of a teaching specialist -- can make a difference.

Setting Expectations Up Front

“I haven’t seen anywhere near somebody losing control to the extent we saw at Texas A&M as it’s been reported, but I have seen cases on different campuses where it’s very clear that the learning is done,” said Michael R. Meyer, a senior lecturer of physics and director of Michigan Technological University’s William G. Jackson Center for Teaching and Learning. “That happens when somebody says or does something that fractures the relationship with at least a significant proportion of the students, and there really isn’t a trust anymore.”

At that point, Meyer said, professors and students alike tend to go into “survival” mode, where the goal is simply getting through the end of the course. A common cause of such friction? Students feeling like they’re being held accountable for behavioral expectations that weren’t made clear to them, Meyer said. These expectations go beyond which assignments are due when. Rather, they address such behaviors as cell phone, computer and social media use in class, how to ask questions and what happens when someone shows up late.

“If you don’t address them, or talk about them with students, there’s bound to be bad feelings on both sides,” Meyer said.

Kevin Yee, a director of the Academy for Teaching and Learning Excellence at the University of South Florida who said he was speaking personally and not for the university, said a “massive amount of the tone and atmosphere of a course” is set on the very first day of class, based on how a professor immediately responds to unwanted behaviors. Yee suggested including behavioral policy statements on the syllabus, coupled with the “right balance of firmness and approachability” in discussing and enforcing those policies.

“Think of the opposite example,” he said, of trying to enforce an unwritten no-cell-phone policy in the middle of the term. In that scenario, he added, a professor might “lose” the argument after a student complained to a department chair.

Yee and other experts also suggested another approach to behavioral policy making that’s gaining popularity: drafting it with the students on the first days of class. Advocates say this method, which can sometimes be pitched as a behavioral contract, increases “buy-in” among students.

Some of these classroom management tools come from K-12, where there’s a much more intense focus on establishing procedures and behavioral expectations. One of the most popular K-12 classroom management books of all time is The First Days of School: How to Be an Effective Teacher, by Harry K. Wong and Rosemary Wong, which stresses the importance of routines.

Wong said via email that he thought the term “classroom management” was widely misused, in that it’s not about discipline but rather “organization and consistency.”

He added: “Teachers who incorrectly define classroom management as discipline create a self-fulfilling prophecy for themselves and their students. They find that disciplinary actions become the focus of their daily routine, starting on the first day of school.”

Wong said in a follow-up interview that he always asks teachers who appeal to him for help to produce their classroom management plans. Few can, he said, attributing their management troubles to a lack of foresight. Asked if it was reasonable to expect professors, who are generally much more expert in their disciplines than in pedagogy, and who teach adults, not children, to devote such attention to classroom management, Wong asked why it wouldn’t be.

“All businesses are run this way, a [major event such as a] wedding is run that way,” he said. “When you walk into a company, there are usually two big binders: one on management and one on systems. The systems one would be the syllabus,” while the other would be the classroom management plan.

Mark Morvant, associate provost for teaching and technology and executive director of the Center for Teaching Excellence at the University of Oklahoma, said behavioral policies are bolstered by frank discussions with students about why they matter, since students are more inclined to internalize things they understand.

Professors might say, “When you disengage by doing things on your cell phone, it’s problematic because I want you fully engaged in my class,” Morvant said. “Or, ‘If you’re going to Google that, I want you to bring it into the discussion.’ Grounding things in substantive, pedagogical reasons and talking to students about them can be very helpful.”

At the same time, Morvant said, professors need to check their own expectations for behavior, and the use of social media in particular. Today’s students don’t necessarily think it’s rude or distracting to be using a personal device while in a group, and may even equate it to doodling to refocus their attention, he said. “Every generation of faculty has to look at the next generation and make expectations about what behaviors we believe are important assets, and what we can let go of.”

When Things Go South

Communication also helps when a course in progress is going off the rails, experts said. Joseph Trefzger, a professor of finance at Illinois State University who has won several teaching awards and who has written about classroom management, said there inevitably are some student “noncooperators to deal with.” And in at least one case, reasoning with them while drawing on his “reputational capital” helped, he said.

“It was a weekend cohort program, all working professional people, and a few had strong personalities,” Trefzger explained in an email. “And because of their career achievements they felt they should be able to control the class agenda. At the first class meeting they said: we need take-home exams and formula sheets. And I said: no, for our material you need to confront the ideas intellectually, you don’t learn these things by copying off a formula sheet, you’ll just be rote memorizing and plug/chugging. Things were tense on the first of our three weekends.”

Soon after, Trefzger said, he learned that the students felt their previous course in the program (taught by a new faculty member) was a letdown. So Trefzger told his students that they were his eighth cohort over as many years and that he wouldn’t still be with the program if his approach had poorly served earlier groups. He asked them to allow him to be their “tour guide,” and soon he was dealing with a more “cooperative” group of people who ultimately said they’d enjoyed the class.

Of course, new professors can’t draw on their reputational capital, and sometimes professor-to-class interventions don’t work. Meyer, at Michigan Tech, said students may participate in interim course evaluations, after the first four weeks of class. Sometimes those evaluations -- which Meyer said can be painful to read because students are more and more vocal about perceived “impediments” to their increasingly costly educations -- get professors in the teaching and learning center’s doors.

At the center, professors can seek help about classroom management, including how to talk to students about getting things back on course. They can also request that a teaching and learning specialist visit the class, in the professor’s absence, to brainstorm with students about improving the climate, without violating the integrity of the class or learning objectives.

It should be noted that Meyer and other experts noted that classroom management problems among their respective faculty members are relatively rare, and that there’s been no dramatic uptick in discipline-oriented consults. Experts were more likely to say professors were most interested in effectively incorporating technology into the classroom. But the two queries are not unrelated, since experts say flipping one’s classroom, for example, comes with some initial uncertainty and poses news questions about behavioral expectations.

Asked if either approach makes regaining control of the class harder for professors, in that they’ve admitted some initial defeat, Meyer said no.

“This is not necessarily an acknowledgment that things are going wrong and it’s the professor’s fault,” Meyer said. “Most professors really want students to learn, which is why they became professors, and they’re simply saying, ‘This is not working.’… One of the most helpful approaches is the professor putting on the table, ‘I’m not happy with this either and we need to talk about this because learning is important,’ as opposed to saying this is all your fault and you’re not doing this right and there’s nothing I can do and it’s all on you.”

Such an approach might be unsavory to professors who don’t necessarily believe the college classroom is a “democracy,” Meyer said, but “one of the things that’s changed significantly is that students no longer bring with them to college what they have historically, that idea that the professor has a set of rules and you just suck it up.”

Yee said many instructors “approach teaching as a private activity, so when it’s not going well, they experience it as a personal failure, and it’s not uncommon at all for them to feel embarrassed about it.” But appealing to a teaching and learning center can be a positive way to “vent,” as well as provide “workarounds” to problems, he said, “in part because the teaching center staff have heard so many examples from faculty that they naturally cross-pollinate the solutions.”

An in-class intervention is inherently risky, Yee said, so it’s has to be done carefully. “If approached too timidly, it could embolden students to misbehave. If done too harshly, it will likely drive students further away,” and possibly lead to poor student evaluations.

Yee and others stressed the importance of setting expectations early, since it’s much easier to plan for success than resuscitate a class in crisis. Trying to optimize one’s reactions to a variety of behaviors, from, say, whispering to sleeping, when the climate is already fraught can be like “peering through a glass, darkly,” Yee said, and sometimes, “I suspect it truly is a lost cause.”

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