Green Decorative Wheat

How Do I Handle Class Distractions?

Advice from Carolyn Speer, Director of the Office of Instructional Resources:

Whether you teach face-to-face or online, distractions in the modern classroom can be a big deal. Age-old problems like students "visiting with a neighbor" have been joined by a vast array of digital distractions. Effectively managing the classroom experience means learning how to address distractions as they happen.

For a face-to-face classroom, consider the following:

  • Begin the term with a clear set of behavioral expectations. As the professor, you will have ideas of your own about what you expect of students, but the students have behavioral expectations as well. Consider working as a group to come up with classroom norms. Effective norms will have a core of expectations the professor provides and additional norms the students include. Make sure to distribute and apply these expectations.
  • Don't give "freebie first times." While it can be tempting to overlook initial "transgressions," doing so will undermine your authority and move the expectation bar downward. If you truly feel your expectations are more restrictive than they should be, then change them, but once they are established, enforce them from the start. Over time, you may find it's useful to relax the rules somewhat, but remember to move from strict to less-strict, not the other way around. It's much harder to reestablish authority than to establish it the first time.
  • Consider requiring pen-and-paper note taking. Everyone loves a good laptop for note-taking, but it might be better to encourage your students to put away their digital devices and do things the old-fashioned way, not because laptops undermine good note-taking (that idea is starting to look like a myth), but because laptops are windows to the world, and when you want your students to focus on you, putting the device away will help.
  • Talk to your offenders. It can be uncomfortable for everyone when you call a student out for misbehaving, and while your clear set of classroom norms will help give you the vocabulary to do it, it can still be uncomfortable. Balance what you feel able to do with your responsibilities to yourself and your students, and remember that sometimes a quiet word after class with particular students can be as effective other management choices.

Much like the face-to-face class, the online class has its share of distractions, and while they are unlikely to impact you, they will impact your students. Here are some things to consider for your online class:

  • Make your "netiquette" expectations very clear from the start. Behavioral expectations are just as important in your online classroom as in your face-to-face one. Make sure your expectations are clear and easy to find.
  • Zero tolerance is the best way. Because typed comments are more durable than those uttered in the moment, it is critically important to manage some kinds of communication in your class. Consider making a "no swearing" policy along with a ban on any kind of hostile or abusive language, and when you see infractions, hide them or take them down entirely. Even if you would give a student a "pass" in a face-to-face classroom, the realities of the online classroom favor the zero tolerance policy.
  • Private emails and group announcements are effective ways to get your message across. If you are concerned about past behavior or want to remind students of your expectations for a future topic to be discussed, sending a private email to students who have caused problems and making general announcements about your expectations are both effective.
  • Help your students make good personal choices. While you might well be very surprised to have students arrive to your face-to-face class with a beer in one hand and a TV remote in the other, online students have these distractions and others at their fingertips. Consider giving some overt guidance to your students about treating their online class time the way they would treat any other classroom experience. Ultimately it's up to them to make good choices, but it's helpful to provide guidance, especially to those who are new to online classes.

Finally, when it comes to distractions and disruptions in the classroom, it's important professors remember that part of the problem might come from the class itself. Are students turning from your lecture to their phones because class has gotten dull or repetitive? Do students disrupt class in an attempt to pull you off topic so the class can devolve to chatting? These are possibilities for any class, and while students are responsible for their own behavior, it's worth thinking about your class as a complete experience.