Irritation 101: Minor concerns
With appreciation for the continuum of student behavior that can manifest in the classroom, let's take a look at one end of the continuum. The "mild" end of the range consists of students who exhibit annoying or irritating behaviors in our classrooms. The classroom management policies you establish in your syllabus can address some of the ways to respond to these types of behaviors. And, as always, preventive endeavors (i.e. speaking and intervening with students about behaviors of concern early on, before things escalate) are recommended practices. It's important to bear in mind that while some choices students make could potentially annoy us, but not fall under the guise of disruptive behaviors. To these ends, student rights include the ability to appropriately (i.e. in a civil manner, related to the course material) voice their opinions in class, regardless of whether they disagree with our own. In fact, the first three behaviors listed below are behaviors that students unquestionably have the rights to engage in....within limits. For instance, any student has the prerogative and the right to make an academic complaint. But, if the student does not do so in keeping with the College's procedures, or, if the student makes a threat of pursuing a complaint if a certain grade isn't given, then that behavior crosses the line and becomes unacceptable. How we manage our classrooms to be open environments benefiting a wide range of individuals to engage in meaningful civil discourse is as important as knowing our disciplines. But, consider when these behaviors veer from healthy academic disagreements to annoying behaviors, all the way to genuinely disruptive behaviors.
The following kinds of behaviors have been described by some faculty as being irritating or annoying:
- Students who express a difference of opinion.
- Students who make an academic complaint.
- Students who are vocal critics of our courses, including lectures, points of view, presentation styles, assignments, exams, syllabus, grading, etc...
- Students who appear bored and disengaged in class.
- "Entitled" students who make unreasonable requests for special consideration, such as missing a few weeks of class to go on a family vacation.
- Students who sleep in class.
- Students who eat &/or drink in class.
- Noisy students who frequently interrupt others, including instructors, and/or have side conversations with other students.
- Students exhibiting attention seeking or monopolizing behaviors, such as asking for clarification on almost every point made in class.
- Students who "overshare" personal information in class.
- Students who text or use other unapproved technology during class.
- Students who exhibit a poor understanding of social cues, such as standing too close to you, leaning over your desk, or following you or other students around campus.
How have you managed irritating or annoying student behaviors? Are there particular disruptions that you find more irksome than others? Although some behaviors would be considered disruptive by just about any educator, we all are individuals with different "thresholds" or tolerance levels. Some of our colleagues laugh at their own pet peeves, such as being especially annoyed when students repeatedly ask for special favors such as taking an exam at a time more convenient to them - and then do not show up.. Perhaps you've encountered a golden oldie example of a student who dramatically exits class in the middle of a lecture, announcing to everyone that it's time to use the restroom...then returns noisily a half an hour later. In any case, it's helpful to identify your threshold and pet peeves so that you can gauge your own response and then strategize ways to minimize such behaviors by crafting language in your syllabus that address these kinds of situations.
When you do encounter irritating behaviors that are disruptive, it's important to speak with the involved student as soon as possible. Opening these kinds of conversations can be done simply. Let's take the example of a student who seems to be sleeping in class. Some ways to approach this could include greeting the student: "Hi, Adam. Can we speak for a moment? How are you? You're usually an active participant in class, but I noticed today that you appeared to be sleeping. I wanted to check in with you and ask if you're ok. Is there anything I can do for you?" Listen to the student's response. This will dictate the best next steps for you to take. If the student discloses that he is recovering from the flu and isn't feeling well, expressing your concern for his recovery and perhaps making a gentle referral to the College's medical services are in line. That is all I would personally do in an initial occurrence. If the student appeared to be sleeping in the next class, I would take a different tact and go about setting limits. I often try to gently use humor, and encourage you to use whatever works best for you. "Adam, I hope you are feeling better, but at this point I need to talk with you about your continuing to appear to sleep in class. Attendance in this classroom means being present with both mind and body, focused on the work at hand. This will help you get the best grade for the course, because participation matters in this class. Does this make sense? If you keep sleeping through class, it will have an impact on your grade for the course." Let's take a final example and say the "sleeper" instead should reply "I wasn't sleeping and you need to back off", then it would be fine to respond more firmly "I didn't mean any offense. I value you and that's why I wanted to reach out. I hope you'll come back next week and participate in class because you've made some good contributions in past discussions. I want you to succeed, but I don't give attendance or participation points to students who don't appear to be awake in class, and this could impact your final grade for the course. Let's touch base if this happens again so that we're clear about consequences and stay on the same page. Does that make sense to you"?
Whether you are conversing with a student of concern or a student whose behaviors are annoying, if a student does not want to pursue your recommendations for a referral to campus resources or offices, don't force the issue. Reiterate your concern for the student's success and well-being, and respect the student's choice. Unless there is a safety or a conduct issue at play, it is the student's prerogative to decide whether or not to pursue a referral. Know too that even if a student says no, sometimes students need time to ponder and reflect upon these kinds of things. It is possible that in time the student may opt to pursue a referral. On your end, you've done your part by expressing your care for the student. As an instructor, you cannot mandate that the student visit any particular office, including Psychological Services, Access and Disability Services, or any of the Counseling offices. However, you can be more prescriptive if you do encounter a situation that is highly disruptive or an emergency. In these circumstances, more forceful next steps are called for, such as connecting with the Police and/or Conduct Officer. Sometimes faculty will express concern about "not wanting to get students in trouble" by contacting the Conduct Officer. It's key to bear in mind that the Conduct Officer supports student success through promoting campus standards and fair processes for resolution when conduct or academic honesty concerns arise. Contacting the Conduct Officer is a good way to gain support and consult about a concern. The Conduct Officer will also work with other offices on campus to insure students are connected with resources and supports. Remember too that you are welcome to consult with others (including your Dean, Chair or Coordinator, and offices on campus listed on the Resources page), throughout this process.