This week The Novice Professor is covering advice for people who are preparing to teach for the first time. In a two-part post, the contributors of The Novice Professor will be giving our takes on five questions submitted by Rachel Williams, a first-year PhD student at The University of Texas at El Paso.
Read on for Part 2 where we discuss how we keep students engaged in our classes and deal with disruptions in the classroom.
How do you deal with disruptive/problematic students? (i.e., students who regularly talk over other students, those who ask questions irrelevant to the task/lecture at hand, etc.)
Brian: The first way I approach a problematic student is asking them to make time for a quick chat after class. Then, rather informally, I let the student know that their behavior has been a bit disruptive to the class. I try my best to give specific and concrete examples as to what the disruption was. Often, just this simple acknowledgement of the behavior allows for correction and improvement. However, if the behavior persists and the problematic student does not change I will ask them to come see me in my office. At this point, I remind the student that participation is a large part of my grading scale and that part of participation is respect of their fellow classmates and the class at large. If the problematic behavior continues to persist after these two meetings I make sure that I know what options I have at my disposal in my department in order to confront the problematic student. This might involve speaking with my chair about the situation or the dean of students to see if they have any advice on how to handle the situation. However, I have only reached this stage once in my teaching career. I have found that approaching the student with respect, honesty, and a gentle tone allows for a quick resolution of the situation.
Ciara: I have been lucky so far in my career to not have any real issues with students in the classroom. I have occasionally had students who like to monopolize discussion or who just are willing to answer questions regularly. To encourage others to speak up, I will ask for “someone new to talk” or look at a particular location and ask for someone from “the back row” or “this half of the class” to chime in.
Jen: I’ve been fortunate enough that I haven’t had to deal with too many problematic students thus far. For those who like to monopolize question time with less relevant topics, I usually tell the student that their question isn’t super relevant to the lecture, but they are welcome to discuss it with me after class if they would come to my office. I repeat similar phrases as many times as necessary to communicate that I want to stay on topic as much as possible. It’s also possible that these tangential questions take time away from students who have more on-topic questions. In these cases, I will make a point to call on other students first. Or if the problematic student doesn’t wait for me to call on them before talking, I may make a comment like, “Other students haven’t gotten to ask much yet today. Let’s let them share first.” Or something along those lines.
Karly: This largely depends on the issue or problem. In some instances, the student can be entirely unaware of the issue. For example, as I work with many first generation students, a student may be overly casual with the instructor or the TA, simply because they aren’t familiar with a college setting. In these instances, I politely explain the issue to the student, and remind them that in a college setting, it is important to remain professional and respectful when interacting with instructors, TA’s, and fellow students.
If dealing with a student who dominates class discussion, one way to deter this behavior is by using in-class polling/quizzing. Rather than asking the class the answer to a question mid-lecture and having someone raise their hand (which can lead to the same students responding over and over), using in-class polling allows all students to respond at the same time, and gives you (the instructor) a gauge for how all the students (not just the talkative ones) are progressing with the material.
What are some methods to keep students engaged? Usually the students in the front of classrooms are more motivated/actually pay attention, but students towards the back often will trail off and be on laptops or phones scrolling through websites instead. What can be done to engage those students who otherwise don't keep their attention on you?
Brian: I consider myself lucky to be teaching at a smaller school composed of students who are highly motivated to make the most of their college careers. Over the past year and a half, if I have a class of 20 students, then about 18 of them have no problem at all staying engaged in class. For those couple students who are struggling a bit more, I usually reach out via email to remind them that participation is a large portion of the final grade in my class. However, participation is not simply speaking in class, and I explain to them that they can demonstrate to me that they are involved and invested in my class in other ways such as meeting outside of class, relating what we learn about to current events, drawing connections with material in their other classes, and so on. Usually, those students who do not speak up in class take me up on the offer to show their engagement in another fashion, and I have found all it takes is a little effort on my part to reach out to them and let them know I value their opinion and insight on the topics we are covering.
Ciara: The easiest way for me to engage students is to make sure that we do some sort of small group or individual activity during class where the students apply what they are learning and I walk around and check-in with them. Sometimes this is a worksheet to practice identifying and explaining operant conditioning, other times its students creating a skit to demonstrate Piaget’s stages. This is something that I’ve developed over time and each varies in how I approach student’s engagement.
Another method I have used is to create what I term interactive lectures. I use this method in statistics and it involves breaking my lecture down into short chunks. Each short chunk includes information and/or an example of the concept. After which, students immediately apply the information to new examples or problems. They often work together on them and I go around and check their progress and assist the students who need extra help. The students follow along with the lecture and student examples on a worksheet. This is relatively successful with very few students who don’t follow along.
Jen: I try to make my lectures more interactive to combat this. I pose a lot of questions to the class. In previous courses, I made it known that I would call on whomever regardless of where they were sitting or if they volunteered. I will admit this is pretty old school. More recently, I started using in-class polling. This doesn’t get student talking, but you can tell if most of the class is participating. In my experience, they usually do. At least they are interacting with lecture material through the poll. I also like to give student time to work on handouts in class. This gives me the chance to walk around the room to make sure everyone is on task and engaged.
Karly: Similar to what Jen said, I have found in-class polling to be useful for keeping students engaged. This also “allows” students to be on their phone, but encourages them to do it in a “meaningful way”. The way I see it, students are going to be on their phone. And it is their choice if they want to pay attention or not. But, as an instructor, it is also my job to provide a lecture that is engaging enough to keep their attention for an hour and a half. If I notice students are drifting off, or losing their attention, I try to break up the class with small discussions. One of my go-to activities that takes 0 planning and can be implemented into almost any lecture is “how could you apply this to your own interest/career goals/research/personal life”. I have students brainstorm with the people sitting near them, then ask a few brave souls to share with the class. It breaks up the monotony of lecture, and allows the students to relate the material to their everyday life.
Stay tuned, tomorrow and Friday we will feature guest posts from two experts in teaching, sharing their advice for new instructors. .