Dealing with Disruptive Classroom Behavior

By Peter Connor

Disruptive classroom behavior has become a major concern on college campuses all across America. A double-edged sword, it impedes the instructional process for teachers and interferes with the learning process of students and it should not be ignored. A short, and certainly not complete, list of disruptions includes:

  • Arriving late and leaving early
  • Chit-chat during lecture or other meaningful classroom dialogue
  • Ringing cell phones and cell phone conversations during class
  • Interruptive questioning during classroom presentations
  • Classroom discussions hijacked and monopolized by one student
  • Disrespecting other student viewpoints
  • Ridiculing the instructor's presentation
  • Sleeping in class, reading newspapers, non-class related laptop use
  • Late assignments and frivolous deadline extension requests
  • Offensive individual hygiene issues, i.e., body odor

At issue, and legitimately the cause of some faculty apprehension, is the appropriate response to such behavior. An excellent classroom management resource, Teaching at It's Best (2nd Ed., 2003), by Dr. Linda Nilson, founding director of Clemson University's Office of Teaching Effectiveness and Innovation, is briefly summarized in Tomorrow's Professor, Msg #310.

Of primary importance is keeping your temper. You can't afford to lose it: if you do you you will lose your professional credibility and authority as well: "Count to ten, breathe deeply, visualize a peaceful scene," Nilson counsels. Staying calm and keeping your composure when handling awkward classroom situations will help keep the non-disruptive students on your side.

This does not mean that one must tolerate disruptions. It is certainly appropriate to pause, and even stare an offender down, long enough to get your point across. A non-verbal approach can be very effective with regard to cell phone, chit-chat, and other noise related violators.

In the event that such is ineffective, it may be necessary to make a general comment stressing the importance of paying attention to the material being presented: it may be on an upcoming exam, for instance. Should a firmer expression of displeasure be required, it is best to do so privately. Public humiliation, embarrassment, direct intervention, etc. will more than likely add fuel to the fire rather than put it out.

Extreme misconduct, such as profanity, pejorative language and verbal abuse should be reported to your department head; intoxication, intimidation, harassment and, especially, physical threats should be reported to the campus police. Such behavior, besides being criminal, is against all codes of student conduct. To diffuse a situation that appears to be getting out of hand, it is quite appropriate to dismiss a class.


Nilson, L. B. (2003). Teaching at it's best: A research-based resource for college instructors (2nd ed.). Bolton, MA: Anker Publishing. Retrieved August 9, 2007, from