Creating Productive Learning Environments (AKA...Classroom Management)

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At every level of education, folks want to know about classroom management. Even in non-academic environments--say, for example, business meetings--it can be a struggle to keep people from text messaging, engaging in sidebar conversations, etc. In classrooms, in particular, the issue for instructors is often what to do once disruptive behaviors occur. What do I do about the students talking in my class? The students reading newspapers in my class? The student who is sleeping? A staple in this regard is Felder and Brent's All In A Day's Work. They've got a great approach to thinking about management issues once they arise. (And we all know that they do!)

But what about strategies for preventing management problems? Is there a way to be proactive? Yes! The trick is to stay focused on creating a productive learning environment. The staple here? Jacob Kounin's work. Okay. Okay. The research is old--1970. But it's seen corroboration in the decades since. Here's the premise: Be organized. Plan for smooth transitions between learning activities. Have yourself and your class materials organized. Be prepared for the unexpected. Don't allow yourself to get off on tangents that aren't central to what you're teaching. Ask questions in ways that everyone has to think about the answer even though only one or two may respond.

My personal favorite is 'withitness.' It's Kounin's term for having eyes in the back of your head. It's about being aware of everything that's going on in the classroom. Do you notice the person who's texting? (You might simply mosey a little closer to that person. They'll probably quit.) Do you notice the person who doesn't look well? The person with a drink teetering on the edge of the desk? What about the student who looks puzzled by your last comment? What about the two arguing--but about their understanding of a concept you're teaching? If you're aware of these things, you can make decisions about them. Attend to them. Or not. But at least you're in a place where you can be proactive. That's classroom management.

I read once that if job stress was measured by number and frequency of decisions made, then teaching would be second only to air traffic control. More recently I heard someone say that teaching IS decision-making. Personally, I would rather make decisions that create productive learning environments and prevent classroom management issues than make decisions about how to fix them once they've occurred.

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I wish I had a dollar for each time a faculty member specifically brought up texting during class. I would at least have enough money for a nice dinner a Zolas.

I'm not sure how I feel about it, but some faculty argue that if the behavior isn't infringing on other students' learning environment, ignore it. That kid in the back of the room texting? If no one else notices and it's not making any sound, don't worry about it.

Again, not sure I agree, but I do hear some faculty advocate this approach.

One specific strategy I've found is simply to ask a TA to walk around the room every 10 minutes or so. This simple task works wonders in terms of keeping students focused on you (and hopefully the content you're trying to convey).

Bart, the theory behind ignoring non-disruptive behaviors, is rather simple. As soon as you draw attention to it, it becomes DISRUPTIVE! And the whole class pays for it. Also, depending on what you actually do, you can put yourself in a ....um...unattractive position (e.g., knocking the books off a sleeping student's desk). It is way too easy to look like a defensive jerk (ask me how I know this to be true). So to deal with non-disruptive behaviors, especially if they are ongoing, do it privately. Catch the texting student and ask him/her to stop. As Sleepy if he/she has a "problem" that makes them nod off. It makes for a much more controlled classroom.

Call me a Pollyanna. Maybe even naive. But I still believe that if we make our classrooms engaging enough, demanding enough, and manage them in ways that no one escapes under the radar, then classroom crimes--even the petty ones, like texting--won't...no, CAN'T...be committed. And when, in spite of our best efforts, they still happen (and I know they will), we can use Felder and Brent's helpful approach.

Sometimes students are engaged in non-learning activities because they are not engaged in the class. Some faculty see this as a challenge to their authority, when it may actually reflect boredom!

The engagement/distraction issue always makes me think of the arguments for and against taking attendance in college-level classrooms. Some pro-attendance faculty use attendance as a proxy for participation because they cannot participate if they are not in class.

Anti-attendance arguments suggest that it infantilizes students, creates an adversarial relationship between faculty and students, or that showing up doesn't guarantee participation or learning.

I would argue that faculty who create engaging and effective (or useful or helpful) classroom environments will have good attendance because students won't want to miss out on the benefits of attending class.

One faculty member with whom I worked years ago kept attendance in her (admittedly not huge) courses early in the semester. After the first exam or series of homework grades, she presented students with a scatterplot of attendance x grades--a nice tight correlation--but asked her students to interpret the plot.

One reason she did this was to help students change their preconceptions about what happens in class. Many students expect boring lectures that duplicate the textbook.

Because this instructor used a lot of interactive teaching methods, she wanted to help students' recalibrate their expectations. By asking students to interpret the data, she not only had students challenge their own thinking (a key aspect of addressing incorrect preconceptions), but also documented the effectiveness of her use of active learning.

Asking students to interpret the scatterplot of attendance x grades - what a nice tip! I am putting this in my trick bag. To make it work, the lessons have to be planned well so reading notes just won't substitute coming to class.

Ah attendance...an issue that I struggle with whenever I teach. I used to use attendance when teaching large, 150 student gen ed sections. Like Angela mentioned, it was more of an attendance proxy at that point.

In upper-level courses, I tended to ignore attendance but use short, 5-question quizzes as an attendance proxy. 5 quizzes a semester, never announced typically kept students coming to class.

Now...I also hope they were coming to class because I had them engaged! At ETS, we often talked about how to measure engagement, but never came up with a solid academic approach. Has anyone uncovered good measures of engagement in academic literature?

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