Dealing with classroom disruption -

Dealing with classroom disruption

While bailing on students seems attractive, profs should find better solutions


Professors at Ryerson University are taking an interesting approach to dealing with a high volume of inappropriate disruptions in class. And it’s hard to blame them.

Paper airplanes whizzing past their heads, movies played at high volume during their lectures. It sounds like a free-for-all. One student even complained that it was hard to hear the lecture, even though he was sitting in the front row.

The two engineering professors, Robert Gossage and Andrew McWilliams, announced that if the behaviour continued, they would simply leave the class and it would then be up to the students to learn the material on their own. They also threatened to make midterm questions more difficult since “the class appeared to know the material well enough so as not to listen during lecture.”

But as satisfying as these strategies might be for teachers — and as much as thousands of teachers across the country have wished to be able to do the same — there’s a reason why we don’t hear about it very often: It’s irresponsible and ineffective.

Dealing with disruptive students in the classroom is difficult. Nobody is going to argue that point. But because it’s so difficult, resources exist at every institution, from kindergarten to grad school, to help handle the situation.

Most universities have established standards and procedures for escalating responses to disruptive students. Everything from staring them down in the middle of the class to banning their attendance until they show respect for their fellow students is explored in a number of academic articles.

Ryerson University president Sheldon Levy told the Eyeopener that walking out of the classroom as a means of dealing with disruptive students “doesn’t sound to me like it would be in our policy.”

He’s right. It’s not in anybody’s policy.

Ryerson’s two engineering professors became folk heroes among teachers in the same way that Steven Slater became a folk hero among flight attendants when he escaped via the emergency hatch after verbally berating a passenger. Everyone wishes they could do it, but almost nobody actually does.

Maybe it comes down to how Ryerson trains its teachers. Or maybe it comes down to frustration at a frustrating job. But Ryerson’s two professors should take a closer look at the literature on dealing with disruptive students. Escape hatches aren’t an option in this scenario.


Dealing with classroom disruption

  1. Wow the claims of the teachers have been exagerated soooo much, looks like the media really wants to turn this into a story. To be honest there were paper air planes thrown but from the back and not even remotly close to the teachers and also people use laptops but with no volume. And lastly cellphone reception is so crap that talkin on your cell is almost impossible

  2. this is a good article on how the media take things out of proportion. I attend that chemistry class and sit in one of the last rows. I find it very hard to believe students in the first row cannot hear the professor when i sit all the way in the back and i still hear him clearly, even though he doesn’t use a mic. As for the paper planes, i’ve seen it during one class but never seen any almost hit the professor, so i don’t know who came up with that lie. And no students ever play loud music on their laptops, i’ve seen laptops open but people have it muted, and i think if they don’t wanna learn thats their own business, if there laptop is muted it isn’t bothering others. Next time you take down comments or make articles make sure the facts are straight, don’t try and blow things out of proportion you guys aren’t CNN!

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  4. Wow, throwing paper airplanes in class is okay as long as they don’t get too close to the professor? Yikes.

    I have never had problems with disruptive students beyond a bit of distracting chatter, but I have always wondered what would happen if a student really decided to be a problem.

    My university has no policy on this, so far as I know, and the links you provide generally don’t go past asking the student to leave the room. What do you do when a student makes a big disruption, won’t stop, and won’t leave?

  5. I don’t know exactly what happened at Ryerson, but I can tell you I’m a prof who just a few days ago had to consult with my higher-ups over a continuing explosion of bad classroom behaviour. I’m on the verge of banning, albeit reluctantly, the classroom use of laptops and cell phones because of the overwhelming distraction factor. If, as a group, students could control themselves regarding the use of these devices, there’d be no problem. But they can’t. They distract themselves, they distract others, and (though students don’t seem to appreciate this fact at all) they significantly distract me, the presenter. It’s almost spooky trying to address a room of people who eyes are downcast and blank and who are zoned right out of their minds on addictive devices. The distracted users often have no sense whatsoever that they’re in a shared public space — they play loud games, huddle together in small groups to laugh at who knows what on the screen as though they’re alone, ask me to repeat information I just gave in a loud, clear voice because even though we were only metres apart at the time they were in dreamland etc. And all this on top of the intolerably disruptive wandering in and out of class like addled concussion victims.

  6. Old School: I cannot believe how accurately you describe my own experience lecturing in a large public university in Ontario. I described it to my wife once as if I was in a shopping mall. The students don’t seem to have any sense of well… anything, and certainly no respect for their teachers, their fellow students, or even themselves.

  7. Todd: At least at my school, the prof may direct disruptive students to leave the class session at issue. Pros do have the authority. But what if they were to refuse to leave? I’d call campus security and then file a charge of misconduct with the appropriate authority. I haven’t had to expel anyone yet, but I’ve come very close a few times in the past year (and not because it’s my style — some of them really are pushing me to such a point).

    Alex: Yes, we need discussion vehicles such as this one to keep ourselves sane. You start feeling a little better when you realize that others are experiencing the same problems.

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  9. It’s true that schools from kindergarten through grade 12 have a range of strategies to deal with disruptive students. The result of these graduated and moderate responses is a steady degradation of the classroom as a learning environment AND an increase in the psychologically smothering environment created by the head games teachers are forced to play. We do this in public schools because education is mandatory and expulsion is not an option.

    Universities must not go down that road. Professors should be completely free to ask a distracting student to leave for the day. A student who doesn’t comply should be at an immediate risk of expulsion from the university.

    And no, we should not spend time debating the finer points of where the paper airplane was aimed or how loud the video game is. Either activity is a clear sign that the student needs the day off.

  10. University Diaries: In my personal experience, the digital distractions weren’t this bad even a semester or two ago. While this has been a creeping phenomenon, this semester’s antics are sudden, unprecedented, and surreal. I’ve taught in Canada and the U.S., and can report that until rather recently Canadian students were generally, well, truth be told, a little better behaved. (Sore-ry, my American cousins.) Well, no more. Poof goes the myth of Canadian politeness. We’re all in the same leaking boat now.

  11. This just seems to be indicative of the general decline in respect and consideration for others. We have gotten to a point where people have lost sight of the proper etiquete on how to act in public and deal with others. Talking and texting on cell phones overrides consideration for the people you are meeting in person. People with laptops think that they can use them in any public venue without consideration for others bge they classmates, fellow passengers on a bus or plane, or other patrons of a restaurant. I can’t beleive that the students who actually attend a class to learn will tolerate anything that disrupts the professors lecture.

    Perhaps this is an indication that tuition fees are too low.

  12. Greg is perfectly correct ….our tuition fees are way too low …everyone and anyone seems to become accepted into our universities and colleges today . Why ? Well,for one thing the Ivory Towers of Higher Learning need the money …to get the money you need to fill the residences and lecture halls.. in order to pay the bills we need paying students .The less than desirable clientel are attracted to our Ivory Towers because jobs are scarce
    in the real working world,some just do not want to work and perhaps mummy and daddy do not want them at home playing video games all day .Thus the Towers become an inexpensive place to park the workaphobics and the homeless rich kids living off their parents bank accounts. The Towers of Learning are now serving the purpose just like the public and secondary schools are ..expensive heated and air conditioned palaces for people who have no interest in going to school to acquire the skills necessary to become functional members of society .

    These same lecture hall trouble- makers are probably bringing their traditional classroom disruptive antics from the secondary system where they were also a pain in the ass.Todays students want to be entertained in a lecture hall not “lectured to” by brilliant minded , monotone , boring, research grant receiptients who are not really cut out to be “entertaining teachers” like our high school teachers have become in order to survive in the classrooms of the nation .

    I have been in Harvard, MIT ,Oxford, etc lecture halls ..they are so quiet you can hear a pin drop soon as the lecture begins serious learning begins because these students have tens of thousands of dollars at stake just in tuition alone .It is hard time that we weeded out the serious stuff from the “give me entertainment or you will be sorry” college and universities attendees .As long as our governments keep handing out inexpensive loans and freely given grants to anyone who applies for them just to keep the Towers of Learning bills paid, then our lecture halls will continue to remain paper airplane launch pads ,coffee stops for the addicted social techies and theatres of display for the behavioral abnormals .
    There are thousands of foreign kids that want to come to Canada for
    their education .I was in China last month visiting some of their schools of the more common of questions that they asked me was ,”do you think that Canada will raise the percentage of allowed foreign students into their schools …my answer was, “I hope so,because we can use serious students like you to fill our seats and pay our bills” .
    I never saw Chinese student making a paper plane in their classroom !!

  13. Codes of Discipline in the classroom should take care of these disruptive and often infantile behaviour. These codes may be made a part of the contract they sign upon matriculating into a program.

    But first, university education should be guaranteed to those who qualify for them — mentally and emotionally. As long as university students are made to pay for their prohibitive tuition fees, they will always find bad lecturers a bad exchange for their money. Pay for the best professors; support the best students for university and make them sign contracts to serve their community after an expensive education; spend people’s taxes for the developmental infrastructure of society: good minds, creative leaders, and thinking men and women who will guarantee the productive future of their communities. Education is a sine qua non for a healthy democracy. Let’s pay for it. No, there is no such thing as a “democratic” education. It is a discipline; it is a means to learn the skills and thereby earn the privilege to lead society. That is not a preparation that comes by willy-nilly.

    We can’t have rambunctious morons disturbing serious students who attend university using hard-earned money saved from working on all types of menial jobs.

    I have had my own disruptive students when I taught literature at the university in my country of origin. It only encouraged me to be more dramatic in my lectures. In my classroom, I had to be the best student. I had to be the sterling exemplar of a lover of literature. I wrote poetry and fiction. I presented literary theory developed through years of study and actual creative writing. There is just no room for morons to deprive the other students for a “value” like this — hard to find. There was a time when students matriculated into a professor’s class because he delivered the “goods”. The university should have a way of figuring out who to keep as lecturers, nurture them, because like it or not, they are ones who will inspire the students to do what they are being subsidized to do: study, create, and prepare to take over in the development of a more civilized society the next time around.

    Weed the barbarians out of university. We should be able to find jobs for them in working on other infrastructure needs of the community. They, too, will serve who cannot recite Shakespeare’s sonnets.

    (In a previous comment, I spelled out a possible alternative to Dr. Todd Pettigrew’s — see November 17 article of Pettrigrew, comment #15 — prescription of letting the private sector provide liberal arts education before it perishes as a discipline in the university.)

  14. Perhaps if university classes were smaller and professors recognized that lectures are an ineffective method of engaging learners, these students would be more interested and less disruptive.

    I teach at a community college where the focus is on serving the student, providing an excellent learning atmosphere and being concerned with responding to different learning styles. I am not an “entertainer” although my classes can be entertaining at times.

    One of the ills that Canadian society suffers from is the expectation that as many people as possible should attend university. Why not college?

    Also, it’s a shame that young people have to be taught by professors whose interests are split between teaching and research. The “publish or perish” culture makes it difficult for a passionate teacher to be successful in university. As a college instructor I’m supported to enhance my understanding of my field of knowledge but ALSO to enhance my teaching skills, so that I have tools in my toolbox to deliver a learning experience without the paper airplanes.

    We complain about the younger generation’s sense of entitlement, but I think there’s a whopping sense of entitlement among the Gen X’s and Baby Boomers as well. We think we’re entitled to be listened to, even when we’re ignoring the needs of learners and droning on about a subject which we’ve made no attempt to relate to our class’ past experience or interests. And we’re surprised when students would rather watch a YouTube video?

  15. To the slackers who wrote the first few posts. Yes the entire class
    can hear you idiots!!! Have some respect for yourself and yo mama!

  16. They told my boy he’d have to go around and take down the names of those who he wanted to complain about (for a formal complaint). Also, he would have to name witnesses. And this is after repeatedly asking the prof to do something. No wonder there have been no formal complaints! Where are the Teaching Assistants if not helping teach.
    Don’t send your kids to Ryerson until this issue has been resolved!!!!

  17. Yes Ryerson has no effective reason for this behavior other than collecting tuition from the offenders. Hopefully the bad publicity will encourage a solution.

  18. Charles,

    First of all, I taught English in China and students can do worse than throw paper planes at times. I was only there for a year, admittedly inexperienced, but there was a marked difference in the classrooms with a teaching assistant and those without. Chinese students can be just as disruptive, bored, and detrimental to a lecture environment as any another student around the world. (And I can assure you, the students and the parents who paid the hefty fees to have those students in these classes, were profoundly interested in the development of their studies).

    Tuition fees are not the issue. I can also assure you that the hoops one has to jump through in order to procure adequate funding are frustrating and demoralizing, to the effect that if a student isn’t interested in the process, then they shall not receive. Not to mention the big payback at graduation, when those loans are due.

    Which, by the way, is also a frustrating and demoralizing process, as all the work and studies that went into that university degree, prove fruitless upon exit as the jobs on offer to post-grads are tragic, dull, underpaying, benefit-less, 9 to 5’s of the most soul-wrenching of drudgery.

    Harvard, MIT, and Oxford, clearly have reputations to uphold, and while they maintain the status of teaching the highest of academic elite, please consider that their silent, studious classrooms may also be a function of environment. If a student attends a serious class, they will be a serious student (or at least appear to be). If a student is in a disruptive class, no matter how dedicated or focused, will also be distracted. Not to the paper-plane throwing extent, but to the extent of eyes wandering, perhaps even an inbox-refresh. Scandal! I think the issue is more reputation and context.

    But you know, Harvard and that lot are elite in a different way. Maybe not so much academic but privileged and using such institutions as an example is really, well, unfair, and unnecessary.

    Charles, I really hope you don’t have a real say in how the education system functions. Because the institutions you think of are ones which would exclude some of the brightest, though least privileged minds, with a racist mindset to boot.

    Oversized classrooms are a problem. Technology is a problem. The younger and younger average age of first year students is a problem. (For those who are not in the know, most first year students are around 17 years old thanks to the abolishment of Grade 13). Universities unprepared to deal with such young, inexperienced students. A lack of discipline at the high school level. Worst of all, the fear that a teacher can’t single a student out and ask them to leave, so that the only alternative is for them to leave themselves.

    Those are some of the problems that need to be address – not tuition fees or the cultural background of a student.