The resources on this page are designed to offer suggestions for how to handle these unfortunate situations. The pieces of advice offered below can be helpful to instructors of all levels, but we encourage GTAs, TAs, and new teachers to read this page carefully so that they can be prepared to resolve disruptive behavior and confront academic misconduct. Incivility and misconduct disrupt learning.
How to stay safe if conversations become volatile
Instructors lead students through many controversial topics in their classes. Discussions often grow passionate, even heated, as students work through polarizing ideas and learn to express themselves rationally.
Very rarely do classroom discussions turn violent. Even so, it’s important to keep in mind warning signs of potential violence and to think through how you, as an instructor, would respond if a dangerous situation arose in a classroom or during office hours.
What follows is advice from law enforcement and other experts on violent behavior. It is not meant as a comprehensive guide to classroom safety. Rather, it provides basic advice on what to watch for and how to approach volatile conversations. We suggest visiting our page on inclusive teaching for additional advice on how to handle difficult conversations.
Lee Warren’s article, Managing Hot Moments in the Classroom, provides especially good advice on working with students in those situations and on preparing yourself as an instructor.
Warning signs of violent behavior
In its guide Workplace Violence, the Federal Bureau of Investigation reminds readers that violent behavior in the workplace is rare. To help prevent such behavior, it offers several tips for employers and employees. One of those tips seems especially meaningful in a university setting: “Fostering a climate of respect among workers and between employees and management.”
For instructors, that means creating a respectful classroom environment where students feel part of a learning community and feel that they can express their thoughts and ideas in meaningful conversations.
Even in a respectful environment, though, troublesome behavior can rise. The FBI suggests watching for precursors to violent behavior as a means for preventing violence in the workplace. These are some of the warning signs:
- Increasing belligerence
- Ominous, specific threats
- Hypersensitivity to criticism
- Preoccupation with violent themes
- Interest in recently publicized violent events
- Outbursts of anger
- Extreme disorganization
- Noticeable changes in behavior
- Homicidal or suicidal comments or threats
A threat to harm someone, either verbal or nonverbal, often precedes an act of violence, the FBI says. It notes, though, that most threats do not lead to violence. It states: “Dealing with threats and/or threatening behavior – detecting them, evaluating them, and finding a way to address them – may be the most important key to preventing violence” (p. 23).
If a conversation turns too heated
It’s up to you, as an instructor, to help students work through conversations about difficult topics so they can learn from them. If a conversation in class or in your office becomes so angry that it feels threatening or dangerous, you have several options:
Remain as calm as possible
his is difficult, but if you remain calm, others around you are more likely to remain calm.
Don’t touch the person or respond in a threatening way
Doing so, even in a sympathetic way, could heighten a person’s anger.
Stop the conversation
Politely suggest that you resume the conversation another time when everyone is calmer.
Step out of the room
This will allow you to gather your thoughts. If the situation seems dangerous, call 911 or signal to a colleague to call.
Ask the agitated person to leave
Be polite but firm. If that doesn’t work, consider canceling class or asking students to leave the room for a few minutes. If things seem too volatile, call 911 or ask someone else to call.
Blevins, R., and Cunningham, D. (2017). Classroom safety presentation, Center for Teaching Excellence, University of Kansas.
Rugala, E., and Isaacs, A. (2002).Workplace Violence. Critical Incident Response Group, FBI Academy. Accessed via www.fbi.gov/file-repository/stats-services-publications-workplace-viole…
Warren, L. (n.d.). Managing Hot Moments in the Classroom, Derek Bok Center, Harvard University. Accessed via https://bokcenter.harvard.edu/managing-hot-moments-classroom
Responding to Disruptive Behaviors
To keep your classroom environment positive, consider these suggestions from Mary Lord, reprinted in “Tomorrow’s Professor.”
Set expectations early, in writing and verbally. Research shows that students are more likely to rationalize misconduct if they feel the instruction is poor, lecture confusing, or workload unreasonable. Underscoring the relevance of the material and learning objectives can boost motivation and reduce the urge to cheat.
Faculty who get to know their students tend to have less conflict in the classroom or hostile discourse online. Calling on students by name makes an instructor seem more approachable and thus more likely to gain their respect. Large lecture class? Scheduling time to meet individually with students can foster rapport.
Classes that include peer-to-peer learning have fewer incidents of rude or unethical behavior, research indicates, because students tend to take more responsibility and hold each other accountable. Active learning and small-group work can reduce chatting and inattentiveness even in large classes.
The availability of solutions to textbook problems on the Internet makes it hard for educators to directly address cheating on homework. Consider research on the value of ungraded assignments, increasing the weight of projects, and either writing your own questions or swapping problems with instructors at other schools. Other studies have found that giving harsh warnings against cheating right before a test can reduce transgressions by 13 percent, with a 25 percent drop for writing multiple versions of a test. Meanwhile, plagiarism-detection software can cut down on copy-and-paste essays or computer code.
Many students view smartphones and tablets as essential tools. To minimize withdrawal pains, on the first day of class you might discuss and then vote on rules and consequences for disruptive technologies. The most successful has been a two-minute texting/phone/email break in the middle of class.
Tablets, smartphones, and other mobile technologies can be used to promote deeper engagement and understanding. For example, ask students to take notes on tablets, use smartphone accelerometer apps to track their commute to class and graph the data, and conduct hands-on mini-experiments using other free measurement apps. Students also can use their smart devices in independent projects—all without the college needing to invest heavily in infrastructure.
Faculty and students agree that ignoring incivility is the least effective approach for halting it. Think about talking to inattentive students in private or refocusing the class by using think/pair/share or other active-learning techniques. Severe disruptions, such as threats of violence, may leave faculty members no option but to stop the lecture and contact campus security.
In their teaching workshops, Richard M. Felder, a retired chemical engineering professor from North Carolina State University, and his wife, Rebecca Brent, ask participants to brainstorm responses to such everyday disruptions as students strolling in late, chatting loudly, or sleeping. Ironically, no one ever recommends asking the offenders politely but firmly to stop their rude behavior. "It's almost as if instructors don't know it's legal to do it," wrote Felder and Brent in a column. "It is legal. And it works." So does chiding. To look up from that Youtube video, students often need just one word: "Really?!"
References: “Driven to Distraction.” Tomorrow's Professor.
How to Handle Academic Misconduct
How do we prevent students from committing academic misconduct? First, we must have a clear idea of what constitutes academic misconduct.
According to the KU University Senate Rules and Regulations, academic misconduct includes the following actions:
disruption of classes;
threatening an instructor or fellow student in an academic setting;
giving or receiving of unauthorized aid on examinations or in the preparation of notebooks, themes, reports or other assignments;
knowingly misrepresenting the source of any academic work;
unauthorized changing of grades;
unauthorized use of University approvals or forging of signatures;
falsification of research results;
plagiarizing of another's work;
violation of regulations or ethical codes for the treatment of human and animal subjects;
acting dishonestly in research;
As you can see, there are many ways that students can commit academic misconduct. While instructors should be familiar with the above definition, we should also consider the actual practice of identifying, preventing, and handling academic misconduct. It is important to prepare for situations in which you have to respond to academic misconduct. At CTE, we have adapted the following strategies from the Faculty and Development website of the University of California (San Marcos). These strategies are designed to help instructors prevent in-class cheating, particularly on exams.