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Defusing class disruptions

Watching porn on a laptop during class, taking a cellphone call in the middle of a lecture, repeatedly interrupting with comments and jokes – there are many ways for students to disrupt a class.


Zopito Marini, a professor at Brock University who holds the Chancellor’s Chair for Teaching Excellence, has studied what he calls civil behaviour – or lack of it – in classroom settings. He says disruptive or uncivil behaviour is anything that diminishes the teaching and learning opportunities for everybody.

Dr. Marini says incivility can be either inadvertent or intentional. He also likes to place it on a continuum, ranging from small things (disrupting a lecture by talking loudly, for example) to more serious behaviour like using insults, threats or other forms of intimidation in class. In others words, incivility can be merely annoying, or it can be disruptive (in which case someone has to stop what they’re doing to deal with it), or it can be patently dangerous. And it can have a range of results, from short-term disengagement in a course to long-term unfulfilled educational goals.

While unruliness has always been around, technological advances like Wi-Fi and smartphones, combined with a cultural shift in what’s considered socially acceptable, have challenged universities to keep pace with the change.

Janni Aragon, a political science instructor and undergraduate adviser at the University of Victoria, hears from students about the disruptive behaviours they encounter in class. She says people who disrupt the class are often simply unaware of the fact. She recalls one class where two young women kept chatting away, interrupting her attempts to teach. “I stopped the presentation and said, ‘This isn’t Victoria High. Leave the classroom!’ They turned bright red and apologized.”

The type and size of class may also be factors in student unruliness, says Deborah Eerkes, director of the office of student judicial affairs at the University of Alberta. For example, a class in which students are working collaboratively in groups is probably less prone to disruption than one where a teacher is delivering a traditional lecture.

It also depends on the professor, says Christian Detellier, interim vice-president, academic, and provost at the University of Ottawa. “Discipline is very personal,” he says. “It’s about the way a professor manages the dynamics in the class.” He says a teacher with a charismatic personality may encounter fewer problems than others.

UVic’s Dr. Aragon says conversations with colleagues both male and female have led her to conclude that disruption is more likely to occur when the instructor is female. For example, she has had female instructors tell her of angry students getting within the instructor’s “body space.” No man she’s talked to has ever reported anything similar, she says.

Changing student demographics may also be having an effect: students are more heterogeneous, with a wider range of backgrounds, expectations and responsibilities. A typical situation today is a university student-parent who uses their cellphone to keep tabs on their children, says Myer Siemiatycki, a professor in the department of politics and public administration at Ryerson University. Many students also have part-time jobs and may need to check their email for work reasons. “It’s important for faculty not to presume that every involvement with technology is frivolous,” he says.

Dr.  Aragon gives another example of mistaken assumptions: annoyed by a student typing on his smartphone during class, she challenged him, only to be told that the student wasn’t texting, he was taking notes.

Dominic Beaulieu-Prévost is a professor of sexology at Université du Québec à Montréal. He’s a recent addition to the faculty and over the last decade, as he finished his education, he taught at three other universities as well: Université de Montréal, Concordia University and Université de Sherbrooke. Over that time, he witnessed the transition to the new electronic world. It was, he says, a change in culture.

“My impression is that students don’t tend to be any more disruptive than before, except for one thing,” says Dr. Beaulieu-Prévost, “and that is the notion that those new technologies are part of themselves. Some students literally don’t notice it when they are answering a text message.”

Because of the new technologies, classrooms are no longer the “closed” areas they used to be, cautions Dr. Beaulieu-Prévost: they are open and plugged into the world. As a result, he tries to behave as if he is always “in public” and that anything he says or does could be recorded or filmed.

Some observers worry that one day a student will purposely goad a professor into an outburst while an accomplice films it and posts it online. That, of course, raises all sorts of privacy issues. Brock’s Dr. Marini has not heard of that happening, yet: “That’s a sleeper issue, but it’s a big, big issue.”

Changing notions of respect and authority may also be at play with classroom disruption. “Gone are the days when a professor walked into a class and was respected,” says Dr. Marini. “The range of what people believe is civil has really become wider. My sense nowadays is that respect is something that you have to earn each day. It doesn’t mean we now have total anarchy in the classroom. It just means that we the professors have to work harder to make sure we are in a civil place.” He says that instructors probably should assume that their classroom environment will not be civil and prepare themselves accordingly.

Universities and professors are establishing ground rules and penalties for disruptive behaviour. Ms. Eerkes says the need for a definition of what constitutes a disruption led the University of Alberta to create its Code of Student Behaviour, which binds all students. The definition of disruption contained in the code is broad: “No student,” it reads, “shall disrupt a class in such a way that interferes with the normal process of the session or the learning of other students.”

The code gives the instructor the right to immediately exclude a disruptive student from that class and subsequent classes for up to a total of three hours of instruction. The instructor must immediately inform the dean. If the student is disruptive again, the instructor may again exclude the student from class, but must also then charge the student under the code.

Other universities have similar codes. The University of Saskatchewan’s Standard of Student Conduct for Non-Academic Matters states that the standard is breached when a student disrupts or threatens to disrupt any university activity. The standard lists examples ranging from “making or causing excessive noise” to making bomb threats or “causing a substantial disorder.”

The University of Ottawa’s Centre for University Teaching, meanwhile, has created a guide to teaching in a Wi-Fi environment. One of the goals of the guide is to encourage civility surrounding the use of electronic devices. “The availability of wireless Internet transforms how a classroom is managed,” says the guide; it “alters the relationship between students and teachers and raises questions about new teaching methods that better account for the diversity of today’s teaching contexts.”

The U of Ottawa guide advises instructors to lead a discussion on which wireless uses may annoy members of the class, “and work together to come up with guidelines to address these issues.” It suggests considering things like no-tech periods and consequences for inappropriate technology use.

In addition to advising a university-wide code of conduct, many experts suggest that each class should create its own guidelines governing civility and disruptive behaviour. “It’s not how you deal with unruly students; it’s how you design the curriculum and pedagogy to prevent distractions so that the students feel so engaged they police themselves,” says David Leach, an associate professor and director of professional writing in the department of writing at UVic.

Mr. Leach says that nine times out of 10, unruliness is the fault of the professor who, for example, expects a classroom of 400 students to sit quietly through a 90-minute lecture. In his first class of each session, Mr. Leach starts a discussion about classroom etiquette and the level of respect everyone anticipates. Following the discussion, he and the students draw up a “classroom covenant” governing expected behaviour. Students are generally cooperative. “They almost have a consumer mentality about education,” says Mr. Leach, “and if someone is disrupting that experience, they react to that.”

But the professor has to take the lead, says Dr. Marini of Brock. “A lot of time, people don’t do the groundwork and just hope things work out.” He encourages colleagues to spend time establishing ground rules with the students. “I think you have to invest time in your class to talk about civility. A page and a half in my syllabus is devoted to civility. I outline in simple terms what I expect for myself and what I expect for my students.”

He also initiates exchanges that lead to a consensus on classroom behaviour – and the results are posted. For example, latecomers agree to take spots specifically reserved for them where they’re least likely to disrupt the class when they arrive late. “This work is excellent prevention and it starts to even out the playing field because, to be honest, some people have probably never talked about civility.”

When an incident occurs, he reminds the students of their agreement. He says having the agreement gives him a way of dealing with a situation without seeming to be harsh or reactive. “I do have colleagues who say that this civility stuff is just fluff. I say to them that having a discussion about it is probably the best investment you can make in your class.”

Daniel Drolet is an Ottawa-based writer.

Daniel Drolet
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  1. John Nychka / September 11, 2012 at 12:42

    I teach large introductory engineering classes (>120 students) and I made the decision a while ago to create an active learning exercise for students to create, and enforce, their own classroom rules. By putting the responsibility on students I see active participation in the maintenance of their learning environment, and I don’t have run a police state.

    The active learning exercise asks students to meet new people and determine their pet peeve in the classroom. Once the students report back with all their pet peeves of issues that impede their learning we talk about how to finalize the rules. In collecting the feedback I slot the comments into 5 categories, using the anagram “RULES”:

    R – respect others

    U – understand the needs of others

    L – the classroom is for learning

    E – expectations are that everyone is responsible for their education

    S – smiles – learning should be fun

    I have had little issues once the students take ownership, and in some cases, when needed, a gentle reminder to the entire class insures a functioning learning society.

  2. Anil K Bhatt / September 12, 2012 at 21:32

    Most of the discussion, research, strategy-invention etc. about disruptive behaviour of students – younger as well as older – erupts from the breakdown of basic commitments to study on the part of students, guardians, teachers, and administrators.

    A teacher must be assured of an environment around the classroom so as to discharge her/his function in the classroom joyfully. It brings shame to the system if the teacher is called upon to police the students, or to be policed over by others – students, guardians and administrators.

    I have had the shocking experience of the non-students (those who have little to with studies)in the classroom, colleagues and the administrators out of it having become hand-in-glove in classroom disruptions for reasons they would have been hard put to defend: we can join the class any time; we can sit in the class any which way – even with our backs to the teacher; we can miss any or all classes; we must have the privilege of taking the classroom tests at times and in situations of our choice; we must be given marks higher than the quality of the performance warrants.

    In the imperfect world of ours angels are not quite as common as we would wish them to be. Hence the need for discussions, research and strategy-invention!

  3. Melvin / September 14, 2012 at 21:14

    > This isn’t Victoria High …

    #1 – nobody in Victoria calls it “Victoria High”.

    It’s spoken as “Vic High” ( or Similarly, nobody says “I go to the U of Victoria” — it’s “I go to UVic” (, not

    #2 — the comment is quite a rude & snobby put-down of high-school teachers in general, not just those at Vic High, instead of defending and supporting fellow teaching professionals.

    Welcome to the E-age — everything you say in an interview no longer disintegrates; it stays online, as text or as a podcast or a tweet or …

  4. Sarah Ross / September 16, 2012 at 13:08

    I am a petite female. You would think that I might have authority issues with students given my size and sex. On the contrary, I have never had problems with student discipline during lectures. I start the lecture with an intriguing issue or problem that the student can understand and appreciate. Once you grab the attention and follow up with a moderately intelligent and interesting presentation of the course material student respect is not an issue.

    The real issue here is that getting respect is about giving it. That is the basic problem with Canadian academia and it pervades almost every aspect of academic life, not only student discipline.

  5. Kevin / September 19, 2012 at 07:32

    John – I teach large classes too and have done something similar to what you do, but not nearly as good! Hope you don’t mind if I use this idea in my classes.

    Great comments.