College Classroom Management: The Good, Bad, and Ugly

One of the things that many new and some veteran college instructors struggle with is classroom management.  Classroom management, simply put, is how you maintain order in your classes.  The American Psychological Association defines Classroom Management as, “The process by which teachers (You) and schools create and maintain appropriate behavior of students in classroom settings.”  There are a few things that I learned during my 16 years of teaching in higher education that may help you to manage your classroom.  These classroom management techniques fall into three areas.

  1. Setting the Tone
  2. Preparing Your Classroom
  3. Being the Pressure Release Valve

Classroom management starts from day one, and it continues throughout the semester.  If you have been teaching for a while, you may have an advantage.  Students talk, and your reputation (good or bad) will always precede you.  Students that you have taught in the past will share their impression of you with other students when they mention your name. Let's face it, students like a disorganized class as much as we do! Students expect their instructors to have their "stuff" together.  Do you start class on time or do you show up "just in time?" Students watch you and make value judgments based on your actions.



Set the Tone

Instructors must “set the tone” on the first day of class.  Sometimes after we have been teaching for a while, the first day of class may become just a routine.  We introduce ourselves and hit the highlights of the syllabus.  The saying that “You only get one chance to make a first impression” applies to the college classroom as well.  Students form an opinion of their instructors from the first class meeting and how the instructor conducts that class.  Sometimes a student makes the decision to keep or drop because of that first impression.  Here are several strategies that you can use on the first day to set the tone.

     1. The Syllabus

The course syllabus is the first place that students look for how the course will be conducted.  A well thought out, clear and concise class outline goes a long way.  Spend some time explaining the rules of your classroom so that every student knows your expectations. It is also a good idea to provide examples when possible.  This process gives the students multiple opportunities to ask questions. You can refer to the syllabus and the first day of class when small issues arise during the semester.  Classroom management, just like any other type of management technique, should be ongoing.

    2. Be Clear in Your Expectations

Make sure that all of your course rules are understandable.  The time that you take on the first day establishing the tone of the course will benefit you and the students for the rest of the semester. Your rules should be clear and to the point. Some instructors create a page that the students sign and turn in stating that they have read and understand the class policies. I have never done it, but hey, do what works for you or what your college requires.

    3. Explain your Role

Sometimes we forget to let the students know what our role is.  They know that we are their instructor, however, do they know what your role is if there is a classroom disruption?  How will you handle it?  What if there is an emergency?  Do the students know where to seek help if you are not in the room when something happens?  You can answer these questions in your day 1 class overview.  Let them know that in the event of an emergency; this is what I will do.

If you do all of these things on the first day of class and remind the students of the rules during those “teachable moments,” it will carry your classroom management techniques a long way.  Many of the students that we encounter may not know what it means to be a college student, so it is up to us (faculty AND staff) to develop them into their role.

When it is possible to determine which student is the “fuel.”  That is the student that should be addressed directly.  It is just like when there is a fire at a gas station, we have to hit the ‘Fuel Shutoff” button before we can start putting out the fire.  If we fail to do that, fighting the fire is useless.  We can make most heated discussions better if we can just get the students to make their statements or viewpoints toward us.  We never want a lively discussion among students to go too far.  Sometimes when that happens, it can become personal and confrontational.  At that point, you should remove the person that is the aggressor from an audience. I am not telling you to grab the person and drag them out into the hallway. I am suggesting that you ask the person to speak with you outside the classroom or in your office. When the person no longer has an audience or is removed from the discussion, they usually calm down. Then, you can talk to them to get to the root of the matter.  Many times there is an underlying issue that must be addressed, and you can refer them to other campus or professional resources.

Throughout the semester, remind the students that you are available outside of class to discuss anything covered in class that remains unresolved in their minds.  When you do not address unresolved issues, they can fester over time and explode later in the semester.  Every so often tense discussions will continue outside of class, and we want to limit that if it becomes non-academic.

One of the techniques that I often employ is to make sure that I have the last word.  As the Pressure Release Valve, we can decompress the students before they leave the class. I usually inject a little humor, then give a summary the discussion.  But that’s just me, you have to do whatever works best for you.

Classroom management can make your teaching time a pleasure or pain.  It is up to you to establish what behavior(s) will or will not be accepted in your classroom. You can control most disruptions inside the class, but your college's policies determine how you handle issues when they arise. Classroom management is all about having a well-thought out plan, and sticking to the plan when issues arise. Even if you do not have a plan, act like you do. Like Dr. Phil says, "Fake it 'til you make it!" Students WILL follow your lead.

One last thought and this one requires that you use your “Spidey Sense.” Anytime that you get that “tingling feeling” from a student because of something they said or wrote, document it.  Write it down and keep an active file of those events. You will find that many times students will say little things numerous times before the bigger incident.  Because they are sporadic at best, we never put it all together until after something happens.

Do you have any classroom management techniques that you use in your courses?  I am always interested in new ways to create a better learning environment for my students.  Please share them in the comments below. Thanks in advance!


For addition resources see:

Dr. Christopher J. Hall

Interim President, #Highered Educator, blogger, Volunteer, Rotarian, Coach, #Photographer, Techie, Speaker, 2014 SC Gov's Prof. of the Yr.  #comm_college #BeBetter