Ed's Guide to Classroom Control
For College and Professional School Teachers

"Do you think you can maintain discipline?" asked the Superintendent. "Of course I can," replied Stuart. "I'll make the work interesting and the discipline will take care of itself."

        -- E. B. White, Stuart Little

As far as I can tell, this is the first website dedicated to classroom control past the high school level.

The author is not a clever, wise, or thoughtful person. He has learned classroom control techniques for the medical school level through trial and error. These ideas and techniques are shared with the intention of sparing you, the college or professional school instructor, some of his past grief.

You gain and maintain your control through

  • your reputation for effort, flexibility, and availability;
  • your reputation for firmness and fairness;
  • your knowledge of the content;
  • keeping the students focused and wanting to learn;
  • responding forcefully and fairly to challenges to your authority.

Practice these techniques, and the students will handle most of your classroom control problems for you.

Your reputation for effort, flexibility, and availability

    This precedes you. Try to learn their names, and say them. Be in the classroom 15 minutes before class starts. Start on time. Show up after hours to encourage them, but avoid one-on-one or small-group rehashes. These create fairness issues, the bane of higher-level education.

    If you depend on audiovisuals, part of your effort is the need for a back-up plan when they break.

    Whenever a decision must be made, during class or outside, invite the students to take part. You can tell how you're doing by watching the class. Smiles and eager responses means you're doing well. If there's a room full of frowns, or people looking at watches and the clock, say, "How are we doing? Too fast? Too slow? Seen this before? Got a better idea of what we could be doing?" Listen to what they tell you. They are usually right.

Your reputation for firmness and fairness

    This also precedes you.

    Explain why you've asked the class to do various things. For example, if having people walk in front of the projector beam bugs you, say, "It bugs me because the way my brain is wired, and it's a problem for the rest of the students."

    If there is something about the classroom that's unacceptable, don't tolerate it. One day when I was told there was no projector available, I shared several short Anglo-Saxon words that everybody knows and declared there would be a projector. And soon there was. I've stopped class until a jack-hammer operation just outside could be halted. I've used class officers to deal with particularly troublesome individual students who could not be managed otherwise.

    I try to keep as relaxed a classroom atmosphere as possible. It helps ensure compliance with my reasonable requests, and I think it's important they can communicate freely with me and with each other without being disruptive. I tell them on the first day, "Whispering's fine, but don't phonate." If someone is phonating 5 seconds after class starts, I say "(name), may we start?" If the problem recurs, I shove the microphone in the offender's face and say, "Tell all of us." I have used this with good effect.

    Fairness includes recognizing good behavior and their effort. Say their names. Praise them for good behavior. Avoid sarcasm or shouting, which can indicate that you have lost control.

Your knowledge of the content

    Students will judge this (rightly) by your ability to answer their questions.

    How you handle questions is what distinguishes you from a talking-heads videotape. Welcome all questions as they arise. Say "Thanks for asking" or something. If one student asks, many students are wondering. Never say "Hold all your questions until the end." That guarantees they will get lost or lose interest, and it keeps you from pacing your lecture.

    Requests for clarification that seem appropriate to the level of the students should be answered right away; I often invite the other students to give it a try first. If the question seems too basic for the current level, ask the class "Who'd like to answer that for (name)?" If no one answers it, smile and enjoy the silence. Somebody will answer.

    Off-topic questions can be handled with a brief answer, a brief digression. If it's already been covered, mention this and "remind" the questioner to review. If it will be covered soon, ask "Shall we spend a few minutes on this now, or shall we wait until such-a-day?" Do what they ask. If you don't know the answer, suggest the student find out and report back, and/or mention a colleague who can help.

    If you are weak in a particular area and have to lecture on it, one ploy is to have a colleague in the room. The colleague answers the questions first, before giving you a chance.

    I generally start a lecture with an attention-grabber. I finish with something about how they will use this material in the future, and/or what direction research and technology will go.

Keeping the students focused and wanting to learn

    The most important thing that a teacher must have is being able to explain the content CLEARLY.

    Whenever you are talking to adult learners, the most important words you can use are why, because, and you.

    You keep your class focused by involving them. If your lecture on DNA synthesis and repair is merely a rehash of the textbook, you should not be lecturing.

    Ask questions, ranging up and down Bloom's hierarchy, ranging from "What is a ___?" to "What cell is that on the screen?" to "What's your best diagnosis?" to "How would you evaluate a media claim about shark cartilage?" Then there's the broad-cast to encourage anyone to contribute: "Who's had experience with..." Some instructors can walk among the students, offering the microphone when students offer to answer questions. When you ask questions of the group, do not call on students who do not return your gaze. The rest of the class will not realize this, and consider themselves at risk.

    Anything you can do which brings two or more students to the front of the room will keep the rest of the class focused. I enjoy designing game-shows and so forth.

    When one highly-capable student attempts to dominate the classroom, invite that student to be your assistant for the day and answer all the other students' questions first, before you do so. I have used this with great effectiveness.

    The known source of the exam questions (and you MUST specify it), and your choice of handout style, governs the attention given to your lectures. If only the textbook is testable, you need to follow its sequence and present the material in a more lively and entertaining way. If lecture content is testable, then you must choose between an encyclopedic handout and a word-list. The encyclopedic handout keeps them focused, enables you to go faster, and the good ones make notes on it. The word-list is the alternative (i.e., you can't lecture nowadays without handouts, at least in med school), and is the best choice if the testable content is from the textbook.

Responding forcefully and fairly to challenges to your authority

    Remember that adult learners are much smarter than they appear. You handle challenges by making the challenger appear silly in front of his or her peers.

    Anticipate the question, "Why do we have to know this?" with an answer that is truthful. It may range from "The college requires this course, simply for your enrichment", to "Someday your kid's going to ask you how a radio works", to "They call you 'doctor' because you can think about disease rather than just hanging bottles in the ICU. That's why I don't use a traditional lecture style but am always trying to make you think."

    Anticipate the other complaint, "This is too hard and we're going too fast" by making sure it actually is not too hard or too fast. Then when they tell you it is, ask, "Did you preview the material before the lecture?" No we didn't have time. "Well, how about over the summer before?" They realize they should have.

    If the students point out to you that your lecture is redundant (i.e., they have been tested on it in a previous exam period; they will not complain if they have not yet been tested on it), and there's general agreement, have a second lesson plan in reserve. Everybody will perceive you as reasonable.

    If a student is persistently noisy, break off lecture unexpectedly and chew him out for one minute. Tell him that whatever his purposes in being here, most of his classmates want to learn, and he is interfering with this.

    Sooner or later, you will need to deal with a heckler. At the adult level, these are usually people who are badly misinformed, and who have chosen to believe lies that make them feel morally and intellectually superior. Subjects which invite hecklers at the medical school level are abortion, nursing, homosexuality, abortion, alternative medicine, poverty, evolution, religion, gender, and race. I anticipate each of these and deal with them beforehand. (For example, I begin by saying "lack of iodine in your diet doesn't mean you're stupid or ignorant, it means you are poor and your government has done nothing to care for your health.")

    The heckler's strategy will be to portray you as (1) a Radical Right crackpot; (2) a Radical Left crackpot; (3) a close-minded scientific dogmatist ignorant of new data; and/or (4) a malicious oppressor of the human race. No matter what you say, it is possible to twist what you've said to portray you as at least one of these. Of course I have been portrayed as each of the four, probably unfairly.

    Your battle with the heckler is for the support of the audience. Here is what has worked for me:

    • as much as you can, try to act sympathetic rather than angry.
    • ask the heckler "Why do you believe that?"
    • ask the other students, "Did I say that?"
    • say to the heckler, "I appreciate and share your concern about.... However, what I was actually trying to say was... and I am sorry you were not able to understand that."
    • cite the epistemic strength of science, without using the word "science" (which suggests irrational authority in the minds of the ignorant). Especially question the predictive value of their statements: "If what you say is true and the medical establishment is suppressing the cure for cancer, then how did it happen that ______, who was beneficiary of the greatest information-gathering system in history, died of cancer?"
    • offer to read the crank writings that the heckler will cite; do so and share the silliest stuff with the rest of the class as an exercise to figure out what's wrong (any 1997-era medical student knows how to trash a quack remedy or racist claim)
    • make the issue raised an interest-group subject, "Will somebody find out about Laetrile?
    • when the heckler falls back on radical skepticism ("You actually believe in DNA?") or the rest of the class is obviously hostile to the heckler, it's time to ask the rest of the class "Shall we move on?" They will be grateful.

    I've been a highly effective heckler several times myself. I've restricted it to situations in which (1) I know the speaker's facts are wrong and/or the speaker is overlooking the obvious, and (2) I can count on the audience recognizing this, rather than identifying with the speaker.

    "Are you seriously telling us that a hunter-gatherer economy such as you have described as ideal could support 93 million people in the continental United States before Columbus? Estimates for the entire world population in 1400 are 350-375 million. Where in the world has there ever been such a density of hunter-gatherers?"

    "Have you actually examined the I__ for C__ R__'s documentation for the moon dust claim that you just repeated? [No] I have them in my office. [I did. A good heckler is prepared.] And if you care to look you will see that it is referenced only to two papers from the pre-Sputnik era. This is a college audience, and I believe most of them will not believe you without examining this."

    "As a speaker, you naturally want to present your new-found beliefs in the most favorable light? [Yes.] So in renouncing Christianity, you traded the Prodigal Son, and the Good Samaritan, and Christmas for this Joseph Campbell story about sex between a woman and a buffalo?"

    If you deserve the attention of the students, and show you are trying to control the classroom, the problems will usually be solved by the students themselves.

Further reading:

Wisconsin legislature's bill to allow removal of dangerous or unruly students from public school classroom. Long past due. Placed in mid-1990's; link is now down.
Ed's Hints for Good Lectures
Ed's Guide to Small Group Teaching
Socratic Teaching
The Effective Pathology Tutor
Preventing "F"'s


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