WMST-L logo

Dealing with Disruptive Students II

The following discussion took place on WMST-L in September 1999.  See also
the earlier file Dealing with Disruptive Students.  For additional WMST-L
files now available on the Web, see the WMST-L File List.
Date: Thu, 09 Sep 1999 10:02:46 -0400
From: sjacobso <sjacobso @ BROCKPORT.EDU>
Subject: dealing with disruptive students
I am normally good at creating and maintaining a safe and collaborative
environment in which my students can learn.  However, this semester, I have a
student who has in 1 week's time managed to alienate the entire class.  Moving
past my personal feelings about this individual, there seems to be come
critical issues that contribute to the clear division.  This student does not
have the  skills to function in a collaborative environment nor does he
believe in collaboration.  Second,  this student refuses to allow anyone to
have a word in edgewise.  We have a hackysack that we use to control the
discussion.  the person with the hackysack is the one who can speak.  the
students have decided amongst themselves to not give this individual the
hackysack because he will never stop.  Third, he refuses to accept
responsibility for his own words.  In a small group discussion he  told the
group in front of me that women are no longer discriminated against and that
we need to stop whining.   In our large group discussion when it was mentioned
that in their group someone felt this way he vehemently denied ever having
said that.  Finally, he does not accept feedback.  He asked me for feedback on
something he had written.  I attempted to do so, but could not get a word in
edgewise.  When I finally was able to get him to be silent, he told me that my
feedback was wrong and that I needed to go back and reread his paper because I
am obviously not as intelligent as him. Has anyone had to deal with students
like this in the past and how or what have you done about it.  thanks.
Honesty is more than just not being dishonest.  It is an
active choice to be responsible for the choices we make
before we act upon them so that we can stand up for them
and not be tempted to be dishonest.
Sharon Jacobson, Ed. D.
SUNY Brockport
Women's Studies Program
Brockport, NY 14420
sjacobso  @  brockport.edu
(716) 395-5697  (office)
(716) 395-2620 (fax)
(716) 638-6174 (home)
Date: Thu, 09 Sep 1999 10:24:16 -0400
From: David Austin <David_Austin @ NCSU.EDU>
Subject: dealing with disruptive students
>From: sjacobso <sjacobso  @  BROCKPORT.EDU>

>Subject: dealing with disruptive students
>Date: Thu, Sep 9, 1999, 10:02 AM
> I am normally good at creating and maintaining a safe and collaborative
> environment in which my students can learn.  However, this semester, I have a
> student who has in 1 week's time managed to alienate the entire class.
<stuff deleted>
Given this description, you seem permitted, if not actually obligated, to
apply your institutions policies concerning disruptive student behavior,
which, as long as they are not tied to the content of the student's speech,
raise no First Amendment issues.  In this case, it's not what the student is
saying, it's how he's behaving that's at issue. Your efforts to be courteous
have been met with discourtesy, to put it very mildly. For SUNY Brockport
policies, see:
> 1. Minor infractions of conduct are ordinarily handled at the time by the
> faculty member. Any disciplinary problems not so handled should be reported
> immediately to the Office of the Vice President for Student Affairs.
> Instructors who discover cases of theft, vandalism, or other serious
> offenses by students should report them to Student Affairs. (See Chapter
> 520 of this volume.)
> 2. A faculty member may exclude from attendance any student who, in the
> instructor's judgment, has seriously impaired the class' ability to achieve
> the objectives of the course. On the other hand, the student may appeal a
> disciplinary action by a faculty member which the student considers
> arbitrary or unjust.
It would not be surprising if this student appealed the decision, but that
might be the least of the accessible evils.
If any administrator fails to back you on this action, I hope you'll let
WMST-L know.
Good luck.
David F. Austin
Associate Professor of Philosophy
Department of Philosophy and Religion
Box 8103
North Carolina State University
Raleigh, NC  27695-8103
(919) 515-6333 Winston Hall 006
David_Austin  @  ncsu.edu
Civil Rights Resolution Officer
NCSU Civil Rights Policies:
Date: Thu, 09 Sep 1999 09:28:37 -0500
From: JoAnn Castagna <joann-castagna @ UIOWA.EDU>
Subject: dealing with disruptive students
Hi.  I wonder if there are ways to focus less on this person as disruptive
and more on something else you said--he does not have collaborative skills,
and does seem to have difficulty with the course content, too.  It is not a
good thing to make instant diagnoses, but he actually sounds like someone
who may have a difficult learning disability, someone who may not be very
skilled/able at all right now in working orally or learning collaboratively.
Certainly, the group's decision to "punish" him for his difficulties in
collaboration is going to lead to more and more anger/hostility etc from
him.  Since I imagine that your state's rules are like ours, and students
cannot be expelled from a class unless they are a danger to themselves or
others, you do need to seek help for him and from him.
Perhaps you could diffuse some of the current hostility etc by some other
discussion tactics.  I have often used "written discussion" as a
counterpoint to oral discussions.  In this practice, students write for 5
minutes, then I pick up the papers, shuffle them, and pass them out for a
response.  This can go on one or two more times, then we might have an oral
"read out" of some comment a student finds especially compelling, or some
students can summarize the discussion that reaches them at the end.  Some
of the same ends are reached, but the method gives many less vocal students
more discussion time, and evens out a bit the dominance not just of the
long-winded but of the more verbally adroit.
Similarly, you might offer feedback on his written work in written form,
rather than attempt an oral discussion in which he can't "listen."
But, of course you also have to address his classroom skills/lack of same.
Can you get him to agree that the classroom situation is not pleasant for
him?  can you then get him to join you in some neutral space (we have a
center for teaching, for example, or a student advising center?) where his
anxieties/perceptions can be heard as well as yours (representing the
class)?  I wonder if for instance, he'd be willing to cooperate if instead
of a your "talking stick" method you suggested a different sort of
discussion, say one in which a large sand timer or chess-match timer gave
each speaker a certain amount of time (that's how the senate works,
speakers have time and when the "time of the gentle woman has expired"
that's it....)....
Maybe Jacqueline H. will respond--surely peace studies can help here!
JoAnn Castagna
joann-castagna  @  uiowa.edu
Date: Thu, 09 Sep 1999 10:30:53 -0400 (EDT)
From: ARegnier @ AOL.COM
Subject: dealing with disruptive students
     I do have a suggestion for a possible solution.  It is very time
consuming, but it has worked for me in the past.  It's clear (to me, at
least) that we have students who will not be enlightened, convinced, willing
to listen, etc., in the course of one semester, if ever, no matter how hard
we try.  So the the thing I decided was best for me to do was to control the
damage to the rest of the class and to myself.  I insist the all
communication between that student and me be in writing and I begin with a
letter I hand to him/her at the end of class, stating just that.  The letter
sets out the new rules by which we will function: that all communication will
be written; that at least 24 hrs. must pass before replies can be made by
either one of us, again in writing; that no abusive language will be used;
that standard written English will be used; etc.  I also explain my reasoning
behind these rules; the good of the class as a whole, the benefits of waiting
and thinking through possible responses, the seeming inability of the student
to conform to  classroom standards, etc.  I also keep copies of EVERY piece
of writing that passes bewteen us AND I let my dept. chair know what's going
     Once this process is established, I can let myself go on the student's
writing; correcting the smallest grammar mistake, pointing out every bit of
faulty reasoning, stressing every unsupported statement, and so on.  In my
experience, so much written criticism wears the student down to the point
where s/he drops the course, shuts up, or complains.  Here's where the copies
come in as backup.  I've always received support from administration in cases
like this because the student's inability/unwillingness to be a useful (or
even neutral) member of the class is clearly shown through his/her writing.
     Hope this helps.  It's not elegant or easy, but it has worked for me.
And, truth be told, although it sounds sort of mean-spirited, running
interference between students who want to learn and those who try to stop
learning is sometimes the best and only thing we can do.
     Good luck,
     Adrienne Regnier
     Philosophy Program Coordinator
     Jefferson Community College
     Louisville, KY
Date: Thu, 09 Sep 1999 10:27:37 -0400
Subject: Disruptive students
It is amazing how one person can really change the tone of a class.
I find it important to a) provide ground rules that I give out with
the syllabus on the first day of class and I ask the students to sign
a statement on the bottom of the student info sheets that they have
read, understood, and agreed to the ground rules.  I explain that this
is a contract among all class members and if they feel they cannot
abide by the ground rules, which we discuss, and which I have modified
some on the basis of class discussions from time to time when things I
hadn't considered are raised by the students, then a student should
consider dropping the class.  Of course, I can't _tell_ them to
drop the course, but if behavior becomes to disruptive and "breaks"
ground rules I can "document" this and bring it up with my supervisor.
I would suggest that anyone experiencing such a student as has been
described should inform their supervisor (especially if supportive) -
departmental chair or program director, etc. - and keep a "paper trail"
of interactions, especially those that take in your office, in case
this student _does_ decide to stay in the class and decides to dispute
a grade because of his/her class participation.  I think having the
students involved - as with the hackysack device (or talking stick, etc.) -
is really good.  It helps to make sure that the other students' voices
are heard, their opinions about the student's behavior are known, and
the interaction is not just one between you and the student who is
"un-cooperative."  I am also wondering if the student mentioned is
in trouble in other classes?  Is there a way to identify, contact,
his advisor?  Find out what is this person's behavior with other
faculty/in other classes?  This student may need counseling - if
not psychological counseling for a behavioral problem that goes
includes but is not restricted to his obvious hostility to women's
studies, then some good advising about what is appropriate in a college
These are just some of my thoughts.  Good luck.  Best, Barbara Scott Winkler
bwinkler  @  wvu.edu  WVU Center for Women's Studies
Date: Thu, 09 Sep 1999 11:17:50 -0400
From: Martha Charlene Ball <wsimcb @ PANTHER.GSU.EDU>
Subject: dealing with disruptive students
One of our instructors had a similar situation last year.  She handled it
very well, I thought.  She first met with the disruptive student privately
and told him that his behavior was creating an environment in which the
other students did not feel safe or free to speak and that she would not
allow him to continue.  She asked him to listen respectively and
participate in discussions, not to dominate.  He agreed.  Then he began
the disruptive behavior again, with shouting and insulting words.  She
then wrote him a letter, sent copies to the Dean of Arts and Sciences and
to the Director of Women's STudies (this was after conferring with the
director of WS), saying that he would have to leave the class if he would
not agree to go to counseling and if he continued the disruptive behavior.
He agreed to go to
counseling.  He did go once or twice, I believe, and he became quiet in
class.  She later said that he acknowledged to her that seeing the other
students, all women, becoming empowered in the class, felt threatening to
him.  She said that being listened to by her seemed to make a difference
to him.
(This is how I remember it; some details may be different, but this is the
gist of what happened as I remember it.)
My point to you is that you don't have to do it all yourself and you don't
have to put up with it.  Bring in your department head or director and the
dean's office.  Put communications in writing, and keep copies.  And if
you have a counseling center, they may be able to help.
 M. Charlene Ball, Administrative Coordinator
Women's Studies Institute
Georgia State University
Atlanta, Georgia  30303-3083
404/651-1398 fax
wsimcb  @  panther.gsu.edu
Date: Thu, 09 Sep 1999 11:55:22 -0400
From: Jeannie Ludlow <jludlow @ BGNET.BGSU.EDU>
Subject: dealing with disruptive students
Hi Sharon,
I'm really sorry you are having such a hard time with this student.
I really second the advice not to handle this situation by yourself.
I know every state and every institution is different.  I highly recommend
calling your dean of students for advice about what your rights and
responsibilities as an instructor are.  Here, I have the dean come and
speak to our grad students about how to handle disruptions.  She tells them
how far they can go according to univ. policy and state law.
Some of the advice given so far would not be allowed at my institution (for
example, we are not allowed to "require" students to "sign a contract" and
expect it to have any kind of meaning.  A required contract is not entered
into freely; therefore, it has no "teeth").  Other advice is especially
encouraged here (for example, encourage the student to get tested for
learning disabilities).  I doubt my institution would back me up if I
required a student to see a counselor; however, the counseling center here
works closely with our instructors, and will come to my office for a
meeting with me and the student, if I ask.
The dean of students at your institution is the one who will have to handle
this case if it goes into any kind of official action; she should be
willing to help you out before it gets that far.  Our dean will take a
statement from an instructor, translate the pertinent info into "dean-ese,"
ask the student to come in for an appt., and share the statement info with
him/her.  Usually, that clears things up right away (kind of like a visit
to the principal's office when I was in middle school).
Best of luck, Sharon.  I know this is difficult on several levels.  No one
has mentioned it yet, but the need to keep everything on file, and to
communicate in writing, etc., means that your work time is being disrupted,
too.  Remember to be kind to yourself, as you go through all this.
Date: Thu, 09 Sep 1999 12:12:20 -0400
From: sjacobso <sjacobso @ BROCKPORT.EDU>
Subject: dealing with disruptive students
Thanks to all of you who have offered incredible advice.  I just got off the
phone with the individual who wrote our disruptive student policy and knew
immediately who I was talking about.  This seems to be a pattern with this
student.  However, I was given step by step advice on how and what to do and
am following this to a T.  Thanks again for all your advice.
Honesty is more than just not being dishonest.  It is an
active choice to be responsible for the choices we make
before we act upon them so that we can stand up for them
and not be tempted to be dishonest.
Sharon Jacobson, Ed. D.
SUNY Brockport
Women's Studies Program
Brockport, NY 14420
sjacobso  @  brockport.edu
(716) 395-5697  (office)
(716) 395-2620 (fax)
(716) 638-6174 (home)
Date: Thu, 09 Sep 1999 12:13:25 -0400 (EDT)
From: Alyson Buckman <Cataria2 @ AOL.COM>
Subject: dealing with disruptive students
I agree with a lot of the tactics that have already been given.  Does our
 response to a disruptive student change based on the fact that it is often the
 setting -- a women's studies classroom -- that is important in the dynamic?
 (men feeling threatened, etc.)  Just a question to ponder.  Are there things 
 we might do differently, based on the setting?
I dealt with a disruptive student in my science fiction and fantasy class
 several years in a slightly different way from previous posts.  I asked the
 student to come and speak with me in my office (making sure that I had a
 witness since the interchange would be oral; this was made easy since we were
 in large, shared grad student offices and people were generally around).  He
 came with sunglasses on and arms crossed and was openly hostile at first.  His
 attitude changed ONLY when I informed him that not only did I find his behavior
 disruptive but THE CLASS found it so as well.  The sunglasses came off, the
 arms unfolded and he was suddently listening.  He didn't give two cents for my
 views, as had been shown in class, but he did care what his peers thought
 (specifically that they were suggesting tortures for him in their journals!).
 They did not find him to be their voice, the one sane voice in the classroom,
 as he thought they would.
Written documentation is a very wise course of action, as other listmembers have
 stated.  While tempting, I do not agree with "going to town" in marking the
 student's papers and trying to get him out through an inundation of criticism.
 We need to be more objective than that in our grading (or at least attempt the
 objectivity), or our students have grounds in stating that "I got this grade
 because you don't like me."
I think the person who talked about learning disabilities was right on the money
 in talking about how to deal with this student also.
Good luck!
Alyson Buckman
Visiting Assistant Professor of English
Illinois College
Cataria2  @  aol.com
Date: Thu, 09 Sep 1999 13:45:02 -0500
From: "Cynthia H. Welch" <welchch @ UWEC.EDU>
Subject: dealing with disruptive students
In reply to Sarah Jacobson, 9/9/99 message:
I've not had to deal with such a student, but a colleague has.  That
particular student was disabled as a result of severe head trauma suffered
as a high school student.  The teaching colleague was referred back to the
Office of Services for Students with Disabilities for assistance in working
with the student.  [I don't know the resolution of thate situation.]  It
might be useful (if possible) to find out if your student is registered as
a special needs student.  If so, there may be specific reasons for lack of
self-control, and the experts in the office may have suggestions for
dealing with the disruption.
If disruptive behavior cannot be explained by a disability (Tourette's,
head trauma), he may just be an undisciplined, arrogant person.  Then it
seems fairest to the other students to seek to have him removed from the
Cynthia H. Welch CPS
Women's Studies/Academic Skills Center
welchch  @  uwec.edu
University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire 54702
"In a time lacking in truth and certainty and filled with anguish and
despair, no woman should be shamefaced in attempting to give back to the
world, through her work, a portion of its lost heart."
                                --Louise Bogan
Date: Thu, 09 Sep 1999 12:35:13 -1000
From: Theresa Conefrey <conefrey @ HAWAII.EDU>
Subject: dealing with disruptive students
Dear Sharon,
Your student's behavior sounds similar to the behavior of a
student I had in my class, who had a learning disorder.  If
your student is living with ADD, or some similar disorder,
support services available at your institution might be able to help.
With regular support from counselors, my initially very disruptive
student was able to make more productive contributions to in-class
Theresa Conefrey
conefrey  @  hawaii.edu

For information about WMST-L

WMST-L File Collection

Top Of Page