Promoting and Maintaining Classroom Civility

The following is a transcript of the "Promoting and Maintaining Classroom Civility " multimedia presentation available here.

This is Tim Griffin, University Ombudsman at Northern Illinois University. The Office of the Ombudsman is contacted by over 1000 individual members of the campus community each year for assistance with a university-related issue or concern. Some of those concerns involve matters of classroom deportment. Based on our experience with these individuals we have developed and are presenting here today some suggestions to foster a civil environment in your classroom.

Civility is a relative term. For the purposes of this presentation it is helpful to think about it in terms of a continuum. The type of behaviors displayed toward the left side of the continuum are more civil than those displayed and described toward the right.

A reasonable level of civility is important in the classroom. Incivility can disrupt the learning environment, making it impossible for students to learn – either through mere distraction or, in severe cases, through student psychological discomfort that may impact their ability to focus or even to attend class.

This quotation is from the NIU Undergraduate catalog and represents NIU's expectations for student classroom behavior. However, sometimes expectations may not match reality.

While college students are legal adults and presumed to have the maturity to comport themselves appropriately in the classroom setting, a few students may not always demonstrate appropriate and mutually respectful behaviors.

The instructor has a RESPONSIBILITY to maintain a classroom environment that is safe and conducive to learning. An environment that is safe is one in which the physical safety of students is not threatened by other people or by physical conditions. An environment that is conducive to learning is one in which students are adequately free from distractions to be able to focus and concentrate on the educational process – in other words to learn.

In addition, the instructor has the RIGHT to impose “reasonable” rules of classroom deportment and decorum. These rules might include behaviors that, while not necessarily distracting to other students, can be defended as facilitating the classroom process. For example, prohibiting texting during class or requiring students to raise their hands and be called on before speaking probably would be considered “reasonable” in most classroom situations.

Every instructor has different expectations of students in his or her class. Students WANT to know the rules you have for the classroom environment. You want your students to adhere to your expectations. Both require the clear communication of these expectations. I suggest that there are 4 factors to consider in the development of these communications.

First, be proactive. Establish the environment early through inclusion in the syllabus and verbal announcements the first day of class. One of those announcements should be your expectation that all interactions in your class will be undertaken in a civil and mutually respectful manner.

Second, set an example. Model respectful behavior. Students are quick to observe hypocritical behavior on the part of faculty.

Third, be specific. Describe precisely the behaviors you expect. Be honest about your own feelings and expectations in regard to student behavior. For example, share with them any pet peeves you have about student behavior

Finally, be consistent. Always address deviations from your expectations. And treat students consistently, as you enforce your rules.

Here are some academic expectations you should communicate with your students. Be sure to include how you will react if you suspect or detect such behaviors. How will you handle these situations?

  • Plagiarism – Be clear about citation style and the use of the internet for research.
  • Cheating – Be clear about anything you might consider “cheating” that some other faculty member might not, like checking text messages or wearing earphones during tests.
  • Reusing work from other courses – Can students turn in work that they have previously submitted for another course?
  • Late assignments – are they acceptable? Under what circumstances? Do they require advance approval or a Doctor’s note?
  • Collaboration – What types of collaboration are acceptable? Study groups? Co-researching papers?

These are just some of the academic deportment issues you will want to address.

This is a sampling of some non-academic decorum and deportment issues on which you may want to have a written and or verbal policy for your courses. Communicate to your students both the policy and the consequences of not following it.

Be sure to announce Emergency evacuation procedures early the first day. It sends an important message that you care about your students and their safety.

What procedure should students follow if they know in advance of a class absence (like their wedding or a military obligation)? How should they contact you in case of illness?

When I teach a class there is only one person allowed to speak at a time, and that person needs to raise his or her hand and be recognized in order to speak. What do you expect of your students?

You can almost guarantee two things on our campus today. First, that the room in which you teach will have a sign that prohibits all food and drink, and second that at least half your students will show up to class with food or a beverage.

It pays to give some forethought to how you will react to some of these inevitable issues of decorum. Think also about additional items or issues not on this brief list that you might want to address with your students. Remember: they know there will be rules of decorum and rely on you to provide them. The more proactive you are in establishing your expectations, the less likely it is that you will have to respond to uncivil behaviors.

When a student’s behavior in a classroom, laboratory, or other formal learning environment is such that the rights of other enrolled students to an effective learning climate are being violated, the student shall lose the privilege of attending or receiving credit in the class. This wording comes from the 2010-11 NIU Undergraduate catalog. This statement is available online at

It is almost always the case that a student who is not being compliant with your classroom expectations is doing so out of forgetfulness rather than deliberately. When this is the case, a simple reminder is all it takes to regain compliance. Always assume that this is case initially. The next most likely motivation is emotional or psychological upset.

There are different ways to react when a student is acting inappropriately. First you should identify and assess the situation, taking into account where the impact of the behavior falls on the civility continuum. Is it distracting other students or threatening someone's safety?

Next, determine when to take action. React immediately to decorum violations that are distracting, or persistent; or noticed by other students. You should react immediately to significant disruptions of the learning environment and to threats of physical harm.

It is preferable to react later and privately to less significant disruptions and to other decorum violations. “Later” communications might happen immediately after class, during office hours, or even by e-mail, telephone, or text. You might also consider giving the class a five minute break and speak to the student semi-privately during that break.

Remember, the threat of violence (or a medical emergency) ALWAYS warrants immediate action. In emergency situations, call 911.

If the situation has already taken place and is no longer a disruption but you have not acted on it, you can always consult with your chair, a colleague, a mentor or call the office of the ombudsman prior to addressing it. Sometimes classroom deportment situations develop cumulatively – over the course of several classes. When you sense a situation developing: CONSULT!

Whether you respond to a situation immediately or later, always do so in a civil, controlled, professional manner. It is important that when you react you do so in a way that does not aggravate the situation. It is your responsibility to take control of the classroom environment. This may be done with a simple look, or require something spoken. You are NEVER justified in sarcasm, screaming, or name-calling. More on the content of the verbal interaction later.

When speaking to a student about his or her classroom behavior privately, always inquire as to whether the student is OK. Indicate your concern for the student's well-being based on the uncharacteristic and/or disruptive behavior that you witnessed. If the student indicates a health problem, be prepared to refer him or her to the University Health Service or to the Counseling and Student Development Center for assistance.

If the student indicates no health problem, specifically describe the behavior you witnessed that was problematic and ask for the student's explanation or response. Be prepared to listen non-judgmentally to the student's perspective on the behavior. Try to engage the student in a civil and educational discussion to assist him or her in understanding why the behavior is problematic. While desirable, it is not necessary to receive confirmation of the student's understanding.

Whether you are addressing the behavior immediately in the classroom setting or later, there are four important elements to the content of your communication.

  1. Begin by specifically identifying the problematic behavior. Avoid phrases like "what do you think you’re doing?". If possible, use the student’s name.
  2. Briefly explain why the behavior is problematic. This may be because it distracts others, or because it is in violation of the rules for classroom deportment you have established.
  3. Request that the behavior cease.
  4. Identify what actions you will be compelled to take if the behavior doesn’t cease.

This entire interaction can occur in just a couple of sentences. For example, you might say, "James, the ringing of your cell phone is distracting. Please turn it off." OR to Jill and Jane who are engaged in a side conversation while another student is asking a question, you may say,"Jill and Jane, remember our class rule about one person speaking at a time. Please raise your hand if you’d like to speak". If it’s not first time you’ve had to speak to the student about this, you may want to add the phrase: "or I’ll have to ask you to leave."

In conclusion, it is important for you to think about your expectations for student behavior. You should establish a civil environment early by communicating your expectations and modeling respectful behavior. When a disruption occurs, react in a civil manner and be clear in your message. Remind the student of your expectations. Remember – you have both the responsibility to establish an environment that is safe and conducive to learning and the right to establish reasonable rules of deportment.

Here are some web resources on classroom civility you might want to review.

This slide lists selected resources on classroom civility that provide useful information for anyone teaching college classes.

This has been a quick tutorial on developing and maintaining a civil environment in your classroom. For more information, you are invited to contact Tim Griffin in the NIU Office of the Ombudsman or to utilize any of the resources listed.

Last Updated: 9/10/2014