The anonymity of the class reduces civility.
In large classes, where students feel relatively anonymous, they may behave in ways they would not in smaller classes. This may be exacerbated in required classes, where they feel not only anonymous but also (perhaps) resentful at having to take a class they did not choose.
There are a number of things you can do to reduce the anonymity and impersonality of large classes. For example, you can arrive early and chat with students. This helps students build a sense of connection and responsibility to you, and can help to reduce incivilities. Other ways to reduce the distance between you and your students in large classes include trying (however imperfectly) to learn students’ names (for example, asking them to identify themselves when they make a comment or question) and inviting groups of students to interact with you outside of class. For example, some faculty members teaching large classes ask groups of students to meet them for coffee and conversation outside of class time. You can also help build a sense of communal responsibility and accountability by fostering bonds among students, e.g, through small group and pair work.
While it is important to maintain professionalism and appropriate boundaries in class, it can also help to “personalize” large lectures by giving your students opportunities to see you as a whole person, with interests, emotions, and connections that extend beyond the classroom. Davis cites a science faculty member with a passion for music, who plays pieces by different composers and musicians as students enter the classroom (1993, p.125). One psychology instructor posts a trivia question, unrelated to the course material, that students can see and consider as they enter the classroom and get situated. This helps students loosen up and engage in casual give-and-take with the professor and among themselves before class begins, thus reducing the impersonality of the large class.
If instructors in large classes ignore rude behavior it only reinforces students’ sense of anonymity and invisibility. Thus, it is particularly important to respond before a pattern is established. How you choose to address the problem will depend on the nature of the behavior as well as your individual style. Upon encountering rude behavior, you might choose to address the class as a whole, delineating what is and is not acceptable for your class (e.g., “My T.A. has drawn my attention to some inappropriate laptop use in class. Here is my policy concerning laptops…”). If the problem stems from one or two individuals, you might respond in a number of ways, beginning with a gentle admonition (e.g., “Manish, would you mind putting away your drink until after class?”) and then, if the behavior continues, addressing the problem more forcefully. Some instructors might choose to take the problem student(s) aside after class to discuss the issue. Others might opt to address the behavior publicly by stopping what they’re doing and directing a hard look or pointed comment at the problematic student (e.g., “Wendy, I’d appreciate it if you confined your comments to the material being discussed”). While it is important to respond immediately and consistently, how you handle the matter will depend very much on the nature of the problem, the student(s) in question, and what feels most comfortable to you.
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