Carnegie Mellon University

Eberly Center

Teaching Excellence & Educational Innovation

Problematic Student Behavior

Address Problematic Student Behavior

Reports of problematic behaviors are on the rise nationally, not only in the classroom but in society at large (Kowalski, 2003).

Some of these immature, irritating, or thoughtless behaviors or “classroom incivilities” include:

  • lateness or leaving early
  • inappropriate cellphone and laptop usage in class
  • side conversations
  • disregard for deadlines
  • grade grubbing
  • sniping remarks
  • cheating

These behaviors are not just instructors’ pet peeves; they have real costs including:

  • distracting other students and instructor in class
  • reducing student participation
  • lowering other students' and instructor’s motivation in or out of class
  • affecting fairness in grading
  • using instructor or TA time unproductively
  • feeling disrespected as a fellow learner or authority figure

Possible causes

In order to limit or deal effectively with these behaviors, it is important to understand the factors that cause or facilitate them.
The cause can be:

This distinction is important because it orients us towards the causes we can control.

Contingent on individual student situations:

  • Students can engage in problematic behaviors because of health problems, personal or family problems, adjustment or developmental issues (e.g., “immaturity” or self-esteem issues), or general academic difficulties. These factors are not controllable, but instructors who feel those are issues are at play can certainly refer students to the appropriate support services on campus:
  • Cultural issues can also play a role. The culture of the US classroom is not homogenous, and expectations for classroom conduct can vary greatly, but they are all informed by the same basic academic values. Students from other cultures who don’t share the same values might not understand implicit expectations for classroom behaviors. MORE on cross-cultural issues.

Structural to the course:

Some of the uncivil behaviors can be inadvertently facilitated by the instructor’s behavior or the course structure. Boice (1998) researched classroom incivilities across a range of courses and reported several findings.

  • Professors disagree with students about what counts as uncivil behavior, apart from a few egregious situations. Moreover, there is significant disagreement among different professors, as there is among students.
  • Instructor’s age or teaching experience are not a significant determinant of incivilities. Young/novice instructors experience the same average level of incivilities as older/experienced instructors.
  • Two factors mainly predict classroom incivilities.
    1. The choice of motivators.
      Instructors who use negative motivators (e.g., fear, guilt, embarrassment) experience more classroom incivilities than instructors who use positive motivators (e.g., encouragement, praise).
    2. The number of “immediacy” behaviors (verbal and non-verbal signs of warmth and friendliness).
      Instructors exhibiting few immediacy behaviors experience significantly more incivilities compared to instructors who exhibit several of those behaviors. In other words, if students perceive the instructor has disengaged from the course and from their learning experience, they disengage in turn, exhibiting the attendant problematic behaviors. Other factors correlate negatively with incivilities, including perceived worth of teaching, clarity and organization, and pacing.

Possible Strategies

Based on these findings and a comprehensive literature review, Sorcinelli (2002) suggests 4 principles to reduce incivilities. The principles are broad enough that each one can be used to generate several concrete strategies.

Define expectations at the outset.

Explicitly letting students know how you want them to behave in class avoids incivilities due to mismatched expectations.

  • Define your policies on the syllabus. Clearly articulating your policies and their rationale in a respectful tone can curb undesirable behaviors. See the page on writing the syllabus for more considerations on tone. This link provides some language for policies such as cell-phone and laptop usage.
  • Make good use of the first day of class. Use the first day to create the right climate for productive interaction. Highlight the policies on the syllabus and model the behaviors you’d like to see. Follow this link for more on the first day of class.
  • Allow student participation in setting ground rules. Having students participate in setting the rules for classroom behavior and interaction might not be feasible for every class but it has the benefit of making the students more invested in the rules. Ask the students to reflect on classes with bad discussions or other students’ behaviors that have been distracting and not conducive to their own learning. Use that list as a starting point for your ground rules. You, of course, retain final decision power.

Decrease anonymity.

Especially in large classes, students can sometimes engage in thoughtless behaviors because the atmosphere feels very depersonalized. You can try several techniques to build connections with students:

  • Learn and use names consistently. You can request a photo roster from the HUB, which will make it easier to associate names to faces. Learn a few more names every day, and let students know that you are trying to memorize their names in the first weeks.
  • Engage students one-on-one. Use the time right before and after class to make small talk with students. Ask about the weekend, or the homework, or common interests. Some professors schedule lunches with small groups of students throughout the semester to get to know them and to present themselves as more approachable.
  • Take advantage of office hours. The one-on-one nature of office hours greatly augments possibilities for interaction, even in larger classes. Some professors have a mandatory office hour during the first week, which they use to meet the students individually and to make themselves available for help when needed.

Seek feedback from students.

Some student incivilities are due to perceived instructor incivilities – instructor’s own lateness or disorganization, rudeness or interruptions when students are speaking.  Seek feedback to double-check student perceptions of you. You can use early course evaluations, or quick in-class anonymous feedback with one –minute papers. You can also designate some students to be class representatives and meet with them periodically during the semester, when they can let you know of general student concerns. See more on assessing your teaching.

Encourage active learning.

Meaningful engagement has obvious benefits for student learning and performance, but it can also bring some side benefits with respect to student behavior in the classroom. In fact, Sorcinelli (1991) points out that in classes that use active learning effectively, students

  • feel more responsible for coming to class, and coming prepared
  • perceive they pay more attention in class
  • feel more responsible for their own learning.

The section on instructional strategies has several suggestions on ways to incorporate active learning in your courses.


Jaffee, D. (1999). I am not a TV: Confessions of a professor. Retrieved July 6, 2007, from

Kowalski, R. M. (2003). Complaining, teasing, and other annoying behaviors. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Boice, R. (1998). "Classroom incivilities." In K. A. Feldman & M. B. Paulson (Eds.), Teaching and learning in the college classroom (2nd ed.) (347-369). Needham Heights, MA: Simon & Schuster Custom Pub.

Sorcinelli, M. D. (1991). "Research findings on the seven principles." In A. Chickering & Z. Gamson (Eds.), Applying the seven principles for good practice in undergraduate education. New Directions for Teaching and Learning, 47, 13-25. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Sorcinelli, M. D. (2002). "Promoting civility in large classes." In C. Stanley & E. Porter (Eds.), Engaging large classes: Strategies and techniques for college faculty (44-57). Bolton, MA: Anker.