Carnegie Mellon University

Eberly Center

Teaching Excellence & Educational Innovation

Students and instructors have different expectations about classroom etiquette

Students and instructors have different expectations about classroom etiquette. (prior experiences, culture, disciplinary culture)

While some behaviors would be considered rude and offensive in any context, others are a matter of individual interpretation. For example, some instructors are bothered if students wear hats, eat in class, slouch, etc. while others are not.

Moreover, what is considered appropriate (or rude) classroom behavior can vary strikingly from one culture (pdf) to another. For example, members of one culture might be comfortable addressing professors by first name, while members of another find this disrespectful. Finally, standards of courtesy vary from discipline to discipline and department to department. In some professional and graduate programs, for example, students’ insistence that courses have immediate practical value can come across to instructors as demanding and unduly aggressive. In all these situations, students’ sense of appropriate classroom behavior might not square with the instructor’s.

To complicate matters further, even in the context of a single class the boundary between appropriate and inappropriate behavior can be subtle and difficult to navigate. For example, in a literature class that employs readings with vulgar or colloquial language, students may have trouble knowing when it is and is not acceptable to use such language in class. By the same token, in classes where students need a laptop for some activities (e.g., viewing a spreadsheet) they may not recognize the inappropriateness of using their laptop for another purpose (e.g., sending e-mail.)


Make your expectations explicit.

Model desired behavior.

Respond immediately.

Make your expectations explicit.

Because there is wide variation in the expectations of different instructors regarding appropriate classroom behavior, it is important to be very explicit about your expectations for student behavior. Otherwise, students may assume that the behaviors that were appropriate in other classes they have taken (whether in high school, other departments, or other countries) are appropriate in yours – and they may be wrong.

You should articulate your course policies in your syllabus and again on the first day of class. This can be done in a good-humored way, without a punitive or harsh tone, but it is important to follow through on the policies you institute. The issues you choose to address with your students are up to you, but many instructors focus on lateness, talking in class, cell phone and laptop use, eating, terms of address, etc.

Model desired behavior.

Model the kind of behavior you would like to see from your students. Obviously, if you do not want students coming late or drinking coffee in class, you should not do so yourself. If you do not want students to be aggressive and argumentative, do not model these behaviors yourself. In addition to avoiding behaviors you do not want students to emulate, model the behaviors you do want to see, for example, by arriving to class on time, challenging students respectfully, respecting their time, etc.

Respond immediately.

If instructors fail to respond to rude behavior, or do so inconsistently, the behavior is likely to continue. Thus, it is important to respond immediately. 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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