Losing control of the classroom can be one of the most frustrating and intimidating experiences for both new and experienced teachers. Losing control can happen in several different ways. The most common would be where the class is distracted. This could be from a situation outside the classroom such as noisy conversation in the hall, or from an event elsewhere that students find out about, such as a rumor of the football coach getting fired. Losing control can also happen within the classroom, such as when one student monopolizes the discussion, or where there is a general lack of interest in the lecture, and many students are obviously not paying attention. Here are nine possible ways to regain students’ attention.
1. Have a distinct sounding object, such as a bell or cymbal. As long as you don’t use it too often, this can be an effective way to bring student’s attention back to the lecture or class discussion.
2. Signal nonverbally, and make eye contact with students when they hold side conversations, start to fall asleep, or show contempt for the lecture material. You can also use hand signals to encourage a wordy student to finish what he or she is saying, or make a time out “T” sign with your fingers to stop unwanted behavior.
3. Remember what your parents told you when a sibling was bothering you. Sometimes it is best to ignore mildly negative behaviors. Often the behavior will disappear if you do not pay any attention to it.
4. Discuss very negative behaviors in private. During break or after class firmly request a change in behavior of those students who are disruptive. At our university it is very easy for professors to drop disruptive students from class, so one warning is usually enough.
5. Use humor. One of my favorite techniques is to stop the lecture, put on a mysterious expression, and look directly at the disruptive student. I announce to the class that I am getting a vision of that student sitting in the same chair next semester repeating the class over again. Usually the whole class laughs, but it gets the message across to everyone that this particular behavior has consequences.
6. Rein in overparticipators. If somebody monopolizes a discussion, I acknowledge the value of their viewpoints and invite them to discuss their views with me during a break. An alternative is to ask for other class members for their perspectives on the topic.
7. Implement participation rules. Tell the class that you would like to use rules such as the following: Only students who have not yet spoken can add to the discussion moving forward. Each new comment must build on a previous idea, etc.
8. Mix it up. If the last idea does not work very well, change the method of participation. Sometimes, you can experiment with new formats, such as using pairs or small groups rather than whole-class activities.
9. Don’t take it personally. Many problem behaviors have nothing to do with you. They often represent the personal frustrations and insecurities of the student. Make a point of getting to know the disruptive student during breaks or after class. It is less likely that students will continue to give you a hard time or remain distant if you have taken an interest in them.
By experimenting with one or more of these classroom management techniques, you will probably find that losing control of a class happens much less frequently and you will feel more confident in your ability to quickly regain students’ attention when it does.
Dr. Rick Sheridan is an assistant professor of Mass Communications at Wilberforce University.