December 5th, 2014

How to Deal with Incivility in the Online Classroom

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Incivility in the online classroom can take many forms. Angela Stone Schmidt, director of graduate programs in the School of Nursing and associate dean College of Nursing & Health Professions at Arkansas State University—Jonesboro, uses Morrisette’s definition: “interfering with a cooperative learning atmosphere.” So in addition to inappropriate, rude, offensive, or bullying behaviors, Schmidt considers behaviors such as academic dishonesty, over-participation or domination and under-participation to be forms of incivility. In an interview with Online Classroom, she offered the following advice on how to reduce incivility with a proactive stance and how to address it when it does occur:

Make expectations clear

Use the syllabus to set expectations. Schmidt includes the course honor code in the syllabus, which describes respectful behavior and academic integrity standards. This contract includes definitions of appropriate conduct and social expectations.

Model civility

The attitudes and behaviors of the instructor can affect students’ attitudes and behaviors. Therefore, it’s important to demonstrate the behaviors you expect from your students. Avoid authoritarianism using effective interpersonal communication. Facilitate introductions by providing students with some background on yourself, including a photo and an introduction. Ask students to do the same, determining how they prefer to be addressed.

Reduce feelings of detachment

“I think a lot of the uncivil written communication is supported by the feeling of being anonymous,” Schmidt says. “They aren’t really, but they are not physically present in a classroom, so they may feel somewhat detached.”

One way to reduce students’ feelings of being detached from the course is for the instructor to maintain a consistent social presence in the course, responding and providing information in a timely manner. “Many times, faculty expect the students to discuss and interact, but they are not engaged in that interaction—facilitate with immediacy and affective cohesive responses, offering praise for appropriate responses and initiating discussions,” Schmidt says.

Try to address the underlying causes of incivility

Not all incivility is intentional. For example, a lack of understanding of diverse cultures can lead to behaviors that seem intentionally hostile but are not. Lack of participation can be the result of a student’s apathy or difficulty understanding the course content. Understanding why a student engaged in certain behaviors can help you address the issue properly.

In some cases, a simple reminder of the expectations of the course will be enough to get a student on track. If that does not work, it’s sometimes necessary to have a private conference with the student to understand the causes of the incivility and to clarify expectations. Reference to the initial contract, the syllabus, and the policies included should be enforced only after thorough exploration.

Reprinted from Online Classroom, 13.10 (2013): 5. © Magna Publications. All Rights Reserved.