January 9th, 2012

The Syllabus as a Classroom Management Tool

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Complaints about incivility in the classroom are not new, but most faculty believe incivility is on the rise. Couple that with our litigious society, and it’s no wonder that one of the most important skills faculty need today is classroom management.

From common problems, such as class disruptions, disrespect, and cheating, to more serious, potentially dangerous behaviors, instructors may face a myriad of unwelcome behaviors in their classroom. How they respond is important, but even more critical are the proactive steps instructors can take to prevent these behaviors from occurring in the first place. Or, if they cannot prevent the problems completely, at least recognize the early signs and respond appropriately before the situation spins out of control.

During the recent 90-minute seminar, Managing Student Discipline Issues Legally and Effectively, Rob Jenkins, associate professor of English at Georgia Perimeter College, and attorney Deborah Gonzalez shared strategies for maintaining appropriate discipline without alienating students or compromising the course. They also explained the legal issues around disciplinary hearings, including differences between public and private institutions with regards to student rights and due process.

One of the key tools for preventing disruptive student behavior is the syllabus. Used properly, the syllabus—and how you present it on that first day of class—can go a long way in setting the tone for your course, Jenkins said.

Before crafting your syllabus, you’ll first want to familiarize yourself with your institution’s student code of conduct. Then, Jenkins recommends asking yourself a few questions:

  • How do I expect students to behave?
  • What will or won’t I tolerate?
  • What compromises or “concessions to reality” am I willing to make?

As you write your syllabus, it’s important to set clear expectations for learner behavior and responsibilities, as well as workload, learning outcomes, deadlines, grading, late assignments and assessment. Then, as you go over the syllabus with students, you’ll want to clarify specific points that are particularly important to you so as to avoid any misunderstandings down the road. Jenkins likes to use this time to explain why he has certain rules and often shares past experiences to illustrate his point.

“One of the things that I’ve learned in 26 years of teaching is that there are steps faculty can take very early on that will head off a lot of these problem to begin with,” said Jenkins. “I think sometimes we create rules because things annoy us and not because they actually disrupt the class. You have to decide, what’s your level of tolerance? Are you really going to try and ban smart phones in your class? Is that even feasible? It’s important not to have rules that you can’t enforce.”