January 9th, 2012

The Syllabus as a Classroom Management Tool


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.”

  • Prof A

    Nicely done. It is also important to take the time that first day to review these policies and what will and will not be accepted in the classroom. Setting the tone – from day one is critical – they have to "hear" it in addition to read it –

  • Charles A. Rudolph

    I've found most, though not all, students are fairly courteous once I make the rules clear. Cell phones and smart phones can be a problem, but I've found a firm, courteous instruction to "Please turn it off and put it away" usually works well.

  • Janine Holc

    I create a heading in the syllabus titled, "Respectful Classroom Policy," and write a list of descriptors detailing what a "respectful classroom" looks like. It is important to discuss how students should treat each other as well as instructor-student relations. I have to admit that after discussing the list on the first day of class, we do not return to it. Instead, as Professor Rudolph noted, students seem to naturally adopt the behaviors I choose to note, react to, or "enforce." However, I periodically encounter students who are indeed disruptive in any case.

  • Rebecca

    Setting the tone from day 1 is the key! I find that if I go in to complete details on my expectations of the students and what they can expect from me, that I have a smooth rolling session.

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