Classroom Management

Mary Ellen O'Leary, Department of Mathematics

Most college students embark on a learning experience with a new instructor with various anxieties and questions on their minds. They also wonder, Does the teacher care? Is the teacher fair? Does this instructor know the subject matter? Will I get something out of this course?

You will, of course, want your students to arrive at affirmative answers to these concerns and questions. You wish to earn the respect of your students, and you want to provide a setting where each individual can gain as much as possible from the course. This will require the use of skillful classroom managementa broad concept which touches in one way or another on every component of effective teaching. Your management goals should be:

  • to adopt efficient methods of handling logistical details, some of which are mundane, but others of which have a more profound impact on the quality of the course;

  • to inspire the students' confidence in your mastery of the subject matter, and their faith in your ability to conduct the course in a competent, fair and well-organized manner;

  • to establish and maintain a positive and supportive atmosphere in the classroom, an environment of mutual respect, courtesy and consideration for others.

Even though these objectives are far-reaching, achieving them comes down to fundamentals:

The best management technique? Get the students interested, involved in, even excited about, the material you are presenting!

A well-prepared and well-executed class in mathe-matics (in English literature, in psychology, in your particular discipline) is the number one way to establish the positive control and authority necessary for an effective learning environment. Enthusiasm is contagious; it commands attention and inspires concentration. The behavior of students will rarely be a problem when they are interested and focused on the subject matter.

Besides enthusiasm, organization is one of the keys to achieving the management goals listed earlier. Organization applies to clear and consistent policy statements, to the appearance and content of board-work, transparencies, hand-outs and other printed materials, to managing the various aspects of the physical environment, to the timeliness of the beginning and ending of class and of returning tests and assignments, to careful and accurate record-keeping, and even to something as trivial as the orderly distribution and return of materials.

Policy statements are vital. The article on syllabus construction (see page 9) explains the need to pre- determine and to carefully communicate your policies concerning attendance, assignments, make-up tests and grading schemes. Students need to know your expectations, and they want to have an idea of how they stand as the course progresses. In particular, your students should have received at least one major grade before the last "drop date," after which they will receive a WF rather than a W should they withdraw from the course.

Similarly, it is important to observe the published schedule for examinations, as well as the prohibition against tests and quizzes in the last few classes. (See Bulletin for details.) Sometimes students will tell you of extenuating circumstances and difficulties they are facing, and it is important to be sympathetic and supportive.* You realize, of course, that there may be other students with equally compelling personal situations who do not say anything.

Be careful to deal with requests for special consideration in an even-handed way. It is important to offer "extra credit" or any similar opportunities in a uniform and impartial manner. In addition to establishing fairness and consistency, your policies should convey to the students your concern for their progress and the fact that you want them to succeed in your course. Office hours that are convenient for the students, optional review sessions before major tests, private conferences to discuss research papers or group projectsthese are some of the possible ways to underscore your concern for the students as individuals.

(*Note: You should refer students with serious emotional or personal problems to the appropriate counseling and support services on campus.)

Seek help for problems with the physical plant, or for students with special needs. Some of the important physical elements of the classroom (light, heat, air conditioning, glare on the blackboard, an adequate number of desks, etc.) may be within your control, but others may not. A staff member in your departmental office will be able to assist you if there is a problem in this area. If you are teaching away from your home building, it would be good to locate the departmental office closest to your classroom. Occasionally you may find the door locked (this is especially true of early morning classes) and it helps to know the location of the nearest master key. There may be special physical or procedural considerations if you have students in wheelchairs or students with vision or hearing impairments. The Educational Support Services Office can assist you in this case.

Printed materials reflect organization. Use a typewriter or word processor if time and available equipment permit; otherwise aim for legibility in hand-written work. A simple trick like attaching lined paper with a paper clip before writing on a ditto master, or using blank paper over lined paper when preparing an original for xeroxing, may produce neater copies. Neatness and legibility are also important when using the blackboard or overhead projector. The necessary size of the writing will depend on the dimensions of the room; it is a good idea to go to the back of the room at the end of a class to see if the writing is clear and large enough.

Board-work is usually best if it unfolds from left to right, although important principles may be "boxed in" and left throughout the period. Be careful not to talk to the board or to stand in front of what you have just written. (Note: you may have to carry chalk to class with you if you teach in a building away from your own department.) If it is available, an overhead projector allows you to face students, to take advantage of more vivid colors, and to go back to work written earlier. Transparencies can be prepared in advance, perhaps "burned" on a xerox from printed material for a professional touch. When using prepared transparencies, be sure to allow time for students to take notes.

Logistical methods depend on the size of the class. In a large class, it may help to count out materials in advance, according to the number of students in each row. Returning work to the students also varies with the numbers involved. In a small class this presents a wonderful opportunity to learn names, as you place each student's paper in his or her hand, but in a large class, this one-to-one method may be too time consuming. One possible solution is to ask students to put their last name near the top or on the back of their papers, which can later be returned by being alphabetized and placed face down on the front of the table, spread out so that names are showing. It is important to preserve each student's privacy in returning papers. Be sure to learn and to follow the policies of your department concerning the posting of grades and privacy restrictions.

Learning names, showing concern for individual progress, giving outside assistance to students either separately or in groupsthese are some of the practices already mentioned which will help to build rapport and a positive relationship with your students. During the actual class period, you should be conscious of your eye contact with each person in the room. It is tempting to focus on the most expressive faces, and right-handed speakers have been shown to favor the right side of the room; so be careful to spread your attention throughout the room, and to make eye contact with each student. Other nonverbal encouragement involves body language and physical proximity. Move around the room and use whatever gestures you feel natural to you as you communicate with your students. This will make the presentation even more lively and animated.

Mutual respect requires sensitive interaction. Never embarrass a student for a wrong answer, a foolish question, or an inappropriate comment or opinion. With practice, you can learn to rephrase the thought and redirect the discussion without damaging the self-esteem of the student. Usually the class will follow the instructor's lead in treating each other with courtesy and kindness. Expect this same consideration if you make a content or computational error while you are teaching, or if you are asked a question about the subject matter and you do not know the answer. Handle the situation in a low-key, confident manner. Correct the mistake when you discover it, or promise to answer the question at the next class meeting. Your credibility will not be diminished; instead you will seem more human to your students.

Use positive reinforcement. Recognize exceptional effort and outstanding performances in front of the whole class. Compliment students, with sincerity, whenever you can. Reward student contributions to class discussion by your facial expression and by referring to particular offerings later in the hour. Remember that you can commend students for good work with a remark in class, with a written comment on an assignment or test paper, or in a private verbal exchange. Individual differences should be considered here. Some students are somewhat embarrassed by too much public recognition; a quiet word before or after class may be more comfortable for them. The student who shows dramatic improvement or much greater effort should be especially bolstered and encouraged. A student who has an unusually bad performance on one particular test or assignment may need some reassurance. Whatever the circumstance, the most effective feedback is positive in tone and content; criticisms and put-downs are to be avoided.

However, some behaviors should not be reinforced. In spite of your best efforts to establish rapport and a positive atmosphere in the classroom, occasionally you will have to contend with students who disrupt the class by talking continuously, or by arriving late or leaving early, or by other negative behaviors. The time-honored advice on authority and control is to start out strict and loosen up later when things are going well. This is particularly important for inexperienced teachers, especially those who may be close in age or even younger than some of their students. "Starting out strict" does not involve lengthy reprimands or protracted lectures on behavior. Here again, clear communication of expectations, through effective use of voice, eyes, facial expression, and body language will establish firmness and control. An image of authority and professionalism will be enhanced by appropriate dress and appearance, and perhaps by having students call you "Ms. Smith" or Mr. Jones" rather than by your first name.

What is the best way to handle persistent socializing? Try direct eye contact with the offenders, perhaps underscored by a period of silence. To counteract a general buzz, use a dramatic change in the pitch and pace of your voice. Try using a much lower, much slower speaking style. (The worst approach is to allow your voice to become higher and louder, in a vain attempt to talk over the din.) If all else fails, flipping the lights off and on in the room will certainly regain everyone's attention. When a small group of students persist with disruptive or negative behavior, you should separate their seats and/or arrange to speak with them privately. Do not resort to sarcasm or to public humiliation. If you are polite but firm, you can correct the problem and still maintain the positive atmosphere you have worked to establish.

Through clear and consistent policies, an organized approach to logistical details, and an insistence on courtesy and mutual respect in the classroom, you will be taking advantage of effective management techniques. With good rapport and a positive atmosphere established, you will be able to concentrate more fully on the preparation and delivery of excellent lessons in the subject matter, which will stir interest and motivate active involvement. Students will leave your course knowing that you have treated them fairly, and that you do care about them. Because of your effective management of the classroom, your students will benefit from a good environment in which to learn and to grow in their mastery of the discipline. You will have set the stage for academic achievement. You will have offered a valuable learning experience to your students.