Dealing with classroom disruption

While bailing on students seems attractive, profs should find better solutions

Professors at Ryerson University are taking an interesting approach to dealing with a high volume of inappropriate disruptions in class. And it’s hard to blame them.

Paper airplanes whizzing past their heads, movies played at high volume during their lectures. It sounds like a free-for-all. One student even complained that it was hard to hear the lecture, even though he was sitting in the front row.

The two engineering professors, Robert Gossage and Andrew McWilliams, announced that if the behaviour continued, they would simply leave the class and it would then be up to the students to learn the material on their own. They also threatened to make midterm questions more difficult since “the class appeared to know the material well enough so as not to listen during lecture.”

But as satisfying as these strategies might be for teachers — and as much as thousands of teachers across the country have wished to be able to do the same — there’s a reason why we don’t hear about it very often: It’s irresponsible and ineffective.

Dealing with disruptive students in the classroom is difficult. Nobody is going to argue that point. But because it’s so difficult, resources exist at every institution, from kindergarten to grad school, to help handle the situation.

Most universities have established standards and procedures for escalating responses to disruptive students. Everything from staring them down in the middle of the class to banning their attendance until they show respect for their fellow students is explored in a number of academic articles.

Ryerson University president Sheldon Levy told the Eyeopener that walking out of the classroom as a means of dealing with disruptive students “doesn’t sound to me like it would be in our policy.”

He’s right. It’s not in anybody’s policy.

Ryerson’s two engineering professors became folk heroes among teachers in the same way that Steven Slater became a folk hero among flight attendants when he escaped via the emergency hatch after verbally berating a passenger. Everyone wishes they could do it, but almost nobody actually does.

Maybe it comes down to how Ryerson trains its teachers. Or maybe it comes down to frustration at a frustrating job. But Ryerson’s two professors should take a closer look at the literature on dealing with disruptive students. Escape hatches aren’t an option in this scenario.

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