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  February 17, 2004

Videos, Workshops Help TA's
Deal With Behavioral Problems

The brief video clips portray students chatting about basketball during lectures, answering their cell phones, scrawling vulgar drawings on the whiteboard, arriving late, and leaving early. When confronted, they yell, laugh, or talk back loudly.

Image: Graduate student Lance Miller

Graduate student Lance Miller discusses an equation with a class. Teaching assistants and faculty have benefitted from an Institute for Teaching and Learning initiative to help them deal with problem behavior in the classroom.

Photo by Melissa Arbo

The video scenes, produced by the Institute for Teaching and Learning, are part of an effort to help faculty and teaching assistants identify and deal with behavioral problems that are appearing in classrooms nationwide.

Civility, or the lack of it, has become a hot topic on college campuses around the country. During the past year, several articles have appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education, and a chapter was devoted to it in the second edition of the textbook, Teaching At Its Best.

The Institute for Teaching and Learning stepped ahead of the curve, and began including workshops on how to effectively handle disruptions during orientation courses for teaching assistants several years ago.

Catherine Ross, director of teaching assistant programs, and Keith Barker, associate vice provost and director of the Institute for Teaching and Learning, spend time during every orientation session for teaching assistants discussing how to plan for and handle disruptive behavior. They also are available as needed for schools and departments, and stand ready to help individual faculty and TA's as well, when the going gets tough.

Their brief film has won support across the country, with about three dozen copies sold to other universities during national conferences and meetings Ross has attended.

"The movie is a great way to start a discussion about how certain behaviors should be handled - whether the TA in the clip handled a behavior issue properly, for example," Ross says. "There are a number of ways you can take the discussion."

On the International Teaching Assistant website, a series of possible discussion topics based on the film is listed, some for each of the five issues covered in the movies.

"Studies show it's been getting worse recently," says Ross. "Why? Nobody is absolutely certain, but there seem to be a combination of factors at play, from lenience in high school classrooms to the anonymity of large classes to the larger number of required courses in college today. Some students don't want to be in a particular class, but it's a required course, so they act up more."

Ross says the problem is particularly difficult for adjunct faculty and teaching assistants, especially international teaching assistants. They're often treated like the proverbial substitute teacher in high school, she says.

"They don't exude the authority that full professors can, they're often young, many are female," Ross says. "Some students feed on this."

Consequently, she says, one of the first lessons she and Barker convey to the TA's is that they do, indeed, have power and they can discipline misbehaving students. But they must "pick their battles," she adds.

"The most important thing in establishing civility in the classroom is to be very clear about what the consequences of misbehavior are, and to be very up-front about it. Put your expectations on your syllabus. Discuss the ground rules during your first class. Be explicit and then make sure you follow through," Ross says.

Ross also says TA's or professors working with students who are disruptive, and who continue to be disruptive even after efforts have been made to intervene, should report the problem to her, or to their department head or dean.

"You have to have support. Some students will try to get back at faculty who confront them by complaining to their supervisors, hoping to get them in trouble," she says. "By keeping your colleagues involved, you protect yourself."

Hongbiao Li, a teaching assistant in the math department for more than two years, says he has seen students acting up a number of times.

"Sometimes the students are rude," he says. "They call me names. Sometimes they fight," he adds, recalling an incident when three students came close to exchanging blows.

"I went to the students and asked them what the problem was. One had taken another's seat. I explained that our class was a small community, that we are all friends, and that there were plenty of other seats," Li says, who has attended an institute workshop on civility. "Things calmed down and we were OK."

In response to the name-calling incident, Li adopted one of the techniques Ross had suggested and discussed the issue with the student after class, pointing out the importance of learning for the entire class. The situation got better. Li says the training the institute provided was very helpful.

Ross attended one of Li's classes. She says she was impressed by how well Li handled a difficult situation, getting some rowdy students involved in an experiment.

During the orientation and in one-on-one sessions, Ross and Barker suggest basic teaching tips that can help corral disruptive behavior before it starts: walking around the classroom while lecturing or eliciting discussion, which allows the professor to see what students are reading or writing and also keeps students alert; make sure students are engaged; announce that some students have complained about incivility by their peers, and make it a topic of discussion; know - and use - the students' names to help build a rapport with them; direct questions to students who are talking or reading; and more.

"The seminars are very positive," says Nancy Sheehan, associate dean of the School of Family Studies, who recently called on Ross and Barker after several TA's raised concerns about student behavior in their classes. "The suggestions they made, and the insight they brought to the group about setting a proper tone, were very helpful."

Ross urges other departments to take advantage of the workshops too, saying the increase in incivility bears watching by new and veteran faculty as well as TA's. But her primary message to all teachers is the same: "Don't ignore disruptive behavior," she says. "It won't go away."

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