Essays on Teaching Excellence
Toward the Best in the Academy

Vol.15, No. 8, 2003-2004

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Encouraging Civil Behavior in LargeClasses

Mary Deane Sorcinelli,University of Massachusetts Amherst

For two years I was part of a bi-monthly, cross-disciplinary seminar withtwenty tenured professors who taught large, lower-division lectures ranging insize from 100 to 500 students. Our goal, supported by a grant from the Williamand Flora Hewlett Foundation, was to improve general education courses at ourUniversity. Early on in our meetings, a desire to share strategies for managingstudent behavior in large lecture classes surfaced. This topic appears to be ashared concern among college teachers on many campuses, as demonstrated by theincreasing advice in higher education publications on "troublesomebehaviors," "incivility," and "misconduct." (Amada,1999; Richardson, 1999). This essay looks specifically at issues of civility inthe large lecture classroom, and offers some preventative measures andpractical advice.

Creating a Constructive Classroom Climate

When disruptive behavior occurs in our classes, we can be sure of twothings. First, we must do something. The longer inappropriate behaviorcontinues, the more acceptable it becomes and the more difficult it is to stop.Second, it is easier to prevent disruptive behaviors than to deal with themafter the fact. Establishing a positive climate and expectations for largeclass learning can avert many problems.The following are four groups ofspecific strategies that teachers can use to guide their efforts in creatingconstructive large class environments (Sorcinelli, 2002).

Define Expectations at the Outset. The importance of establishingnorms and setting expectations for a class at the outset cannot be overstated.A carefully planned first meeting, a clear syllabus, and simply relating tostudents on a personal basis can help establish a positive atmosphere and avoidproblems that may arise from confusion about guidelines for classroom behavior.

Decrease Anonymity. When students have personal relationships withthe teacher as well as their peers, civility can come more easily. Thefollowing are some practical ways to reduce anonymity in large classes.

Encourage Active Learning. Studies suggest that active learningmethods engage students with content in ways that develop positiverelationships among students as well as competencies and critical thinkingskills—rather than solely the acquisition of knowledge. A number ofactive learning strategies are particularly suited to large classes (Sutherland& Bonwell, 1996; Carbone, 1998; Stanley & Porter, 2002).

Examine Your Behavior and Seek Feedback from Students. When facedwith inappropriate deportment, examine your own behavior. Surveys of students?"pet peeves about teaching" reveal that many are concerned aboutlecturing behaviors—including poor organization, visuals, pacing, and useof class time. Other complaints include talking down to students, beingunhelpful or unapproachable, and employing confusing testing and gradingpractices (Perlman & McCann, 1998).

Some Solutions for Dealing withMisbehavior

Clearly, prevention is preferable to remediation. However, instructors maystill run into some students or classes that present problems. The suggestionsbelow address behaviors that faculty report as most irritating and troublesome.There are several excellent resources to consult when confronted with moreserious breaches of classroom conduct, for example, cheating, harassment, drugor alcohol abuse (Amada, 1999; McKeachie, 1999; Richardson, 1999).

Talking and Inattention

Arriving Late and Leaving Early

Poor Attendance

Ignoring Deadlines

Challenges to Authority. At some point in large classes, manyteachers will face a student who is resentful, hostile, or challenging. Thefollowing are a few suggestions for gaining the cooperation of an oppositionalstudent.


For most instructors, teaching the large lecture is one of the mostchallenging of classroom assignments. Although we have expertise in our contentareas, we often have little training to manage such large numbers of students.Paramount to establishing a positive large class environment and deterringdisruptive behavior is to let students know your expectations from the outsetand hold them to those expectations. Perhaps most importantly, as instructorswe need to consider our own behavior as well as that of our students. An honestattempt to understand how our classroom deportment might contribute to adifficult situation may help to reduce incivilities in our classrooms.


Amada, G. (1999). Coping with misconduct in the college classroom: Apractical model. Asheville, NC: CollegeAdministration Publications.

Carbone, E. (1998). Teaching large classes: Tools and strategies. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

McKeachie, W.J. (1999). Teaching Tips(10th ed.). Lexington, MA: Heath.

Perlman, B., & McCann, L.I. (1998). Students? pet peeves about teaching.Teaching of Psychology, 25, 201-02.

Richardson, S. (Ed.) (1999). Promoting Civility: A Teaching Challenge.New Directions for Teaching and Learning,no.77. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Sorcinelli, M.D. (2002). Promoting civility in large classes. In Stanley,C.A., & Porter, M.E. (Eds.) Engaging Large Classes (pp. 44-57). Bolton, MA: Anker Publishing.

Stanley, C.A., & Porter, M.E. (Eds.) (2002). Engaging Large Classes. Bolton, MA: Anker Publishing.

Sutherland, T.E., & Bonwell, C.C. (Eds.) (1996). Using activelearning in large classes: A range of options for faculty. New Directions forTeaching and Learning, no. 67. SanFrancisco, CA: Jossey Bass.

Mary Deane Sorcinelli (Ed.D., University of Massachusetts Amherst) isAssociate Provost and Director, Center for Teaching at University ofMassachusetts, Amherst.

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