Potential discipline problems of major concern to teaching assistants and future college teachers

Students who talk with classmates during class.
Students who fall asleep in class.
Students who pack up several minutes before class is over.
Students who argue about how you graded an assignment.
Students who text message during class or are on their laptops checking their Facebook pages.

All of these discipline problems are concerns that the graduate students in Mass Communication Teaching have about teaching at the college level. Some in the class are teaching assistants now and have had to deal with some of these issues. Some have witnessed these issues in classes they’ve been in.

A student in the class taught class on discipline problems and used research on discipline problems and resources available at UF to guide her presentation.

The student who presented on discipline problems included statistics that more students today enter college with learning disabilities (such as ADHD) that can make learning more difficult for them. The students may act out as a way of avoiding answering questions in class or out of frustration. Students feel pressured by the bad economy — they have to work more or fear losing their scholarships. Students who seek counseling on campus are able to see a counselor less often. All of those issues lead to discipline problems.

Some discipline problems are caused by the teachers themselves. Teachers who are unprepared for class. They are nonresponsive to student questions or concerns. Teachers who don’t structure fair exams or give timely and helpful feedback on assignments. Teachers who give confusing directions or keep changing course requirements.

Our class discussion led to a list of strategies to avoid discipline problems or to address discipline problems that do happen:

  1. Have written policies and procedures in your syllabus. With written policies, students know your rules and that if have to take action, you aren’t being personal but are enforcing the course policies. These include use of electonic devices, absences, tardies, food and drink in class, etc.
  2. Be a prepared, fair and interesting teacher — Plan each class. Consider student goals and help students see how your course connects with their goals. Grade fairly and give timely feedback.
  3. Be proactive. The phrase that was repeated was “Nip it in the bud.” If students are talking during class, take action then. Give them “the look” or walk toward their side of the room or talk with them before or after class. Letting a problem continue without action typically means the problem will continue and often will become worse.
  4. Use humor when possible and avoid a major confrontation in front of the class. If you challenge a student in front of his or her peers, the student often will resist so as to not lose face. I find that humor often can work for me — “You look way to interested in your laptop to be taking notes on class. So you need to put away the laptop.” Smile and have a light tone.
  5. Help students feel empowered in your class. Sometimes students act out because they feel destined to fail or overwhelmed. Talk with them about what they see as obstacles for them in the course. See if you might be able to make some changes yourself and get your students to take ownership of their situation. Can you help them structure their time to meet deadlines? Can you help the student see how to more effectively study for the next test or understand why poor attendance is conncected with class performance. Yes, these are college students and we often think they should have study skills and time management figured out. Some do and some don’t. Especially if you teach lower division classes, you may need to include some Study Tips 101 in your class or one-on-one coaching.
  6. Seek help — Talk to other teaching assistants if you’re a grad student and talk with your teaching supervisor. Get advice. You may need your supervisor or another teacher to sit in a conference with you and the disruptive student. That way you have a witness, and having another person in the conference may make the student behave more appropriately. Having a more experienced teacher sit in on your class also can be a way of having a neutral observer help evaluate the classroom situation.
  7. Meet with students outside of class — Many discipline-related conversations just can’t be done during class or right before or right after class. You may have the student come to office hours. You might ask several students (including the discipline problem student) to meet with you for coffee to talk about the course. But beware of meeting privately with an angry or hostile student. You want to consider your own personal safety. Keep the door open or meet in a more open location with people around. Have that extra person in the meeting.
  8. Document discipline problems — If the situation escalates, you may have to provide a chronology of incidents. You want to be able to do that. Keep record of dates and notes of specific incidents. E-mailing the student or your department chair or teaching supervisor can be a way of having a record. Keep your writing professional, as your e-mails could be shared with others.
  9. Be aware of and utilize campus resources — These include the disability resource office, the counseling center, student mental health and the campus police.

Finally, try to keep the discipline problem in perspective. Sometimes discipline problems can be the major event of the semester, but you want to put all your many other teaching experiences into your view of the semester, of your students and of your teaching.


  1. As a senior adjunct at a community college, and a college Learning Specialist with a private practice, I take exception with your attributing classroom behavior problems with the onslaught of students with LD and ADD entering our colleges.

    In my humble opinion, the students with LD are usually very meek and reluctant to engage with the teacher or classmates. They are the LEAST likely to be the wise guys of the class. In fact, one of their problems is that they are TOO passive.

    ADD comes in 2 varieties – attentive and inattentive. I grant you, if there is an inattentive ADD student in a class, there may be some inappropriate interruptions. But I’ve met just as many “attentive” students who sit quietly, but their minds are a million miles away. They are there in body. I guess they are called “attentive” b/c they are not hyperactive.

    Personally, I attribute college behavior issues with the fact that students are terribly disrespectful in HS and get away with it – in fact, they see it as “normal”. When I insist upon being on time to class, students will tell me I’m too “fussy” – what’s the big deal? Who runs the classroom? What gives students the right to change the rules established by the “expert”?

    Too many students enter college thinking they already know it all. They are closed to learning new strategies and skills, and will fight you at every turn. They did little HW or studying in HS, so they start college with the same poor work ethic/attitude.

    This is a societal problem – please be careful about attributing it to students with LD, most of whom are trying desperately to succeed against a college system that sets them up to fail from day one.


    1. Joan – I appreciate your comment. In rereading my post, it does sound like a major factor in the discipline problems is due to students with learning disabilities. That was one factor — and one of the factors discussed by the grad student who made the class presentation that prompted my post. But students with learning disabilities like ADD or LD are NOT the students who are causing the classroom discipline problems. I’ll make that clarification in an upcoming blog post and also discuss your point that high school students get away with being disrespectful. Your comment also introduced me to your blog — conquercollegewithld.com. – Julie


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