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Classroom Etiquette: A Guide for the Perplexed (and Flummoxed)

What to do about what shouldn't be happening

It is no secret that today’s students are different in a variety of ways than those who entered college even a few years ago. In some cases they come laden with burdens, such as worry about paying for their educations. Other students feel (and often are) ill-prepared for college-level work. Many simply arrive not knowing quite how to behave in the classroom; they are not sure what to expect nor do they know what is expected of them. As teachers, we have to be sure we are not falling prey to the fundamental attribution error by positing a character flaw when we observe a student flouting what we think are clear, obvious, or commonsense rules. As Voltaire put it, “Commonsense is not so common.”

An example: I spoke with a colleague earlier today about student decorum and what faculty can or should do when problems arise. She expressed surprise and dismay at the most common in-class problem: cell-phone use. Students usually don’t talk on their smartphones in class, of course, but they certainly text one another and check email or Facebook with relative abandon. Recently, during the first day of class, she reviewed cellphone etiquette as articulated in the course syllabus (“phones should be on silent and out of sight”) and then observed a first year student in the first row with his eyes glued to his cell phone. She let it pass because it was the first class meeting. When the second class rolled around, he sat two rows back and spent much of his time (albeit in failed attempt at being surreptitious) again staring at his phone and texting away. Slightly exasperated, after class she asked him to visit her during office hours. He did. She had to do a one on one session explaining the facts of classroom etiquette life. He expressed real embarrassment and apologized, which led to a broader talk on college life and appropriate behavior in and out of the classroom. My colleague wondered—not inappropriately—why so much effort has to be exerted for what should be a straightforward, even obvious, example of delaying gratification (i.e., put the phone away until class ends).

Sheepishly, I thought of my own true cellphone story from the start of this semester: My cell-phone rang in class the other day (I apparently neglected my own guidelines). My students laughed at both the song that is my ringtone (the jazz standard “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore”) but more, I think, at my failure to follow my own rules. It is true that I set my phone to let me know 5 minutes before ends so that I can wrap up whatever we are doing, review the day’s efforts, and remind the students about what we will do in the next class. Still, I need to be cognizant of the necessity to “do as I say” myself. If I can’t set a reasonable example where my own cellphone use is concerned then I should not complain when students decline to follow my rules.

The broader issue for teachers of psychology is that we cannot assume that the way we behaved when we were students is the way our own students will behave. I am no fan of “the golden days of good behavior are long gone” arguments, mostly because I think we often selectively remember the past, recalling it and our role therein as much better that it really and truly was “once upon a time.” And in any case, generational changes and cohort effects do occur, just as students come to college with experience, knowledge, and perspective vastly different from that of their teachers (if you doubt this fact, please check the characterization of this years entering class, an annual, if sobering, mindset list compiled by Beloit College).

So, here’s my advice for improving student etiquette in the contemporary psychology classroom. Assume nothing, explain everything, offer concrete guidance regarding what to do and not do, and model the very behavior you seek. Share the rules and explain the rationale for them (“texting while others are talking or listening is distracting—it’s also rude—please don’t do it”). Make sure the rules are in writing in the syllabus and enforce them. I would avoid embarrassing a student in class unless the behavior (whispering and talking out of turn comes to mind) was very disruptive.

As teachers, we have to both encourage and display the same level of courtesy that we seek.