The Secret(s) to Managing Challenging Student Behaviors

Women in Higher Education
Student Success

Article Summary

  • Students display non-learning behaviors for a variety of reasons and managing them can be a challenge|A strategically planned syllabus can help students know what to expect from your course while clarifying your rules for technology usage|Having a mix of technology tools and non-technology activities meets students where they are while keeping them engaged in learning behaviors
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Shawn Orr is Director of the Center for Innovation and Teaching Excellence, and a faculty member in the Communication Studies Department at Ashland University in Ashland, Ohio. 


If you’ve been teaching for more than a semester, you’ve likely encountered good students who demonstrate non-learning behaviors in your classroom. It could be the student that struggles to put their cell phone or other technology away and pay attention, the student that comes to class unprepared and unengaged or the discouraged student that brings fears of past failures and a disheartened attitude into class with them. Whatever these non-learning behaviors might be, they negatively impact the student’s ability to focus and engage, and likely impact the classroom environment. As we try to actively engage students in our classes and create an environment where learning is the priority, what are some strategies to manage non-learning behaviors?

Over the last 25 years as a faculty member in higher education, I’ve learned that student behavior is often a function of environment, and behavior is strengthened—or weakened—by consequences, engagement and connection.

Outline Your Expectations

To start, having a well-developed syllabus that clearly outlines your expectations for attendance, participation, technology usage (and excuses)—and provides thoughtful consideration about how learning will happen and be assessed—is critical. I’ve found it’s important that adult students understand the learning purpose behind classroom policies, rules and procedures, and that consequences (and exceptions) are clearly outlined up front. Helping students understand the research behind divided attention and content retention—especially related to technology—provides a great foundation for rules related to technology usage in the classroom (especially during lectures).

Use Technology as a Tool

That said, we do want to meet our students where they are and, according to the latest research, that’s likely utilizing technology to help them learn. Whether students are reading their textbook on their cell phone, flipping through flashcards on their online learning tool or watching a short video on YouTube, they are often using technology to help them learn.

When I create a class environment that actively engages students by incorporating non-technology activities (i.e. lecture logs, changing charts, think-pair-share and expert groups) and technology tools (i.e. polling in the Cengage Mobile App, augmented reality on my syllabus for just-in-time instruction and Flipgrid or Padlet where students work in teams to respond to prompts) students are more likely to be on track, focused and learning. This means they’re not engaging in non-learning behaviors!

I’ve also found that simple techniques like recording short versions of my lectures (with tools like Screencastomatic or Kaltura), providing rubrics that outline the expectations for success on assignments and projects, bringing in past students to share their secrets to success in my courses, and setting up individual out-of-class appointments to address behaviors that might be impacting learning, has had an encouraging effect on students.

In the end, my goal is to create an environment where learning is the focus—and everyone is demonstrating good learning behaviors.

For more of Shawn’s tips, check out her Empowered Educator webinar, “Transforming Challenging Students into Leaders.”