“Class management,” or how to build community and engagement

Are you leaving class feeling frustrated and demoralized? Maybe you thought that honors students would behave perfectly at all times but now you find them chatting in class, texting, scrolling through social media, or just generally not paying attention? Fear not: classroom management — or, what we like to call “community building” — can help your students to feel more connected to your class, to each other, and to the work that you’re doing together.

Building community and engagement is a daily enactment, an iterative process, throughout semester: not just a one time thing. It is never too late to shift the course. But starting early and checking in often can help you to maximize effectiveness.

Give these ideas a try and in no time you will be leaving your course feeling energized and gratified:

1. Foster community: Students at Macaulay typically know each other a little better than students in their other classes. However, it’s still important to encourage existing relationships and to strengthen new ones. Learn (and use!) your students’ names, make sure that they learn each other’s names, and spend time at the beginning of the semester getting students to introduce themselves to each other and to you. Devote explicit time at the beginning or the end of each class period for students to have a conversation about something related to the class content with someone they haven’t already spoken to.

2. Work with not against: Trying to control your students will leave you all unhappy. Instead of trying to work against them, try to work with them. For example, if they won’t stop talking to each other, don’t attempt to force them to stop. Take a break from lecturing and give them a group activity where they will have an opportunity to reflect on what they’ve just learned. Give them a specific task to accomplish so they can’t just chit chat the entire time. When they report back, you will have a nicer class environment.

3. Respect, not authority: Rather than focus on students being deferential to your authority, try to cultivate respect and trust. The difference here is that instead of exploiting authority granted through the institutional dynamics, you ask them to develop respect and trust for you because of the kind of teacher you are. When students respect and trust you they are much more willing to listen to your guidelines because they believe they are doing it for a reason that benefits them and the classroom community.

4. Collaborate with students: Invite students to be part of the classroom space and decide on the shared rules of the community. Consider adopting a class-built participation policy where students work together to define what participation should look like in your seminar (rather than prescribing a policy or equating “participation” with “talking a lot”). You could do the same thing when discussing expectations for final projects: get students to weigh in on what they’d like to learn and how they think that learning could be assessed. Invite them to give feedback on the course throughout the semester instead of only at the end: one helpful strategy for this is the KQS survey, which is described in this post and which allows students to give you feedback on both what you AND they should keep doing, quit doing, or start doing in the class. Talk to your TLC Fellow about strategies that they’ve used for fostering student collaboration.

5. Rethink Your Tech Policies (for in-person classes): Don’t focus on controlling their use of technology; it will often only result in covert texting underneath the table. Think about what use technology has for the students and what the point of banning technology is—is there a pedagogical purpose to the ban, or is it out of fear that you cannot trust the students to use the technology responsibly? Talk to them about what they are using their computers for—you may be surprised that sometimes they are looking up more information about something you are saying, in which case you may want to turn that into a strength instead of a weakness. Other times they may be online shopping for, say, unicorn onesie pajamas and you will actually need them to shut their computers and pay more attention. A universal ban, however, prevents pedagogically relevant instances of the computers. Consider having times where you want them to take notes with pen and paper but other times where it may be appropriate for them to have their computers out, and then incorporate their computer access into your lecture. For example when a student asks a question you don’t know the answer to, ask a student to google some information for the class.


Credits: Original post by Lindsey Albracht, Christina Nadler, and the students in the Macaulay Honors Program at Queens College; updated and remixed by Hamad Sindhi.

Featured image from The Pattern Library.

Last updated: July 6th, 2020.