Classroom Incivilities

Occasionally, instructors encounter “classroom incivilities” (CIs)—behavior that “interferes with a harmonious and cooperative learning atmosphere in the classroom” (Feldmann, 2001). While college instructors have always encountered disruptive student behavior, it is likely that the increases in student diversity and mental health concerns over the last few decades have brought this issue to the fore (Amanda, 1992).

CIs are not just disturbing for instructors but also for other students as well. And students alone are not responsible for CIs. In fact, when asked to list CI types, students cite more than other students, because students perceive the CIs of both other students and faculty (Boice, 2000).

To lessen their occurrence and deal most effectively with classroom incivilities, instructors should understand their own responsibility in creating a supporting learning environment as well as strategies for dealing with specific behaviors.

Instructor Influence on CIs in General

CI patterns are set in the first few days of class, and how instructors handle CIs is a strong signal of future teaching performance (Boice, 2000). Through general disposition, instructors have a great deal of influence on student CIs. Instructors who appear to be naïve, laid-back, or overly nurturing tend encounter more CIs (Nilson, 2010). CIs are also more likely to occur in classrooms where the instructor engaged in certain types of self-disclosure that decreases credibility with students (Klebig et al., 2016). Furthermore, students report less willingness to comply with instructors who are distant and antisocial (Kearney and Plax, 1992). For these reasons, “teachers are the most crucial initiators of classroom incivilities” (Boice, 2000). In short, when students find their instructor to be knowledgeable as well as caring (yet not to the point of naïve), students are less likely to cause issues (Miller et al., 2014).

Specific instructor behaviors can also contribute to healthier classrooms. For instance, instructors who met individually with students early in the semester experienced fewer CIs (Boice, 2000). Student CIs become more pronounced during times of heightened anxiety, for instance, the lead-up to a major deadline or the days around an exam. Making efforts to assist students with preliminary versions of major assignments or practice tests can reduce CIs (Boice, 2000).

Instructors should not consider all forms of student resistance uncivil. Many times, students push back on the perceived unfairness of the instructor or challenge an instructor’s interpretation or presentation of material. With positivity, humor, and flexibility, these can be channeled into constructive conversations about the design of a course, the style of instruction, or the complex nature of the material (Kearney and Plax, 1992).

Strategies for Minimizing Specific Classroom Incivilities

(Unless otherwise specified, the following recommendations are from Wingert and Molitor [2009]).


Giving students assignment check-ins, such as brief quizzes or assigning students to present content to the class, are ways to keep students accountable for being prepared. The knowledge that they may be randomly picked to present in front of their peers helps to encourage preparedness.


Variety in the classroom can increase attentiveness and engagement. Some ways to do this could be using small groups, Think/Pair/Share or Write/Pair/Share methods, moving around the classroom to engage with students, or rotating class seating arrangements. If these or other interactive methods do not increase attentiveness, confer with students privately about what may be going on.

Reluctant to Participate in Class

The Think/Pair/Share and Write/Pair/Share methods work well for increasing participation in the classroom. These methods, along with structured groups, can also increase attentiveness. When assigning groups, have them make roles clear from the start and randomly select group members to share a summary of their work with the class.

Hostile/Oppositional Behavior

At times, hostile and oppositional behavior stems from a lack of students feeling acknowledged. Acknowledging your students as individuals and commenting on specific work can be the first step to alleviating hostility. If this does not help, meeting privately with the student about their behavior can give insight into what issues they may be facing. Listen carefully and respectfully. If the student feels that you have aggravated these feelings in how you handle the class, state your position and calmly present the issue to your class, and encourage input for how it can be solved.

Argumentative/Heated Discussion

If a class discussion has turned heated, depersonalize and decentralize the situation. List evidence on the board of both sides, using strategies so everyone is heard. Two such techniques are the “rotating chair” technique (the speaker summarizes the previous statement before sharing their comments) and the circular response discussion (each student shares their own comment). These strategies shift the focus away from the specific students who are causing the heated discussion and help others have their voices heard, which can help to calm the situation.

Cheating/Plagiarizing Student Behavior

Help your students understand what constitutes plagiarism and why they should be aware of avoiding possible plagiarism. Harris’s (2000) handbook reviews what plagiarism is using cartoons, anecdotes, and simple language. Make students aware of campus services, like the University Writing Center, that can help students better understand plagiarism.

The structure of assignments can also dissuade plagiarism and cheating. Requiring multiple drafts of papers can help instructors spot possible plagiarism early. Varying forms and questions on tests can reduce the likelihood that students use previous material to cheat. Similarly, crafting unique assignment prompts can deter students from using another’s work.


Amanda, G. (1992). Coping with disruptive college students: A practical model. Journal of American College Health, 40, 203-215.

Boice, R. (1996). Classroom incivilities. Research in Higher Education, 36, 415-456.

Boice, R. (2000). Advice for new faculty members: Nihil nimus. Needham Heights, MA: Allyn and Bacon.

Feldmann, L. J. (2001). Classroom civility is another of our instructor responsibilities. College Teaching, 49, 137–140.

Harris, R. (2001). The Plagiarism Handbook: Strategies for Preventing, Detecting, and Dealing with Plagiarism. Los Angeles: Pyrczak Publishing.

Kearney, P., & Plax, T. G. (1992). Student resistance to control. In V. P. Richmond & J. C. McCroskey (eds.), Power in the classroom: Communication, Control, and Concern, 85-99. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Klebig, B., Goldonowicz, J., Mendes, E., Miller, A. N. & Katt, J. (2016). The combined effects of instructor communicative behaviors, instructor credibility, and student personality traits on incivility in the college classroom. Communication Research Reports, 33(2), 152-158.

Miller, A. N., Katt, J., Brown, T., & Sivo, S. (2014). The relationship of instructor self-disclosure, nonverbal immediacy, and credibility to student incivility in the college classroom. Communication Education, 63(1), 1-16.

Nilson, L. (2010). Teaching at its best. 3rd ed. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Wingert, D., & Molitor, T. (2009). Best practices: Preventing and managing challenging classroom situations. Currents in Teaching and Learning, 1(2), 4-18.