Engaging the Unruly Class

It’s not just individual students that can be challenging, sometimes the microcosm of a specific class develops an unruly demeanor. It’s difficult to say why this is; it could be the time the class meets, the subject, or a unique combination of personalities. Regardless of the reason, these classes can leave an instructor feeling flustered, frustrated, and downright helpless.

However, an unruly class isn’t necessarily bad as it shows the room has energy and students are engaged with each other, but it can become difficult to constantly feel the need to corral their attention. If you’re struggling with an unruly class, try these strategies to help refocus your students’ attention:

Use the room. Don’t limit yourself to only standing at the front of the classroom. This creates an invisible boundary between ‘your space’ where you do your thing, and ‘their space’ where they do their’s. Instead, when appropriate, walk around the room or stand in a different location. And don’t underestimate the value of pulling up a chair to sit and join small group discussions.

You can also have students come up to the front by writing on the board or using a sticky note activity

Change your routine. If every lesson follows the same pattern, students will develop a number of good and bad habits in response. Vary the type, length, and order of each lecture, discussion, or activity section of your lesson and clearly signal the transitions to ensure your students stay on point. 

Personally, I’ve learned my voice has a tone that signals when I’m wrapping up a lesson and my students will start gearing up to leave as soon as they hear it. Even though I still have that tone, I’ve started varying how I end my lessons and they seem less likely to switch off when they hear that shift in my voice. 

Change their routine. If their are individual pockets of disruption in your class, change where students sit. You can rearrange the desks, create random or assigned groups, or just ask students to sit in a new seat or row every once in a while. Every time you change up the seating, encourage students to introduce themselves to each other to make sure they engage one anther as peers and not just as random strangers in the room. 

Turn down the volume. Don’t underestimate the power of silence. Sometimes we feel pressured into keeping students’ eyes and ears focused up front, and this can translate to feeling like we need to either keep talking or talk louder. But if your students are talking around you, don’t be afraid to stop mid-sentence or lower your voice a touch and wait for students to return their focus to you.

Pause. In longer classes, it’s okay to stop for five minutes and tell students to get a drink, use the restroom, or check their phones. This mini break helps to reset and refocus their attention on the task at hand.




Feature image by Pablo Garcia Saldaña on Unsplash
Teaching Assistant at University of Illinois at Chicago |

Hannah Green is a PhD student in the Program for Writers at the University of Illinois at Chicago. While a creative writer by nature, she’s a teacher at heart and enjoys teaching writing in all its forms including composition, professional, technical, and creative writing. Her research interests include the place of the asylum in narratives of mental illness, the literature of Southern Africa, and oral storytelling. Her creative writing appears both in print and online in places such as The Rumpus, PANK, and McSweeney's. Hannah is also the Editor-in-Chief of During Office Hours.


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