“Do you have any strategies for classroom management?” — Any seasoned professor will tell you that this is one of the most common, and most difficult, questions to answer. There are so many avenues to explore with regards to classroom management techniques, and each one leads to even more questions. What exactly are we managing in the classroom? Time? Space? The students? Ourselves?
To complicate matters, every class is different. We have an array of class sizes, formats, subjects we cover, levels of student preparation, and so on. So, how do you begin to address a topic as broad as classroom management—and then formulate some effective classroom management techniques?
I have found that it is best to focus on things that are more or less universal in the world of teaching. For example, here are a few issues that affect almost all instructors, regardless of where, what or how we’re teaching:
- Getting students to interact with the material by increasing interest and engagement
- Addressing the “why should we care?” question
- Deciding what to teach – selecting and organizing content
- Developing rapport with students – striking the balance between being approachable and friendly while still being respected as the authority in the room.
Each of these could be entire blog posts (or books) by themselves, but in this post, I will discuss 2–3 research-backed classroom management techniques for each.
Classroom management techniques for getting students to interact with material
Students learn better if they can share in the creation of the content you’re teaching. So, look for opportunities to collaborate with them. One of my favorite ways to do this is by holding contests (the friendly type, although giving a few bonus points to the winners increases interest and boosts motivation). Here are a few quick ideas:
- Ask students to create posters that explain a key topic for an upcoming exam (either individually or in teams, depending on class size)
- Have students record videos of themselves explaining or illustrating concepts; hold a mini “film festival” in class
- Running out of time? Try interactive technology, such as web-based games to challenge students—either one-on-one or in teams.
Also, getting students to discuss the material with each other in small groups (whether organized formally or based on proximity) is more beneficial than providing them with explanations yourself. So, get them to share their own definitions and examples with each other. They can even write practice questions and challenge other students to answer them correctly.
Addressing the “Why should we care?” question
I teach Intro Psych, and one of my biggest problems in the classroom is students who aren’t interested in what I’m teaching because they don’t see how it is relevant to them. They’re in my class because it’s a general education requirement, and their goal is to get through the semester as quickly and painlessly as possible. Their strategy is to learn enough to get the grade they want on the test, and then move on to more “important” subjects.
My job is to convince them that all learning is important learning, and more specifically, that what I teach is applicable to them. Here are a few ideas that have worked for me:
- Ask the students to submit a short written reflection on how specific class content might apply to their major
- Give them a description of a research study and ask them to make predictions before teaching the theory (a technique highlighted in James Lang’s popular book Small Teaching1)
- Show examples of course content drawn from news or popular media (or even better, ask students to find examples themselves)
- Share your learning objectives with students, but frame them as an accomplishment for the students (“look what you’ll be able to do now!”) rather than a to-do list for your class.
Deciding what to teach—selecting and organizing content
One of the most common mistakes made by new instructors is trying to teach too much content. The amount of material students are likely to retain is dismally small compared to what we would like for them to learn. Further, their knowledge often takes the form of a disconnected string of facts and theories, which is primarily due to their lack of a more cohesive organization system—one of the main differences between novices and experts2. So, we know we need to limit the quantity of material and focus on quality instead. But what should you cut? This depends on your specific class, of course, but here are a few general principles that might help:
- Use the principles of backwards design—think first about what you really want students to know or do for each lesson and then create content to get them there
- Use your advanced knowledge and expertise to introduce students to content they can’t find in their book. Use class time to challenge them, capture their attention, and share what makes you most passionate about your field
- Emphasize critical thinking and analysis so that as their fields change, they will have the skills needed to analyze and interpret new information.
Classroom management techniques for developing a rapport with students
All of your hard work on teaching and curriculum design goes right out the window if you don’t first develop a good relationship with your students. They need to know that you’re on their side, and that your top priority is to help them learn and grow as students—and as people. This doesn’t mean being easy on them or backpedaling when policies are challenged—in fact, I’ve found the opposite to be true. Students will respect you and your policies if you show them that you are firm but fair, and that your top priority is their success.
Here are a few ideas to help you communicate that message to your students:
- Send out a copy of your syllabus in a welcome email before the semester begins. This will set the tone for all the interactions you’ll have with your students the whole rest of the semester
- Assign a scavenger hunt each semester (for extra credit) in which the students are required to ask a question and collect a signature from key people at key locations, such as my office, the graduate assistant office, their team TA, and so on. It’s a simple assignment, but it communicates my desire to see them do well
- Talk about yourself. Show them the things you do well, and those that make you struggle. Share your successes as well as your failures. In short, help them see you as a real person.
What are some other classroom management challenges you’ve faced? Do you some great classroom management techniques of your own to share? Let us know on Twitter or Facebook—and we might feature your contribution in a future blog post.
1. Lang, J. (2016). Small Teaching: Everyday Lessons From the Science of Learning. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
2. Ambrose, S., et al. (2010). How Learning Works: Seven Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.