Mitigating disruptive behaviour in the classroom. Case Study from Level 5 Research Methods for Marketing and Events

Clare Mackay, Lecturer in Events Management, Bristol Business School, University of West of England

Statement of the problem

Disruptive behaviour can be defined as behaviour that is ‘disrespectful, annoying or distracting, wastes class time, or generates negative attitudes toward the course or instructor’ (Deering, 2011, p. 2). Such behaviour can be unpleasant for lecturers and negatively affects the student experience (Jones, 2018), student satisfaction, and retention. Hence, disruptive behaviour negatively affects programme and institutional performance.

Disruptive behaviour is a problem that I have faced in my large Level 5 research methods lectures. The lectures are delivered to students across three marketing and events programmes, and the cohort is comprised of home and international students including students entering University at Level 5 from Further Education institutions. The cohort of approximately 325 students is split across two lectures. Within these lectures, some students spoke to one another and glued to their phones. I found this behaviour really distracting and tried different strategies to deal with the behaviour such as stopping the class and waiting until the students stopped talking, and asking the students to stop talking and/or put their phone away. Some students however found it more distracting that I stopped the lecture because of the disruptive behaviour.  The disruptive behaviour thus had a negative effect on the student experience and student satisfaction which resulted in me receiving negative feedback.

Literature review

Disruptive behaviour in Higher Education has been attributed to environmental factors (Deering, 2011).  Layout, lighting, and colour for example, can affect the way that we interact with a space (Smith, 2017). The large, traditional, tiered, lecture theatre with no windows that I teach in may therefore make students feel tired and bored and thus distracted. Though, my students have also been disruptive in the bright, modern, Harvard style lecture theatre and the more intimate flat lecture theatre. However, students have told me that slightly facing each other in the former feels uncomfortable. In this case, students may prefer to look at their mobile phones instead of facing forwards. As I have experienced disruptive behaviour in lecture theatres of different styles, the size of the room and the number of people present may be more of a contributing factor.  This idea is supported by Dean, Lee-Poste, and Hapke (2017) who suggest that students are more easily distracted in large lecture theatres. Large lecture theatres have also been found to be ineffective – particularly for students from minority backgrounds (Sciullo, 2017). This perhaps explains the current attainment gap experienced by black and minority ethnic students attending University in the United Kingdom.  Universities nevertheless continue to utilise this pedagogical method. According to Marmot (2014), estates have not expanded at the same pace as recruitment hence there is a need to maximise space per head.  It is perhaps therefore not surprising that Quinlan and Fogel (2014) attribute the continued use of the lecture in Universities to the increasing neoliberalisation of Higher Education.

Though he does not cite examples of the studies to which he is referring, Feldon (2010) argues that large quantitative studies that have found a correlation between lectures and poor student achievement have either not investigated or controlled the variables that should be present in a good lecture. Feldon suggests that the effectiveness of lectures depends on the student cohort and how the lecturer manages the potential for students to connect with material that concentrates their cognition on attempting to learn core concepts. Cognitive Load Theory (CLT) provides a framework for considering both of these variables. The main proposition of CLT is that learners can only process four pieces of information at a particular point in time as the capacity of short-term memory is finite. Consequently, when processing information, learners unitise it according to their knowledge of the material and the task.  The more knowledge the learner has about the content, context, and task, the easier it is for the learner to map new pieces of information on to abstract representations of knowledge that help the learner to organise the relevant aspects. As learners learn more and are more able to connect different ideas, their abstract representations of knowledge become more sophisticated and capable of interpreting greater amounts of information as a single unit.  This means that the number of chunks of information that can be processed by individual learners will differ according to their prior knowledge. These chunks and the resources that facilitate the interactions that take place between the information and the memory are experienced as cognitive effort. When the information to be processed exceeds the short-term memory’s capacity to process it, students struggle to learn. Being overwhelmed by this overload of information can result in procrastination with students choosing to spend their time on easier tasks – such as chatting or using their mobile phone.  It can also cause students to revert to former, easier ways of thinking that demand less effort. This can result in previous misunderstanding being applied within the new learning context and consequently strengthened at the expense of the attainment of the new knowledge they are attempting to learn. Hence, to maximise students’ potential to learn from instruction, CLT advocates three core principles:

  • The intrinsic cognitive load – which represents the inherent complexity of the material to be learned – should be minimised by presenting new information to students along with appropriate prior knowledge so that the complexity of the material does not occupy the whole capacity of the short-term memory.
  • Extraneous load – which is represented by information that occupies some of the finite capacity of the working memory but does not contribute to understanding – should be eliminated.
  • Germane load (i.e. the effort expended through comprehending scaffolding) should be imposed to facilitate learning.

To manage the intrinsic load on students’ cognition, lecturers should make the module and class learning outcomes explicit and make it clear how students are expected to use the knowledge they are learning.  The existing knowledge of students can also be assessed to ensure they understand prerequisite concepts.  This can be done using technology.

In addition to eliminating information that does not contribute to understanding, extraneous overload can be avoided through the way information is presented. Information enters the short-term memory through mode specific pathways which have finite bandwidth hence it is useful for information to be dispersed across modes and to enter the short-term memory concurrently – through for example the concurrent provision of verbal and visual information. In a similar vein, it is better to integrate text within a diagram than to keep it separate as this eliminates the use of cognition to integrate the information. Conversely, ‘reading aloud the text that students are looking at forces redundant processing of the same information’ (Feldon, 2010, p.19) and hinders their capacity to retain the information.

Managing germane load is more complex. If the scaffolding provided to help the students is not disposed of, it becomes an extraneous load. Managing germane load is thus particularly challenging for lecturers as students do not all reach the same level of understanding at the same time. Hence, germane load that is providing scaffolding to learning for some students may be overloading the working memory capacity of other students. Feldon (2010) does not propose a strategy for managing the germane load of students. He does however note that in addition to the other strategies for avoiding cognitive overload outlined previously, worked examples are particularly useful in reducing cognitive load as they involve the lecturer framing the problem and demonstrating how to solve the problem by breaking it down in to manageable chunks. Feldon (2010) suggests that after discussing a worked example, students can be given a partially worked example to complete.  Such examples can be used to provide scaffolding to understanding with the lecturer gradually requiring the students to complete more of the activity. Thus, allowing the lecturer to control the cognitive load (Feldon, 2010).

My students may have struggled with cognitive load as I was not aware of this theory until studying this module and the feedback I received for one of my recent probationary observations suggested that I consider ‘chunking’.

The difficulty of comprehending some subjects is further compounded by the presence of threshold concepts. Threshold concepts require students to think differently and upon passing the threshold of understanding, the way in which the learner thinks is transformed. Due to the difficulty of thinking differently, students find threshold concepts hard to comprehend (Land, Rattray, and Vivian, 2014). Land, Rattray, and Vivian (2014, p. 203) use the metaphor of a tunnel to describe the sense of ‘foreboding’ experienced while learners are in the liminal state trying to grapple with threshold concepts before they see the light at the end of the tunnel and emerge with comprehension, their way of thinking transformed. I think this is a really useful way of thinking about research methods as it is not possible to have a full understanding of the research process until close to the end of the twelve weeks that the module is taught over. In addition, each year that I have taught the module, students have written about a lack of understanding in their mid-module evaluations before telling me towards the end of the module that though they understand at that point, they found the module really difficult.

Land, Rattray, and Vivian (2014) point out in their semiotic analysis of threshold concepts that as lecturers we may think that students share a common understanding of what we have taught them. However, what the students actually share is a common set of signifiers, i.e. signs that symbolise the signified/what they are trying to learn.  Students’ ‘ability and willingness to use the signifier will depend on their understanding of the signified and their feelings about the learning process’ (Land, Rattray, and Vivian, 2014, p. 204).  This demonstrates the individualised nature of learning.  My experience seems to support this theory. Though some of the students’ assessments demonstrate a complete understanding of all of the concepts taught in the module, some students demonstrate both comprehension and misunderstanding, and some students have a tendency to omit elements such as research philosophy from their proposal suggesting that they are not willing or able to discuss such elements due to a lack of understanding.  Land, Rattray, and Vivian (2014) point out that one potential reason for students’ lack of understanding is their inability to understand the language, signs and syntax used by the lecturer – this is why it is sometimes easier for students to gain understanding from speaking to their peers. This highlights the importance of clearly explaining the meaning of concepts and utilising diagrams and images to aid comprehension. In this respect, threshold concepts and cognitive load theory work well together. Land, Rattray, and Vivian also highlight the affect that engaging with threshold concepts can have on the feelings, mood, and attitude of students. Literature that draws attention to this, acknowledges the ‘difficulties and discomforts of supporting students as they change their epistemological beliefs’ (Land, Rattray, and Vivan, 2014, p. 215). Land, Rattray, and Vivian suggest that we need to engage our students in a discussion about the extent of their understanding of these concepts.

Given the difficulty students experience trying to comprehend research methods, it is likely that the students in my lectures were not intending to be disruptive (Douglas, Moyes, and Douglas, 2006) and in some cases, may simply have been sense-checking with their peers. However, Douglas, Moyes, and Douglas found in their qualitative comparative study of Italian and Scottish students that the students considered mobile phone and social media use in the classroom to be inappropriate.  Moreover, the words the students used to describe disruptive behaviour suggest that they view it as a barrier to learning.  Consequently, students expect disruptive behaviour to be dealt with by their lecturer. However, they do not all agree as to how such behaviour should be dealt with, e.g. immediately within the classroom setting or post-class.

Deering (2011) points out that before attempting to deal with disruptive behaviour, faculty should consider their own behaviour. On reflection, the disruptive behaviour that occurred during my first semester teaching research methods may have been a result of the didactic nature of the lectures.  Having started my appointment just before the start of term, I did not have time to create my own lectures and having never taught research methods before, I focused on revising my knowledge to be able to lecture using my predecessor’s lecture slides, assuming – perhaps naively – that didactic lecturing had been effective for her. Moreover, if you do not feel confident lecturing on a topic it is easier to deliver a didactic lecture than an engaging lecture.  It is also likely that as research methods was a subject I had never taught before, that I found the disruptive behaviour more distracting than I do now that I have been immersed in the area for the last year. As stopping the lecture and asking students to stop talking/put their phone away are considered the most successful strategies for dealing with disruptive behaviour by students in the Scottish context, it may be that I was using the correct strategy but in a tone of voice that was too autocratic. However, it should be noted that in Scotland, higher education fees are paid for by the government. Thus, lecturers are arguably perceived by students as having more authority than in England –where students are paying over £9000 per year for their degree. As ‘consumers’ paying for their University fees, students may feel that they can behave as they please during lectures. Sun and Shek (2012) similarly found that students’ perceptions of what constitutes disruptive behaviour are influenced by cultural difference. This perhaps explains why international students appear to be more respectful than home students. This suggests that the British primary and secondary education systems are failing to deal with disruptive behaviour resulting in students continuing to engage in such conduct as undergraduates. If lecturers tolerate this also, students who engage in disruptive behaviour may believe this is acceptable when entering the workplace (Deering, 2011).

Differing perceptions of disruptive conduct amongst lecturers and the different strategies used to deal with such behaviour further compounds the difficulty of dealing with it. Deering (2011) suggests that faculty often take the view that if they ignore disruptive conduct it will stop. However, this is rarely the case.  Faculty also fear that if they confront the behaviour, they will not be supported by their institution.  I have certainly felt concerned on a couple of occasions in my career that if I do not deal with disruptive behaviour effectively, I will bear the brunt of the situation. Another concern of academics is that the disruptive behaviour is somehow reflective of the quality of their teaching. This is also a concern that I shared as a lecturer teaching a subject that was new to me last semester. Students talking and laughing during my lectures made me feel paranoid about the standard of my lecturing or that the students were laughing at me.  Engaging in the Design Thinking technique of empathising with the service user helped me to reflect on the variety of things that students may be distracted by such as their social life, relationships, personal problems, and finance.  It also helped me to reflect on how easily students are influenced by their peer group.  Doing a ‘perception check’ (Deering, 2011, p. 3) with a student who was laughing during one of my lectures made me realise that what the students are talking or laughing about may be nothing to do with my lecture.  Nevertheless, Deering points out that disruptive behaviour within a group context is common and that such a reaction to leadership should be expected. Hence, it is important to learn to deal with it in an effective way.

Deering suggests adopting a confident, dominant leadership style and setting expectations at the beginning of term to lay the foundation for the use of a phrase that can be repeatedly used if students deviate from the expectations set. Deering also suggests involving the students in setting class norms. I believe I have a confident dominant leadership style, and I discuss expectations with my students in week one. However, reflecting on Deering’s suggestions, it may be beneficial to take this one step further by co-creating a learning contract with the students. This may also be useful given that different students have different perceptions as to what constitutes disruptive behaviour and how it should be managed. I recently came across a video about how distracting mobile phones are, and I may show the students the video next semester before engaging them in a discussion to establish a learning contract. Finally, Deering recommends using ice breakers to create a relaxed atmosphere in the classroom. Though I find ice breakers useful in tutorial settings, I have not used an ice breaker in a lecture theatre. Given that my cohort comprises a combination of students from different programmes and the diversity that exists within a cohort of students, this is perhaps something I can try to alleviate the students’ anxiety. Disruptive behaviour is thought to be caused by alienation so if I can try to prevent students from feeling alienated (Dean and Jolly, 2012), I should be able to minimise disruptive behaviour in the classroom. This view is supported by Krause (2005) who suggests that if alienation is viewed as the opposite of engagement, academics should consider what they can do to ensure that students are engaged and do not become alienated. Krause (2005) however argues that the antithesis of student engagement is not necessarily disengagement as some students do not engage in the first place and instead remain in a state of inertia while other students become disenchanted or choose to spend their time on alternative activities.  My experience of teaching research methods seems to support Krause’s view as the presence of students during the first weeks of the module suggests that many students who should be attending remain in a state of inertia while other students disengage. The various antitheses of engagement can perhaps be attributed to students feeling like they do not belong at University; for students who feel like this, engaging with University is challenging (Krause, 2005).

For Freire (1970) however, alienation is the outcome of the ‘banking model of education’ which involves lecturers acting as ‘narrating subjects’ who deposit knowledge in to the minds of passive learners. Astin (1984) argues that this subject-matter theory which treats students like a ‘black box’ through which input will result in output benefits only students strong enough to listen and comprehend the ‘expert’. This suggests that the majority of students will become alienated as a result of lectures as suggested by Friere. Astin posits that student involvement that emphasises participation is the link between ‘black box’ theories and the output that students, academics, and Universities desire. Astin’s theory is likely valid as it was derived from an earlier longitudinal study (Astin, 1975) and was investigated in another longitudinal study which draws on data gathered from more than 200,000 students to examine the effects of different types of student involvement on 80 different outcomes (Astin, 1977). Moreover, Astin (1984) was a psychologist prior to becoming an educator and his theory draws on Freudian theory as well as pedagogical theory. Meyer and Hunt (2016) however posit that lectures provide a safer space for younger undergraduates to grasp teaching material than an active learning environment where they feel unable to contribute.  My experience of teaching younger undergraduates and my awareness of the anxiety they experience when asked to contribute verbally in class or to a collaborative activity that involves writing supports this view. It thus seems that creating opportunities for students to engage with the lecture on an individual basis through technology or through think-pair-share activities creates safe opportunities for active learning within large lectures. In a similar vein, it seems that mobile phones may provide Generation Z students with a sense of safety thus the technology should perhaps be harnessed rather than banished (Seemiller and Grace, 2017).

The intervention and peer observation

When preparing my week ten lecture on Mixed Method Research that was to be observed as part of my probationary period at UWE Bristol, and part of my Postgraduate study of Academic Practice, I drew on Cognitive Load Theory to try to maximise my students’ learning (Feldon, 2010). As students are easily distracted in large lecture theatres (Dean, Lee-Poste, and Hapke, 2017), I felt that ‘chunking’ the material might also help with engagement thus helping to eliminate alienation and disruptive behaviour. To manage the intrinsic load (i.e. the complexity of the material to be learnt) on student cognition, I ensured the lecture had clear learning outcomes. The intended learning outcomes of the lecture were that the students would be able to discuss mixed method research in relation to research philosophy, and that they would be able to design a mixed method research project. As Feldon (2010, p.19) points out that ‘reading aloud the text that students are looking at forces redundant processing of the same information’ and hinders the capacity of learners to retain information (and this is something that bothers me when I’m a learner trying to read in a classroom), I directed the students to look at the learning outcomes rather than reading them aloud.

To further minimise the complexity of the material to be learnt, I introduced it in relation to prior knowledge that the students could cognitively map the new information to.  When briefly revising qualitative and quantitative research, I utilised a cartoon comparing each methodology and a matrix outlining the strengths and weaknesses of each to provide the rationale for conducting mixed method research.  This was the first of the four ‘chunks’ of information that I covered during the lecture. The second ‘chunk’ of information was revision of the content I had previously covered on research philosophy. This was to lay the philosophical foundations for mixed method research allowing the students to make the connection between mixed method research and their prior learning as well as showing them how to frame mixed method research within the methodology section of their research proposals.  Aside from pragmatism which I used a cartoon to depict, I presented the prior learning that I was revising in diagrams to avoid extraneous overload. The third ‘chunk’ of information that I discussed was what the students were required to write in their assessment in relation to the prior learning I had revised as well as the new knowledge I was going to introduce them to.  Making it clear how the students are expected to use the knowledge they are learning helps to manage the intrinsic load on cognition.  The fourth ‘chunk’ of information that I presented was the new information that I wanted the students to learn: mixed method research strategies. I presented each of the mixed method research designs that I covered as a diagram to try to avoid extraneous overload and I discussed each strategy in relation to an example to aid comprehension.  In addition to helping to eliminate extraneous overload, my use of diagrams – and cartoons – should have helped to aid the understanding of students who found the discourse associated with research methods difficult (Land, Rattray, and Vivian, 2014).

I wanted to give the students the opportunity to process and test their learning of the new content using technology that allowed me to harness their mobile phones for pedagogical benefit. I had used Kahoot a couple of times prior to the lecture that I designed with Cognitive Load Theory in mind and it received positive feedback from the students who say that they value being able to test their learning – thus supporting the validity of Feldon’s (2010) view. Testing their learning perhaps builds the students confidence which may in turn, help them to develop positive feelings about the module (Krause, 2005; Land, Rattray, and Vivian, 2014). In a similar vein, Kahoot provides younger undergraduates who lack the confidence to contribute verbally to lectures with the opportunity to engage in active learning. This idea is supported by feedback I received from a colleague who said that a student had said that they do not like my lectures because I ask questions. This suggests anxiety over being asked questions about a subject that is perceived to be difficult within a large lecture environment. Ending my lecture by asking the students to type any questions they had on to a Padlet anonymously similarly removes students’ anxiety over contributing to a lecture.  Using a Padlet to invite questions from the students also facilitated a discussion about the extent of their understanding as suggested by Land, Rattray, and Vivian (2014).

The students seemed to respond well to being directed to the learning outcomes rather than me contributing to extraneous overload by saying them aloud while they read. While I was revising research philosophy, two students at the back of the lecture theatre started talking to each other and I could tell from the expression on their face that it was because they did not understand. This suggests that they may have been discussing the lecture to try to comprehend what I was saying. However, I found their discussion distracting and politely asked the students to pay attention. I was not able to gain feedback on how I handled this disruption as my observer had not arrived at this point in the lecture. However, as discussed previously, Douglas, Moyes, and Douglas (2006) suggest that students expect their lecturer/service provider to manage disruptions within their learning environment.  Nevertheless, situations like this could perhaps be avoided if I provide the students with opportunities for sense checking with their peers.

My observer, one of my Associate Heads of Department, felt that my use of cognitive load theory worked well due to the complexity of the topic that I revised before introducing the new knowledge. However, she suggested that I ‘use header slides to signify a visual break between each chunk’. My observer also felt that my efforts to avoid extraneous overload and aid the comprehension of threshold concepts through the presentation of information were good. However, she suggested that I use ‘even more’ imagery, videos, stories, and whatever other material I can find to bring the subject that I am ‘hugely knowledgeable’ about to life for students who find threshold concepts difficult to grasp.

My use of Kahoot to allow the students to test their prior knowledge while making the lecture more active/engaging was regarded as ‘excellent’.  The Kahoot that I created included three true or false questions – the first related to research design and tested prior learning while the other two focused on triangulation. Three questions required the students to identify the mixed method research strategy the question was referring to. The results reveal that most of the students answered the question relating to prior learning correctly (92%), and most of the students understood triangulation (85%) more than exploratory sequential (65%), explanatory sequential (35%), and convergent parallel design (54%). Though the breakdown of the number of questions students answered correctly seems to broadly reflect a normal distribution of grades from D through to A, perhaps next year, I could use more imagery to aid the students understanding of mixed method research design. If I have more time next year, it would also be valuable to make use of the Kahoot reports by providing additional material relating to the concepts that the results reveal to be poorly understood.

My observer commended my use of Padlet to receive and respond to live questions as good practice. Though I had used Padlet to invite questions from the cohort a couple of times previously, they had never seized the opportunity to ask questions. However, in this particular class they did and the method worked well. Consequently, I may include a Padlet at the end of all of my lectures from now on.

My observer concluded that the lecture ‘was a very good [interactive] session run by a lecturer who obviously knows their subject very well and can talk fluently about it’ and that I ‘achieved the learning objectives extremely well’.  She also suggested that I consider learning styles and modalities to try to engage different students in different ways (Honey and Mumford, 1986; Fleming and Mills, 1992). This is something that I will now consider when preparing my lectures.

Conclusion and recommendations

Exploring this issue within my practice has helped to build my confidence as I now realise that disruptive behaviour in the classroom is a result of alienation that may be caused by a variety of factors. These factors may be systemic, environmental, problems personal to individual students, cognitive overload, or pedagogical style. It is therefore difficult to mitigate alienation. Yet, if we can prevent students from becoming alienated, we can try to mitigate disruptive behaviour thus enhancing the student (and tutor) experience, student satisfaction, programme – and institutional – performance. To try to mitigate alienation, academics should try to make students feel comfortable in large lecture theatres. Using an ice breaker in week one may help the students to overcome the anxiety caused by their environment. It is also useful to adopt the Design Thinking strategy of empathising with service users. Considering what students may be thinking, feeling or experiencing better enables us to cater to their needs, reassure them, and make them feel like they belong at University. If understanding a particular module requires the comprehension of threshold concepts, students should be made aware of the difficulty and discomfort commonly experienced by students engaging with such material to ensure that they do not feel like an imposter. I plan to use Land, Rattray, and Vivian’s (2014) tunnel metaphor to explain to the students the uncertainty that they are likely to feel until they near the end of the module. As student comprehension of signifiers can affect how they feel about the learning process and in turn their willingness and ability to learn, academics should prepare lectures with Cognitive Load Theory in mind. This should serve to mitigate alienation by helping to prevent extraneous load.  Making learning fun through the use of humour, cartoons, images, video clips, Kahoot quizzes, Padlet, and ‘think, pair, and share’ activities may also assist students to develop positive feelings about difficult modules thus helping to mitigate alienation through engagement. The use of a variety of learning resources will also serve to cater to the different learning preferences of diverse cohorts.

Although as academics we can try to mitigate alienation, disruptive behaviour is nevertheless common within a group dynamic. It seems that mobile phones may provide Generation Z with a sense of security and that we should perhaps not ask students to put their mobile phones away.  It thus seems that mobile phones should be harnessed for their benefits instead. Likewise, it seems that rather than trying to eliminate talking from lectures, opportunities should be provided for the students to sense check with their peers. This, in turn, may help to mitigate disruptive behaviour through active learning. Engaging students in lectures thus appears to be the key to mitigating disruptive behaviour.


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