Update on teaching tip 'A manageable group of students' from the book ‘50 teaching tips’ (ECHO, 2011)

As a teacher, do you ever experience challenges in keeping students' attention? Are you sometimes unsure how best to deal with disruptive elements such as mutual chatter, laughter or other distractions? This teaching tip offers practical pointers and strategies to create a positive learning climate and minimise undesirable behaviour (see ECHO Tip, 2020).

While there is no universal method that always guarantees success, there are general guidelines and strategies that can help manage a group of students. 

To prevent disruption and undesirable behaviour, you can take steps both before and during the class which are designed to facilitate effective classroom management.

Measures and strategies for the class:

  • Consider moving tables or point students to certain seats, bearing in mind the type of work planned. In doing so, make sure you keep a clear overview of the room and students at all times.
  • If you plan to rearrange the classroom, move the tables before the lesson starts so you can start teaching immediately, without unnecessary delays.
  • Prepare well to avoid losing precious time during class. For example, check the necessary technical aspects in advance, such as testing video and/or audio clips, to avoid facing unexpected problems during the lesson.
  • Start your lesson on time and don't give students too much chance to talk during the first few minutes; try to grab their attention immediately by, for example, starting with an anecdote, a case study or special figures related to the lesson content. You should also be sure to clearly indicate that the lesson has started.
  • Set clear expectations and rules in advance. For example, let your students know what you expect of them when they arrive late. Do you want them to take a seat close to the door, or do you prefer them to come in only during break time? Remind students every lesson about these expectations and say why you have them.

Preventative measures and strategies during the lesson:

  • ​Make eye contact with students and walk around the classroom if necessary. This means you can see what’s happening during the lesson. Moreover, students sense that you’re near and are therefore less likely to act inappropriately.
  • Activate your students (see ECHO education tip, 2023). Make sure they can contribute enough to the lesson. A passive audience is more likely to be a disruptive one.
  • Vary the content and way you teach. Little variety creates boredom, causing students to turn their attention to other things. Make your lessons as interesting as possible, so that students are more motivated to attend class and not become disruptive. For example, tell stories and anecdotes, use interesting video clips and images, invite guest speakers or possibly use music that adds to the lesson.
  • Elicit task orientation from students. By giving clear instructions, students immediately know how to get started on a particular task. When instructions aren’t clear, they’re more likely to be distracted and start chatting.
  • Reduce the social distance between you and students. You can do this by, for example, getting to know their names, teaching with a smile, using lots of eye contact, moving around the room or having a chat with students during breaks.
  • Be a role model for your students. For example, if you expect students to arrive on time, you should be present at least a few minutes before the lesson starts.

Despite all these measures and strategies before and during class, you might still occasionally find yourself in a situation where students disrupt the lesson. Try to anticipate this and think in advance what you might do. Some possible options to deal with unwanted behavior are:

  • Make use of non-verbal cues. Make eye contact with students, stop speaking for a moment or move closer to disruptive students if possible. Use hand signals for the disruptive behaviour to stop.
  • Avoid coming across as irritated or angry; this rarely has the desired effect. Instead, use humour to silence students. Also, don't overreact to disruptive students.
  • Stop escalation by acting immediately. Don't continue teaching as if nothing is wrong. Intervene straightaway and be consistent in your behaviour.
  • Focus on the positive behaviour of other students. For example, if a student arrives late, highlight the positive behaviour of the rest of the group by stating that you appreciate that they got there on time.
  • Get disruptive students back on track by using hidden reprimand. For example, ask them a question about the lesson content. That way, they know you perceive the behaviour as disruptive without having to make it explicit.
  • If the disruptive behaviour persists, you can speak to the student(s) about it. This can be done in different ways: in front of the whole student group, during break or after class. Make sure you clearly state what you find disturbing and how you expect students to behave.

Want to know more?

ECHO teaching tips
Relevant literature

Carbone, E. (1999). Students behaving badly in large classes. New Directions for Teaching and Learning, 1999(77), 35–43. https://doi.org/10.1002/tl.7704

Doyle, W. (1986). Classroom organization and management. In M.C. Wittrock (Ed.). Handbook of research on teaching (Third Edition) (pp. 392-431). New York: Macmillan. 

ECHO. (2011). 50 onderwijstips. Maklu, uitgever.

Hughes, T. L., Crothers, L. M., & Jimerson, S. R. (2007). Identifying, Assessing, and Treating Conduct Disorder at School. Springer Science & Business Media.

Kounin, J.S. (1970). Discipline and group management in classrooms. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston. 

Redant, G. (2005). Doeltreffend klasbeheer: effectief omgaan met de klasgroep. Leuven: Garant.

Seidel, S. B., & Tanner, K. D. (2013). “What if students revolt?” - Considering Student Resistance: Origins, options, and opportunities for investigation. CBE - Life Sciences Education, 12(4), 586–595. https://doi.org/10.1187/cbe-13-09-0190

Struyf, E., & Verbeeck, G. (2017). Regisseer je klas. Theorie bij het oefeningenboek klasmanagement. Kalmthout: Pelckmans pro.

Taghon, G. (2008). Loop naar de maan! Praktijkgids omgaan met verbale agressie in onderwijs en opvoeding. Antwerpen: Garant.

Verbeeck, G., Leroy, A., & Struyf, E. (2022). Regisseer je klas. Oefeningen in klasmanagement. Kalmthout: Pelckmans pro.

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