University/college classroom management

I’m continuing my first year teaching at a university here, and so far it is a very painful process. I’m trying to make improvements now and for next semester. One thing I continue to struggle with is classroom management.

Some classes have terrible behavior, i.e. being so loud I cannot think let alone teach those few who want to learn, sitting there and saying “Shangke” “Goodbye” etc. I lost my temper once with a class, wherein I was told by my boss that it should not happen again. (Although he admitted losing his temper 3 times that week-talk about double standards!) I am not one to normally lose my temper easily, and I do not hold this up as good behavior, but at the same time I think the students should be required to take some responsibility for their behavior. Anyway, the getting angry route has not been successful, as they think this is just funny. I’ve also tried threatening to fail them and just giving them quizzes but when they are disruptive, but they don’t seem to care much about those either. I’m quite outnumbered with no support, and perhaps this is what they realize.

What do others do to maintain some sanity in these large classes?

What are the class sizes ages and levels?


Try being friends with the students. Take interest in what they are doing -saying-. Give them face.

I taught at a high school and it was the same. Large class sizes and the kids thought it was great because there was no Chinese teacher there to give them the cane when they were bad. It was the students against me. One weekend I went out with some of the boys to play baseball and after that most my classes were better behaved, I guess I bridged a gap.

At the start of class you might want to walk around to each group of students and warm up to them.

The other side would be over-disciplining them which also works. But, you probably want to gain respect by being nice not mean.

You can try keeping them busy with writing. After they finish the writing they have to read it to you or a classmate for speaking practice.

Just a thought.

It is a good suggestion to get to know them and what they are doing, and I’ve tried, but their level of English is just too low, and my Chinese is not much better. So, we can’t really communicate.

They are college age-19, 20, 21, with a random older student thrown in. Their levels are about as low as it gets. I’ve been trying to get them to be able to understand, write, or answer What is your name? How are you? What is your last name? since the beginning of the semester, and a lot of them still can’t (or won’t?) do it. I’ve been grading my mid-terms, and it’s painful.

Are all your classes this bad or…

  1. Punish them with tons of homework. A quiz each time. Big tests.

  2. Never lose your temper again. Students should never know that you are angry.

  3. Fail them in droves.

  4. Be a total prick.

  5. In case you missed #4, be a total prick. Nowhere is it written that you have to be their friends, or that they need to like you, or that the classroom has to have a relaxed and friendly atmosphere, in order for learning to take place. That is a fantasy fostered by ESL research in the US, where foreign students are highly motivated and good users of English in elective courses. The fact is that you are teaching a required course to people who hate it and suck at it to boot. They expect you to motivate them by being a prick; Chinese students are generally motivated by internalizing exterior demands. So give them what they expect. Be an SOB, and don’t apologize for it. After you have established yourself as a ruthless, arbitrary, unforgiving prick, you can back off it you like.


I should add that you should arrive early in class and physically remove all the desks in the rear rows, piling them up so that they cannot use them. This will force the students to sit up front, where they will be better behaved. Arranging the remaining desks in a U with you in the center might also create change.

When you lecture, stand among the desks, not up front. Move around.

Did you hand out midterm grades with zeros for everyone who behaved badly?

You also need to find out from your admins what the policy is for failing students. They may not let you fail more than some fixed amount, like 15%.

Have you talked with their advisor? He or she might have some advice. Each class should have a faculty advisor.

What school are you at? You can always leave, you know.


Regarding teaching children and young people in general, I totally agree with this sentence, and with the majority of the post. As teachers of whatever age group we are there to be teachers, not to be the students’ friends. In the UK, where discipline in state schools is in general much worse than in Taiwan, teachers have a saying; ‘Don’t smile for the first six weeks’. Of course this is exaggeration but you see the point.

Some people may be disturbed by this and feel that it is not only a cold, harsh viewpoint but also that it does not aid learning. For these people, it is worth clarifying exactly what is meant and intended.

In general, children and to an extent teenagers and young adults like to know the rules. You have the role of a teacher; they have the role of students. You must behave in accordance with this. Of paramount importance is that you must not need them to like you. Whatever else you do, whatever of your human side you choose to display, the students must not in any way feel that you are emotionally dependent on them. Don’t worry; if you are a reasonable teacher, the probability is that they will like you after some time. But if you’re coming into an already badly disciplined class, it may be no bad thing if they resent you for a little while. They will respect you more and feel more comfortable in your classes in the end if you are firm but fair and make it clear what is expected.

Where I would take issue a little with Vorkosigan is in his use of the word ‘arbitrary’. In general, fairness and consistency is something to be strived after. In the Taiwanese context, I can see how arbitrariness could work OK in discliplining, but only because it conforms with the poor model already given to students; it’s what they expect. It’s harder work to try to be fair, but I feel that it gets better results in the end.
Actually I am sure that on this point Vorkosigan and I are in agreement and that he was just using the word ‘arbitrary’ for emphasis.

This is the groundwork; the bottom line as it were. Once discipline is established, it is fine to have a laugh with the students - eventually, some may even become personal friends. But everybody knows where the limits lie.

As for the specific example of the original poster; it certainly seems like a difficult situation. It depends to an extent on what support the school gives teachers and what disciplinary options are available. Unfortunately, most of us are not as charismatic and inspirational as Robin Williams in ‘Dead Poets’ Society’; we can only make the best of the situation we are in.

I have a similarish situation with some of my high school classes - a huge range of ability in large classes of students who mostly don’t want to be there.

Being a prick, losing your temper, overdisciplining can be useful. But I find that it only works if a) you can balance that with the ‘be my friend’ alternative, and b) you have the support of the organisation you work for.

Examples: I had one class of low overall ability who were scared to death of speaking. When given a worksheet they would put their heads down and start guessing at the answers rather than look, listen and learn like they were supposed to. This is pretty much what they have been conditioned to do, but lecturing to the tops of people’s heads is not much fun. After I lost my temper and started hurling people’s pens out of the window they were shocked enough to listen to the lecture (translated by a classmate) about what was expected. Since then they have started to cooperate more with the reasonable me. In fact we get along fine now.

I have another class that simply don’t want to know. Be their friends and they dick around. Try discipline and they take it as a challenge. Eventually I told them that if they wanted me to be total bastard I would, and they were only making the situation worse for themselves. The result was a complaint to the administration, and someone else now ‘teaches’ that class. In fact, he came out of his first lesson snarling and walked off without a word.

The class has now become an optional activity for those students who want to learn. On one hand this is a good thing. About half of them did want to learn, but were being prevented by the dominant ignoramuses.

On the other hand, I believe that the job of an educational institution is to insist on maintaining standards, and to support the teacher. The bottom line, and I got an admission of this during the above fracas, is that the Native Speaker English program is often just a marketing gimmick. Institutions are expected to have a white monkey on display, so they offer one to attract paying students. But they’re not going to back you up if you get into conflict with students because the students (or their parents) pay the money, whereas you are not considered to be a real teacher.

Advising a teacher to set lots of tests, give tons of homeworks, and fail people at a course that doesn’t really count towards the overall grade is pointless. If you can’t enforce the homework and the grades don’t really matter, then you just reveal your impotence after getting into a head-to-head. You can only win a battle of wills with the support of the school, and that is rarely there.

I don’t have time now to talk about more creative approaches - have to go do it for real - but it is possible to win in 90% of cases with alternative approaches. Later.

You’re not goingt o think my advice very useful, but I’ve had personal and quite a lot of second-hand experience with this sort of class, and discussed it with a lot of people.

Give up.

Avoid teaching this class if at all possible.

If you’re stuck in that situation, just forget about trying to teach well - your’e not given a situation where that is possible.

But you want practical suggestions right.

I agree with everyone that says be tough.

Get the whole class standing up. They can only sit down when they’re quiet. Give them at least 5 minutes standing. If they have to do written work, they write standing up too.

Give them the option of oral work or written. If they won’t do the oral make them write. If they don’t write, send them out of the classroom to only come back when they’ve finished.


Some of what you all report in these posts is amazing. I teach at an adult bushiban (students are about 24 years old on average), and I’ve not had anything resembling the trouble you report. I realize that my students are paying customers who need to prepare for a critical test. I suppose it also helps that I am a tall, muscular person who can scare the shit out of people with a single indimidating glance. Not that I like to use that approach.

I do have some classes with 100 or so students in them. Sometimes, those students feel that they can hide behind each other and have a nice chat while in class.

When I have students in my classes who talk while I’m talking, I stop, look at them, and ask them if they have any questions. I feign innocence, when I’m really thinking “Shut up, or take the conversation outside.” Sometimes I’ll just stop talking, fold my arms over my chest, say “we’ll wait until everyone is ready,” and stare at the chatters until their classmates tell them to shut up. Takes about 10 seconds, and it gets the point across. I’m not sure this would help in your situation. Seems that Vork’s ideas are best, but I’m not the kind of person who would be able to pull that off for very long. It takes all of the enjoyment out of teaching.

I have no idea what I’d do in your situation. I’d probably tell the punks in the class to go to hell, or worse. Man, it doesn’t seem worth it to me. Get over to a buxiban, where people pay to hear you speak.

Here is what I do:

Day One: Give them the rules and expectations for the class (in English and Chinese) on a syllabus and tell them that they are required to have the syllabus with them each time they come to class. (Give a fair and reasonable but steady amount of homework and quizzes on syllabus. FOLLOW THE SYLLABUS EACH DAY IN CLASS. Give exact grade percentages on the syllabus and make sure that at least 85% of the grade you give them comes from their work or their behavior in class.) Give them assigned seats (quickly deals with the back row kids) and tell them that if they are not in that seat at the beginning of class they will be marked absent and get a 0 for the day. (In my classes I make a copy of the seating chart for every day of class. When students contribute to class, are on time and are prepared, they get two points. If only one of the above is true, they get one point. If none are true, they get zero points. I average these points and make this 15% of their final grade. (the other 85% coming from homework, quizzes and presentations.) I aloso tell them that each time they talk in class (constructively contributing to class or asking a questions, answering a question, they get a check. If they get have on average 5 checks a day - i will add 5% to their grade at the end of the class.

Day One continued: I smile and look nice - but REALLY lay down the law about what is expected in class. I have been working on my “teacher smile” - pleasant looking smile - but not overly friendly. DRESS UP! Wear a suit, tie, nice dress, good shoes - whatever makes you feel and look dressed up. This adds to your professionalism and authority in the class. I now dress like my mother on days that I teach. Not too stylish - but it DOES help give the students the image of TEACHER in the front of the class and makes me feel more professional. I usually dress up for the first two months and gradually get more casual - but even by the end of the year I wouldn’t be caught dead in jeans and a t-shirt in front of a class. (I think this is important to because I am a.)female, b.)young-looking, c.) fairly attractive - so students think that I am going to be really nice and a pushover. Dressing up and looking older/more professional helps get rid of these ideas.)

Other points to consider:
NEVER show them you are angry. If students are being really disruptive, go back to where they are. Look them in the eye and in a totally calm and level voice say, “You have two choices, you can leave now or you can choose to participate in class.” Stare them down until they answer you. If they are disruptive again, go back, look them in the eye and say, “You have made your choice for today - you need to leave. Now.” Stare them down (with a totally calm, cool look on your face) until they leave. Count to 5 if you have to - it sometimes helps steady the nerves. Eventually they will begin to behave in class - maybe. But you will have shown by not getting angry that you are not personally offended with their behavior and that it doesn’t really affect you. This makes it less fun for them.

Sometimes classes just suck. This probably has nothing to do with you. Maybe the students had a bad teacher before you, maybe they don’t like one another, maybe they hate their major, maybe there are too many different personalities in the class. I really think there is very little you can do about these kinds of classes. Just teach what is on your syllabus. It may be horrible and mind-numbing. I have a class like that right now and I dread it every Monday morning (Monday at 9am doesn’t help them or me much either). So I have them do excercises, I call on them instead of them raising their hands, and just grind through. More than 1/2 of them are going to fail themselves because of their tardiness/absence from class and lack of homework. That isn’t my problem - they knew the rules from day one and I remind them often - but at the end of the day - it is their choice to learn and engage in class.

Set up a signal in your class for when it is time for them to be quiet. For me - I stand in the front - say ok and raise my hand. This is the signal that I want to tell them something and they need to stop what they are doing and listen. I do the same thing each time, whether they are sitting at their desks or running around the room with a survey. It now takes about 10 sec for me to get their attention.

Finally - I think that it will be hard for you to get control of them at this stage of the game - BUT I would suggest trying seat assignments (you can base it on their grades - clustering bad students around good students in little square patterns) and having a “talk” with them about how you think things are going in class, changes you want to make and changes they might want to make. Start from square one if you can.

Good luck.

Totally with Tomas there. I also teach at an adult buxiban, and it’s a joy. I’ve also taught at high schools full of smart, motivated kids that would willingly perform Monty Python sketches for me. Not all students are bad. Sure, they may play up a bit from time to time but it doesn’t take a lot to keep them in line.

But when they are bad, why kill yourself? Bu Lai En is right.

If they’re not there to learn, don’t try and force it. The best you can really hope for is a) to give learning oppportunities to those that want them, and b) to insist on a minimum of respect from your students.

If you can’t achieve that much, then you don’t need the job.

What’s the fear of getting angry in class? I have done it to great effect. But then I was ‘acting’.
I have on occasion bawled out a class when I thought their behaviour was beyond the pale. By all accounts, I know of plenty teachers who’ve done the same in the kind of situation you are in. I’ve also walked out of a class where the students wouldn’t stop talking. But then, I think our school basically supports us in the classroom!

I don’t see why getting angry should be a problem. of course, one shouldn’t be really angry. But a good acting scene can set the ground for more attentive behavior later, if it’s followed up by a lecture on how important it is for students to get with the program. You are therefore angry FOR the students and showing that you really support them in their quest for better English.

However, if the administration doesn’t support you, then I would suggest, if you are at all serious in your teaching, that you find a job where you are respected. There are certainly jobs like that for you in Taiwan!

Best Wishes

Well, Vork was writing about the university/college situation, and I’m not sure how I’d enjoy that. But as I wrote, I use basically similar techniques at first in my classes for children, and I find my job generally very enjoyable and rewarding. I find that with classes which have the potential to be difficult, I just have to be serious and a bit strict for the first ten minutes, then it’s generally OK to loosen up a little.

I liked all of your post, monkbucket; a detailed and useful description. On this particular point; the getting quiet; I usually silently raise my hand and count down from five on my fingers. Firstly, me being quiet gets some of the students’ attention. Then they see what I’m doing and tell the others to be quiet. Of course I’m teaching children in a buxiban so I have the usual incentives of team points leading to exciting goodies, which helps a lot.

I would really like to hear from people who have had success in teaching difficult and unenthusiastic large groups of high school/college/university students. I believe that it is sometimes possible. A few years ago in the UK, I was considering training to become a probation officer. I believe that to do that job well, one needs a certain personal authority and also perhaps a degree of charisma. I don’t know how well I could have done it, but those kinds of issues still interest me.

Yes, there is an old saying…never smile until October. In my Bushiban days, I used to toss a kid out on the first day whenever possible, This had a very salutary effect.

I don’t get mad at classes, usually. Individuals I come down on like a ton of bricks, though. What I meant was, which I phrased badly, was that play-acting anger works, real anger should not be displayed. In Chinese culture, you “lose” when they can make you angry for real.

The OP’s case looks like one of those classes from hell, though.

You can get lame classes to respond, I think. But it is tougher if you are new and you don’t speak Chinese and you are not sure of yourself. A cold class will respond if you can get them to work steadily, approach it with some real humor, give them a variety of language experiences so that they can experience success somewhere, push them vigorously, work with and get to know them as individuals, and praise their efforts sincerely. People in this culture rarely receive compliments, much less sincere ones, so flattery can be a useful way of getting the donkey to choose the right pile of hay, and is a lot less taxing than beating it with a stick.

But, like I said, it is a lot easier if you speak Chinese and aren’t new at your job and have the support of the admins.



The basic problem is that the level of the students is very, very low. They cannot be made to do pairwork or challenging activities, because they do not know how to succeed at these activities. When students cannot succeed at an activity, they act out. It’s true whether they’re four or forty years old (although four year olds tend to act out for additional reasons, too…)

I suggest getting a copy of Harry Wong’s “The First Days of School” for classroom management principles. It’s written for all levels of primary/secondary school but it worked a treat in high school in the States and I’ve taught uni here too and it would go fine. Much of what Monkbucket described is along these lines.

But – most importantly – get yourself a teaching method that will allow those kids to succeed. I would suggest going right back to zero and using five or six weeks of straight TPR (not TPRS at first). While the TPR people tend to brag a lot, the technique is very useful for very low level learners, and is a good way to have students acquire a lot of vocab quickly. Once they have some basics, you can hope to branch out. You can’t expect students to just acquire languages on their own if you aren’t giving them something they can understand. And rememebr to repeat, repeat, repeat. People need to hear new words on the order of 50-70 times, in unexpected ways, to acquire and be able to use them. Most classes don’t get anywhere near that.

If you do that – they WILL succeed and they WILL behave. I’ve been there. It works.

Just a quick thanks to everyone who contributed to this thread. It’s very informative. I taught at a bushiban and was (illegally) shipped out to teach at a private school too. The bushiban hours were much, much better but just the same I appreciated the chance to see what Taiwanese secondary students were doing.
Unfortunately I have to agree that the schools are right in not viewing native speaking EFL teachers as bona fide teachers, because most did not study education, or get teaching credentials. Most of us had university professors who knew their subject but didn’t know how to teach. Same thing here. I’m very impressed with the thoughtful, caring teachers who have posted here but not everyone teaching here is so gifted.
Looking at it from the native perspective, after you’ve met two or three foreign teachers who majored in Geography you tend to suspect the others you meet will have the same background. What, did your school suddenly improve by leaps and bounds and is now able to require foreign teachers to be language education specialists? Not a likely possibility.
The foreign teachers are also not likely to stay there for a career. THe rest of the staff is there for years to come, if not until retirement. Short-term foriegn teachers becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy when the school dangles them before the students without providing support. Who would make a career out of that?

There is a huge difference between teaching a bushiban class of motivated learners and a required class of low level low motivated students.

If you lose your authority to manage a classroom early on in a class, you are very unlikely to get it back.

If it really is a large and untenable class . . . break up the units, use assigned seating (ostensibly to help with attendance checks but also to break up the groupings) . . . give assignments and check them . . . pick students to report orally if need be and on the first instance of no homework, say “zero” and mark it down and quickly move on to the next student . . . a friend uses and incredibly anal system of chits where he awards participation points based upon actively participating in group work or answering questions and the like - too much for my tastes but he swears by it.

Give them tasks they can perform and then work up in terms of graduated difficulty.

You don’t have to be a prick but you should mean business and stick to it.