ETP - Promoting a Civil Learning Environment



Paff (2015) writes, “To develop students as independent and mature learners, teachers need to go beyond policies and employ strategies and practices that allow students to learn from their behaviors, not just suffer the consequences” (para. 13).

“When incivility occurs, students’ affiliation with and respect for their institution may decrease. Respect for the instructor often diminishes as well, as students expect the professor to take control of the classroom and curtail disruptive, disrespectful behaviors” (Knepp, 2012, p. 35).

“The secret of education lies in respecting the pupil.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

Learning Objectives

To promote civility in your classroom, we’ll discuss practices you can use to:

  • Set clear policies regarding incivility in your syllabus
  • Include netiquette guidelines in your syllabus
  • Work with your students to create classroom norms
  • Use reminders, proximity, and name-dropping to address low-level interruptions.
  • Use Distract the Distractor to address mid-level interruptions.
  • Use a behavior-impact feedback tool
  • In an online environment, respond publicly and privately as appropriate

Skeletal Outline

Download a skeletal outline to take notes on the key practices included in this module.

Course Demonstration

This video shows instructors effectively demonstrating the evidence-based practices presented in this module. Through this authentic classroom observation, you can begin to consider how you might implement these practices and techniques with your students.

The instructors featured in the video include Sophie Adamson, PhD, from Elon University; Donald Saucier, PhD, from Kansas State University; Viji Sathy, PhD, from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill; and Adam M. Persky, PhD, from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Download the transcript for this video.

Expert Insights

In this video, you’ll hear Barbara Frey, a scholar in teaching and learning, discuss the specific nuances of and the research support for the teaching techniques and practices presented in this module.

Download the transcript for this video.

Common Challenges & Misconceptions

In this section, you’ll read about some common challenges and misconceptions associated with techniques designed to promote a civil learning environment. Click on each statement to read research-based clarifications and suggestions aligned to each challenge or misconception.

MISCONCEPTION: Incivility is not an issue in online courses.


Many of the same behaviors that constitute incivility in the classroom can manifest in online courses as well such as belittling or offensive comments, off-topic comments, complaining about course work, sending aggressive emails to instructor, missing deadlines, failing to participate in discussions, etc. (Galbraith & Jones, 2010).


Set expectations for online civility by collaboratively creating community norms and guidelines with students, having clear policies in your syllabus, and responding appropriately to different levels of disruption (Boettcher & Conrad, 2016; Palloff & Pratt, 2007; Stavredes, 2011).

MISCONCEPTION: Uncivil behavior in the classroom can be expected, and there is very little I can do to prevent it.

Clarification :

According Boice’s (1998) research on classroom incivilities across a range of courses, there are two factors that mainly predict the level of civility in the classroom:

  • “Instructors who use negative motivators (e.g., fear, guilt, embarrassment) experience more classroom incivilities than instructors who use positive motivators (e.g., encouragement, praise).”
  • “Instructors exhibiting few verbal and nonverbal signs of warmth and friendliness experience significantly more incivilities compared to instructors who exhibit several of those behaviors.” (as cited in Carnegie Mellon University, Eberly Center, n.d.)
Suggestions :

Consider Nilson’s (2010) recommendations for preventing incivility in the classroom:

  • Project a persona of “relaxed confidence, goodwill, and an in-command, no-nonsense attitude” that students will respect (p. 73).
  • Convey “that you care about your students as learners and as people. . . . Express, for example, concern for their learning and future success, high expectations for them, interest in their activities outside of class, empathy with their learning challenges and stress, and your availability to help them outside of class” (p. 75).
  • Set ground rules on the first day of class and on your syllabus so students know your expectations (p. 75).
  • On the first day, have students work together to create a set of rules for behavior by which they will abide (p. 75).
  • Use positive reinforcement, like complimenting a class with high attendance, to show that you notice good behavior (p. 76).
  • Model civil behavior by showing up on time for class and office hours and demonstrating respect for students (p. 76).

CHALLENGE: The behavior in my large-enrollment classes is very difficult to manage.

Suggestions :

The anonymity of a large class often encourages students to participate in behaviors they would never consider in smaller classes, making management in large classes more challenging, but not impossible. Carbone (1999) makes the following recommendations for managing your classroom:

  • Begin by setting clear expectations up front. Establish expectations for being on time, using technology, and holding side conversations. Share your rules and your rationale for those rules on the first day of class. Consider having students sign a code of conduct stating that they have read and have understood the expectations for your class.
  • Once class has begun, use proximity to address minor infractions by moving throughout the lecture hall or classroom, especially to the back, as much as possible.
  • Decrease anonymity by learning as many students’ names as possible and helping students get to know each other.
  • Address major student disruptions by asking to speak to the student after class. During the conference, describe the negative behavior in clear, objective terms; explain the impact of the behavior on the learning of others; and explain what actions you plan to take to ensure the behavior does not continue.

MISCONCEPTION: Since the misbehavior in my classroom is so minor, I should just ignore it rather than wasting class time to address it.

Clarification :

Unfortunately, disruptive behavior, inattentive students, and disrespect almost never go away when ignored. Even minor uncivil student behavior can disrupt and negatively impact the overall learning environment for students who are uninvolved in the disruptive behaviors (Appleby, 1990).

CHALLENGE: Misbehavior in the classroom is usually caused by students who are experiencing issues beyond my control.


It is true that students can engage in problematic behaviors because of health or personal problems or due to developmental issues or general academic concerns, and these factors are not completely within our control. Not surprisingly, students who are struggling with psychological and emotional concerns often bring these issues into the classroom, and such issues affect their ability to thrive in an academic environment (American Psychological Association, 2011, Carnegie Mellon University, Eberly Center, n.d.).

Suggestions :

Be on the lookout for any signs of emotional and psychological distress in your students, and be prepared to refer students to the appropriate support services on your campus when applicable (American Psychological Association, 2011).


In the Observe and Analyze (OA) section, you’ll view the video(s) depicting developing practice, where an instructor implements some of the module techniques effectively while other techniques may need slight adjustments or improvements. As you analyze the video(s), you will gain a deeper understanding of the module techniques and gain insight into some common pitfalls.


Download the transcript for this video.

Download the transcript for this video.

Implementation Resources

  • Instructional Practices

  • Online Instructional Practices

  • Additional Resources

This section includes resources and handouts to support your implementation of the techniques and practices presented in the module.

Download all of the implementation resources for this module.

Implementation Resources

Download or print the following resources to practice our techniques for promoting a civil learning environment:

The module learning objectives and aligned online practices are listed below. Each resource offers step-by-step instructions and examples of effective online teaching in text and/or video.

Reflect on instructor behaviors that impact classroom and online civility

Instructor behaviors that positively impact online civility

Just like in a classroom setting, instructor behaviors can positively impact online civility (Boettcher & Conrad, 2016; Nilson & Goodson, 2018; Palloff & Pratt, 2007; Stavredes, 2011).  Being approachable, checking for tone in messages and discussion board posts, and responding quickly to questions and emails all send a message about your expectations for online civility.

Download a resource for reflecting on instructor behaviors that impact online civility.

Become aware of your implicit biases

In an online environment, there are fewer physical cues about students’ backgrounds and identities than in a face-to-face setting. However, research suggests that implicit or unconscious biases can still be triggered simply by seeing a name and can impact how students are evaluated and judged.

Download a resource to help you reflect on implicit biases.

Consider how your implicit biases may impact students

Implicit or unconscious biases often lead to microaggressions, which are the everyday verbal, nonverbal, and environmental slights, snubs, or insults (whether intentional or unintentional) that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative messages to target persons based upon their marginalized group membership (Sue, 2010).

Download a resource you can use to take steps to mitigate the impact of implicit bias on your students.

Use student feedback to reflect on your role as an inclusive educator

The goal of asking for student feedback is to gauge student perceptions of the impact of your use of inclusive practices. Seeking feedback early in your course can allow you to make adjustments for your current group of students.

Download a resource you can use to gain feedback on your role as an inclusive educator.

Foster respect for diverse student identities

Diverse campuses give college students the opportunity to learn from peers with different perspectives shaped by a variety of life experiences. Provide opportunities for students to engage with people of different backgrounds and help them develop an appreciation for people different from themselves.

Download a resource that will help you foster respect for diverse students.

Explicitly invite diverse perspectives and viewpoints

Encouraging students to share their diverse viewpoints enriches discussions, encourages creative problem solving, and helps students develop critical thinking skills. Students also learn to respectfully listen and respond to various viewpoints, a key career-ready skill.

Download a resource that will help encourage your students to share diverse viewpoints.

Set course expectations that encourage civility in your online course

Create an inclusive syllabus

Creating an inclusive classroom or online environment means making intentional and ongoing efforts to ensure that all students feel they belong and can thrive in the learning environment. One step you can take right at the beginning of your course is to set the tone for diversity and inclusion in your syllabus.

Download a resource to help you create an inclusive syllabus.

Respond to varied levels of challenging or disruptive online behaviors

Align response to the degree of offense

Incivility can take various forms in an online course ranging from difficult to disturbed (Boettcher & Conrad, 2016). Preemptive measures such as creating community norms and including activities that build community may reduce the likelihood or amount of incivility, but instructors should be prepared to handle disruptive or challenging behaviors such as:

  • sarcastic posts
  • posting off-topic comments complaining about the course or assignment on the discussion forum
  • aggressive emails to the instructor
  • ranting about the topic
  • offensive or belittling, remarks towards another student
  • attacking another student’s post
  • offensive
  • language or terminology in posts
  • failing to participate in discussions and/or missing deadlines (Galbraith & Jones, 2010)

If left unaddressed, these types of behaviors can detract from a positive and productive learning environment.

It is important to try to keep the offending student(s) engaged in the learning process. In addition, because most of these behaviors occur in the discussion forum, your response should always be two-pronged: a response to the group and a response to the individual.

Download guidelines and examples for responding to low-level, mid-level, and high-level disruptive online behaviors.


Judith V. Boettcher, PhD
Online Learning Consultant and Author
Designing for Learning

Amber Dailey‑Hebert, PhD
Director ‑ Faculty Center for Innovation
Professor, Adult & Organizational Learning
Park University Online Campus

Lisa Palladino Kim
Director of Capstone / Lecturer, Biopharma Educational Initiative
Rutgers, Newark

Kirsten Heinz
Instructor of Communication
University of Arkansas, Pulaski Technical College

Sarah Martinelli, MS, RD, SNS
Clinical Assistant Professor
Arizona State University

Below are additional resources to further explore the module topics.

Resources for Further Reading

  • Davis, B. G. (2009). Tools for teaching (2nd ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
  • Knepp, K. A. F. (2012). Understanding student and faculty incivility in higher education. The Journal of Effective Teaching, 12(1), 32 – 45.
  • Nilson, L. B. (2010). Teaching at its best: A research-based resource for college instructors (3rd ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
  • Nilson, L. B., & Jackson, N. S. (2004). Combating classroom misconduct (incivility) with bills of rights. Proceedings of the 4th Conference of the International Consortium for Educational Development. Ottawa, ON, Canada.

Consult a comprehensive list of references for this module.

Community Connections


Barbara A. Frey, DEd
Instructional Design Manager
University of Pittsburgh

Donald Saucier, PhD
Associate Professor & University Distinguished Teaching Scholar
Department of Psychological Sciences
Kansas State University

Greg McVerry, PhD
Assistant Professor of Education

Sophie Adamson, PhD
Associate Professor of French
Chair of the Dept. of World Languages & Cultures
Elon University

Adam M. Persky, PhD
Clinical Associate Professor
UNC Eshelman School of Pharmacy
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Viji Sathy, PhD
Senior Lecturer
Dept. of Psychology & Neuroscience
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Alberts, H. C., Hazen, H. D., & Theobald, R. B. (2010)
Classroom incivilities: The challenge of interactions between college students and instructors in the US. Journal of Geography in Higher Education, 34, 439–462.

Amada, G. (1992)
Coping with the disruptive college student: A practical model. Journal of American College Health, 40(5), 203–215.

Appleby, D. (1990)
Faculty and student perceptions of irritating behaviors in the college classroom. Journal of Staff, Program, and Organization Development, 8, 41–46.

American Psychological Association. (2011)
The state of mental health on college campuses: A growing crisis.

Bayer, A. E. (2004)
Promulgating statements of student rights and responsibilities. New Directions for Teaching and Learning, 2004(99), 77–87.

Black, L. J., Wygonik, M. L., & Frey, B. A. (2011)
Faculty-preferred strategies to promote a positive classroom environment. Journal on Excellence in College Teaching, 22(2), 109–134.

Boettcher, J. V., & Conrad, R.-M. (2016)
The online teaching survival guide: Simple and practical pedagogical tips. San Francisco, CA: John Wiley & Sons.

Boice, R. (1998)
Classroom incivilities. In K. A. Feldman & M. B. Paulson (Eds.), Teaching and learning in the college classroom (2nd ed., pp. 347–369). Needham Heights, MA: Simon & Schuster.

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The influence of teaching norm violations on the welfare of students as clients of college teaching. New Directions for Teaching and Learning, 2004(99), 41–46.

Buttner, E. H. (2004)
How do we “dis” students?: A model of (dis)respectful business instructor behavior. Journal of Management Education, 28, 319–334.

Canter, L. (2009)
Assertive discipline: Positive behavior management for today’s classroom (4th ed.). Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree Press.

Carbone, E. (1999)
Students behaving badly in large classes. New Directions for Teaching and Learning, 1999 (77), 35–43.

Carnegie Mellon University, Eberly Center. (n.d.). Address problematic student behavior. Retrieved from

Chase, B., Germundsen, R., Cady Brownstein, J., & Schaak Distad, L. (2001)
Making the connection between increased student learning and reflective practice. Educational Horizons, 79, 143–147.

Davis. B. G. (2009)
Tools for teaching (2nd ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Deering, C.  (2011)
Managing disruptive behaviour in the classroom. College Quarterly, 14(3).

DiClementi, J. D., & Handelsman, M. M. (2005)
Empowering students: Class-generated course rules. Teaching of Psychology, 32, 18–21.

Galbraith, M.W., & Jones, M.S. (2010)
Understanding incivility in online teaching. Journal of Adult Education, 39(2), 1–10.

Knepp, K. A. F. (2012)
Understanding student and faculty incivility in higher education. The Journal of Effective Teaching, 12(1), 32–45.

Kyle, P. B., & Rogien, L. R. (2004)
Opportunities and options in classroom management. Boston, MA: Pearson.

Nilson, L. B., & Goodson, L. A. (2018)
Online teaching at its best: Merging instructional design with teaching and learning research. San Francisco, CA: John Wiley & Sons.

Nilson, L. B. (2010)
Teaching at its best: A research-based resource for college instructors (3rd ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Nilson, L. B. (in press)
Teaching at its best: A research-based resource for college instructors (4th ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Nilson, L. B., & Jackson, N. S. (2004)
Combating classroom misconduct (incivility) with bills of rights. Proceedings of the 4th Conference of the International Consortium for Educational Development. Ottawa, ON, Canada. 

Paff, L. (2015, September 28)
Why policies fail to promote better learning decisions. Faculty Focus. Retrieved from

Palloff, R. M., & Pratt, K. (2007)
Building online learning communities: Effective strategies for the virtual classroom (2nd ed.). San Francisco, CA: John Wiley & Sons.

Sorcinelli, M. D. (1994)
Dealing with troublesome behaviors in the classroom. In K. W. Prichard & R. M. Sawyer (Eds.), Handbook of college teaching: Theory and applications (pp. 365–373). Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.

Stavredes, T. (2011)
Effective online teaching : foundations and strategies for student success. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Wilson, G. L. (2005)
Groups in context: Leadership and participation in small groups (7th ed.). Boston, MA: McGraw-Hill.