Etiquette Tips for Undergrads: In-class Behavior (Part 1)

There are a lot of ways in which I am not terribly hung up on etiquette. In most instances, particularly in smaller classes, I encourage my students to call me “Kelly” instead of “Dr. Berkson”. (Is it because I’m a New Englander that I feel “Dr.” should really be reserved for medical doctors?) In general I try to cultivate a pretty warm and friendly classroom environment. I encourage open dialogue. I don’t stand on ceremony.

That said, I have expectations about basic politeness that my undergrads do not seem to share. This is a problem, because it leads to misperceptions and misunderstandings.

When a student does something that I perceive as rude or thoughtless, it alters the extent to which I am willing to go out of my way to help them.

One of my aunts once used the phrase “Rules of Engagement” to refer to the basic beliefs people have about the kind of behavior that is expected and appropriate in a given situation. Sometimes, conflict arises not because of any fundamental differences in perspectives, but because people have different ideas about the appropriate Rules of Engagement. This is certainly the case with me and some–though not all–of my students: we have very different ideas about appropriateness.

Again, the standard disclaimer which happens to be profoundly true: by and large, my students are fantastic. They are bright, they are hard-working, they have good attitudes. In short, they are not rude – or better said, they are not rude intentionally. They often appear to be rude, however, because they seem not to know the Rules of Engagement.  So here, for what it’s worth, are some of the things that I want my students to know. Today’s post will focus on In-Class Etiquette.

In-class Etiquette

    1. Come to class.
      • Everyone misses class sometimes, but if you miss class more often than you attend, I notice it. (Valid issues like chronic illness and family emergencies are exempt from this blanket statement, and will be addressed in a subsequent post.)
      • I take chronic skipping to mean that you do not care about the class, and are not putting effort into it. This is fine: it’s your prerogative to make that choice. But you should know that I sometimes get 40 or 50 emails PER DAY from students who either need things or want things from me. Like everyone else, I am gifted with only 24 hours per day, and so I have to make decisions about who gets my time and energy.
      • If you have shown me that you do not care about my class by skipping regularly, and then write to me with some sort of request, I’m going to factor your behavior into my decisions. If it comes down to a choice between helping you and helping a student who has invested in my class, you’re going to lose the coin toss.
    2. Do not use your computer in class unless you have cleared it with me.
      • Even if you have cleared computer usage with me, do not even think about getting on facebook, buzzfeed, or any other such sites while we are in class. You should be using your computer exclusively for the purpose of taking notes. Anything else is rude, but worse than that it is distracting for your fellow students.
      • You are a member of the classroom community for the time that we are in class. You are obligated by the bounds of common decency to conduct yourself in a way that does NOT interfere with your classmates’ ability to learn. I don’t care if you’re bored or checked out – really, I don’t. It doesn’t offend me. Stare off into space and daydream. Do what you have to do. But do NOT engage in any activity that distracts your neighbors.
    3. Listen actively, not passively.
      • Lecture classes can be hard. I know that. But even in a lecture-based course, you should conduct yourself like an active participant. Think about your perception of listening. What are your beliefs about this verb? Think about how it differs from hear. You don’t have to try to hear – if you’re sitting in your dorm room and someone drops a bottle in the hallway outside, you will hear the sound of that bottle hitting the floor. You weren’t listening for it: it happened, and you received the sound waves triggered by the event. Having heard it, though, you may perk up and begin to listen…why did the bottle fall? Did it break? Was someone just being clumsy, or was it the prelude to some sort of incident?
      • That feeling – the pricked ears, pulse-slightly-elevated feeling that you get when you start listening intently: that’s what you want to think about when you think about listening as an activity. Don’t be passive. Do be engaged.
      • You should be thinking about what the teacher is saying. You should react, with facial expressions and a head-nod now and then if nothing else – not for your teacher’s benefit, but because this helps you to keep yourself physically and mentally present in the room.
      • You should do every single practice exercise that the teacher presents.
      • If the teacher asks questions, try to formulate an answer. Even if you are someone who does not like to talk in class, you should still formulate the answer in your head, and then see if you were right. If you weren’t, try to figure out why. Make a note if you have questions that you want to ask the teacher after class.
    4. Take notes.
      • This is a part of being physically and mentally present in the classroom. Taking notes helps you to engage with the material.
      • Has anyone taught you how to take notes? Do you know why doing so benefits you? If not, consider checking out this page from Dartmouth College. It contains a number of resources that will help you understand why note-taking is important and how to get better at it.
      • If I see you taking notes, I am going to take you seriously. When you ask me a question, I am going to work really hard to answer it thoroughly. Fair or not,  I interpret note-taking as an indication that you are a serious student who is invested in the class and is willing to put effort into learning the material.
    5. Don’t eat if you can avoid it.
      • Clearly, if you are going to go into shock or faint from hunger, then you should eat.
      • Even in those instances, though, don’t eat chips or pretzels or nuts or anything else that crunches maddeningly.
    6. On the same note, don’t make any sort of incessant noise – don’t rustle a newspaper, don’t jog your foot up and down incessantly, don’t tap your pencil on the desk over and over and over again until we all want to steal the pencil and stomp it into a million pieces on the floor. For God’s sake, don’t blow constant bubbles with your chewing gum, or crack your knuckles endlessly.
    7. Come to class prepared.
      • If the class has required reading, make sure you have done it.
      • If there was an at-home exercise, make sure you have done it.
      • Whatever it is that you need to do outside of class in order to ensure that you can take the maximum amount of learning away from class, do it. Just do it.
      • You should do these things not for my benefit, but for purely selfish reasons: it will help you. The better prepared you are for class, the more you will get out of it.

Ultimately, the key message here is that you should behave like an adult. You may not be a full-fledged adult yet, but you are on your way. Act like it.

Think about the rules of etiquette that would be observed in a business meeting: you show respect for whoever’s running the meeting, you come to the meeting prepared, you don’t mess around on facebook while your boss is talking, you do pay attention to the information that is being delivered, etc. We are not running a business, and there are of course differences between the classroom and a business office. Nonetheless, you should absolutely treat this like it is your job. Take your education seriously: be the captain of your own ship. No one else can do that for you.

Let me repeat that: Take responsibility for your own educational journey. It is not enough to simply show up to lecture and assume that by doing that alone you will learn the material and succeed in the class. You must take outside initiative. You must do your reading. You must turn in the homework assignments.

More than this, you must stop thinking about the classroom like it is an extension of your dorm room. It is not.

Most of what I’ve just said really isn’t that special: if you had to navigate just about any formal setting in the world, you would do all of these things. They’re not complicated.

The bottom lines? Don’t be rude. Be cognizant of your own behavior. Treat others with respect.

1 thought on “Etiquette Tips for Undergrads: In-class Behavior (Part 1)

  1. Erin M.

    Thanks Kelly! I particularly like your demonstration of the difference between hearing and listening. Yes! What ever happened to note-taking? I vaguely remember that I used to be shocked when students didn’t take notes, but now idle pencils and pens seem to be the norm, not the exception.


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