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The Impact of Disruptive Behavior in the

Classroom: the student perspective

Conference Paper · September 2016


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3 authors:

Jacqueline Douglas David Moyes

Liverpool John Moores University University of the West of Scotland


Alex Douglas
Management University of Africa


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Quality in HE View project

The student experience View project

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© 20-ICIT: 26-28/9/2016 hosted by UoB, Oman ST-6: Education Excellence Paper#: 6.4 P- 1

The Impact of Disruptive Behavior in the Classroom: the student

Dr. Jacqueline Douglas
Liverpool Business School, Liverpool John Moores University, UK

Dr. David Moyes

University of West of Scotland

Dr. Alex Douglas

TQM Journal Editor

This paper compares the results of a qualitative investigation into disruptive behaviour in the higher
education classroom in Italy with results from a previous study in Scotland. Critical Incident Technique
was used. The respondents were invited to describe those behaviours that affected them and what they
believed tutors should do to manage such behaviour. One main type of disruptive behaviour was identified,
namely, Noise. The Italian students’ main concern was that other students were talking in class and that
lecturers did not seem to manage the behavior effectively. It would appear that disruptive behaviour by
students is a problem that should be challenged and managed effectively from the beginning of a student’s
study. This research contributes to the development of this emerging field by developing dimensions of ‘jay’
behaviour and provides a rich insight into students’ perceptions.

Keywords: service quality; determinants; critical incident technique; higher education, Italy, Scotland.

1. Introduction
Higher education offers a product by way of its degrees and awards; education is a service process.
Disruption within the learning environment should be managed effectively in order to facilitate an inspiring
and encouraging learning environment. As the extant literature purports, it has long been recognised in
marketing research that the consumer in service delivery is a co-creator of value. In these cases the
behaviour of consumers can impact on the service enjoyment of other customers and this should be managed
by the service provider. If the service provider fails to manage the situation effectively, they risk poor
customer satisfaction. A previous study by Douglas et al. (2014) found that one of the determinants of
quality within education was other students’ behaviour. Existing literature does not explain in-depth how
disruptive behaviour is managed (Echeverri et al., 2012), it is however, a problem across many industries
(Daunt and Harris, 2011). Within the education environment, where students remain for a number of years,
the necessary corrective action may not be straightforward. Therefore, the methods by which the university
manages such behaviour are important and the students’ perceptions of what is appropriate is equally so.
The main aims of this study were to determine the types of disruptive behaviour in the classroom, evaluate
how tutors manage such behaviours and highlight how students themselves believe such behaviour should be

2. Literature
2.1 Service Quality

Service quality involves meeting customer needs (Dale, 1999) and is concerned with service delivery level
meeting expectations; it is known to depend on the gap between expected and perceived performance
(Anderson et al., 1994). It is an increasingly important aspect with customers demanding higher quality
services and products (Asubonteng et al., 1996). Good service quality will generally lead to an increase in
both customer satisfaction and positive word of mouth; it also leads to an increase in attitudinal loyalty and
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purchase intentions (Gremler and Gwinner, 2000). The quality of the encounter is essential in the overall
impression and evaluation of the quality of the service experience (Lewis, 1989).

Consumers act as co-producers in a service environment (Huang, 2008); not only do they influence their
own quality experience but also impact other customers’ satisfaction (Tax et al., 2006). ‘Acceptable’
behaviour varies according to different service industries. Consumer demographics may also have a relative
effect on misbehaviours and variances in behaviour may alter in accordance with individuals, cultures,
contexts and geographical locations (Fullerton et al., 1997). This means that behaviours which some
consumers deem acceptable, others might consider to be morally wrong (Fisk et al., 2010). Customers who
violate the generally accepted norms of conduct in consumer situations have been defined as misbehaving
customers (Fullerton & Punj, 1997). Consumer misbehaviour has become problematic in several service
industries and it is becoming unacceptable as service providers aim to reduce any negative incidents that
could potentially arise. Such negative behaviour from customers weakens other customers’ satisfaction
(Martin, 1996). There is a great deal of research based on the issue of service failures and corresponding
recovery efforts in various service industry types. However, there is limited research in the area of
misbehaviours and service failures and the effect on other customers within the situation, not just the effect
on the business.

The limited research has reported that consumer misbehaviours have adverse psychological, financial and
social impacts on organisations, employees and other consumers (Harris & Reynolds, 2003). A customer’s
evaluation of service is not only affected by other customer misbehaviour but by how employees react
(Huang, 2008). Research reveals that consumers perceive other customers’ behaviour to be the firm’s
responsibility. (Huang, 2008). It is therefore vital for management to control service failures to reduce
dissatisfying events such as consumer misbehaviours and other-customer failures. The management of
service quality in organisations must implement appropriate mechanisms to measure and monitor the level
of the service being provided to ensure it is what has been promised (Douglas et al., 2009) and upon which
consumers have based their perceptions.

Service recovery has gained significant attention in recent years in relation to adhering to customers’
increasing expectations. It is noted that service failures are inevitable however dissatisfied customers are not
(Michel, 2001). Research suggests that customers’ emotional responses to service failures influence their
recovery-effort evaluations and satisfaction judgements (Smith & Bolton, 2002). Service recovery strategies
influence the responses of consumers to service failures (Keefe et al., 2007). Often recovery procedures, if
organised and efficient, can effectively turn a negative experience into a positive one. Michaud (date not
supplied) suggested a number of strategies for dealing with ‘jay customers’, that is a customer who
intentionally acts in a thoughtless or abusive manner

2.2 Higher Education Context

League tables have become important within higher education and have led to a focus on specific
performance indicators, such as student satisfaction. Dejaeger et al (2011) discovered that the perceived
ease of learning was an important factor. As long ago as the 1970s disruption was being cited as a problem
by teaching staff in the classroom (Erickson, 1976). Yet, the problem persists in the 21st Century higher
education classroom. There are varying types of in-class disruptive behaviour, such as being chronically
late, engaging in arguments with the tutor, monopolizing class discussions, displaying active disinterest,
eating or sleeping in class, and talking. (Hernandez & Fister, 2001). It has been found that behaviour can be
disruptive, disrespectful and disorderly. Moreover, such behaviour has been characterised as rebellious or
emotional and can be either unintended or deliberate; but either way it can have an adverse effect on teaching
and learning in the higher education classroom setting. Kaplan et al. (2002) found that gender was an issue
with males being more disruptive and aggressive than females.

It appears that there may also be toxic students within Higher Education. These are students that behave
within the classroom in such a way that impedes teaching and learning. There are a number of inappropriate
behaviours that can manifest within the classroom setting and also a number of methods employed to deal
with them. Each type of behaviour requires a different response on how to deal with it. However, teaching
staff do not have help in order to make sense of what has happened and how they can manage such situations.
Otero-Lopez et al (2009) found that disruptive behaviour could lead to stress amongst tutors and may
eventually lead to burnout.
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Within the higher education arena there is a paucity of literature on disruptive behaviour in the classroom,
although there is more, perhaps not surprisingly, on the subject at school levels. See for example, Romi
(2004). Yet surprisingly it is an issue for some teaching staff and students at higher education level, despite
the fact that they can pay up to £9,000 per annum for the undergraduate experience (note that this does not
apply in Scotland). Moreover it is surprising because students must have chosen to take part in the HE
experience, therefore why disrupt their own experience? Atherton (2005) identified that for novice teachers
particularly a disruptive student experience can make them leave the profession. For more experienced
teachers such students can be the bane of their life. More importantly, such behaviour can jeopardise the
teaching and learning experience because time spent on the problem takes the tutor away from teaching.

One university (Miller, 2007) listed a number of experiences with disruptive students, such as; mobile phone
use, attitude, bullying, talking, punctuality, eating and drinking. Acts of violence in the school environment
have been seen to escalate (Essex, 2002) and disruptive behaviour generally has grown for school-age
children (Nelson, 1996). This may transfer to higher education if not dealt with at that stage. From the
limited literature there are a number of suggestions to deal with inappropriate behaviour:Atherton (2005)
suggested a 6-step method of handling inappropriate behaviour which is to: (i) Calm down; (ii) Reflect and
diagnose; (iii) Itemise the problematic behaviour(s); (iv) Develop strategies to handle them; (v) Implement
the strategies; and (vi) Reflect and evaluate, but only change them in the light of clear and consistent
contrary evidence. Mishra (1992) postulated that learning effectiveness could be enhanced if the disruptive
behaviour was dealt with properly.

In a survey conducted by Seidman (2012) it was found that disruptive behaviour amongst students was a
major learning inhibitor and is not dealt with effectively by the learning organisations. Teaching staff are not
trained to handle the problem. A number of causes of disruption in the classroom had been identified within
the literature such as substance abuse (Kuhlenshmidt and Layne, 1999) and environmental factors. Sun and
Shek (2012. p2) defined misbehaviour as ‘rule-breaking, violating implicit norms, being inappropriate and
upsetting teaching and learning’. Their research also highlighted cultural differences in what constituted
misbehaviour. Students are accountable for their own success (Mark, 2013). When students become
disengaged it puts the university at a disadvantage (Mark, 2013). In a quantitative survey of 247 students
where they were asked to rate their levels of satisfaction with lectures, the quality of the lecture and their
classroom experiences were the most influential of the factors (Wilking and Balakrishnan, 2013).

3. Method
The critical incident technique has proven a popular methodology in service research when measuring
satisfaction and dissatisfaction and their causes. Originally introduced by Flanagan (1954), the method
remains largely unchanged today (Douglas, et al., 2014). Gremler (2004) proposed that providing that a
number of conditions were met, the technique was both valid and reliable, resulting in a rich set of data to
analyse (Johnston, 1995). The qualitative technique involves asking respondents to narrate, in their own
words, the details of an experience they remember. The form of the narratives can be positive experiences or
negative experiences. It provides a mechanism to gather perceptions from individuals, as opposed to
imposing a set of structured questions.

Specifically data was sought to enable the gaining of rich insights into perceptions of behaviours, students’
views of what is acceptable behaviour and what is not, and their judgements with respect to ‘natural justice’;
what they believe tutors ought to do and what would be fair and proportionate action. A key benefit from a
constructivist approach is that it enables the researcher to run the data open (Shaw, 1999) allowing
additional themes and insights to emerge.

Although CIT can generate large quantities of data which can be quantitatively analysed, its chief value lies
in revealing the thinking of respondents when confronted with a ‘critical’ incident, i.e. an incident which was
sufficiently clear and memorable to be considered important for the respondent. In this way CIT differs
from other techniques; it is for the respondent to decide what is important and what is not, and to write about
the incident and their feelings using their own words, (Moyes 2012). CIT has been used extensively in
service marketing research and has been refined and developed for this purpose by; inter alia Gremler
(2004), Edvardsson and Strandvik (2000) and Edvardsson and Roos (2001).
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Data can be gathered using the CIT in several different ways, such as focus groups, personal interviews and
observation (Edvardsson, 1992). In this case the voices of individual students were captured. A simple
instrument was developed which asked students to reflect upon an incident in which the behaviour of other
students or another student affected their learning experience in the classroom. Excluded, therefore were
group-work experiences which, whilst impactful for students, often take place outside of the class-room and
are therefore not available to immediate tutor intervention. Further, the instrument asked students to
describe the incident, how it made them feel, how the tutor dealt with (or did not deal with) the incident, and
importantly, what the student felt ought to have been done by the tutor. The instrument was piloted with a
large class of students and amended. Specifically, the amended instrument made it clear that reported
incidents must have taken place in a class-room teaching situation. In order to differentiate between
seminar/tutorial situations and large lecture theatre experiences, a question was added to identify whether
the student group at the time of the incident was large or small.

Ethical approval was granted by the university research committee. Students were asked to ensure that no
staff, students or programmes were identified in their responses. All responses were fully anonymised. The
data were collected over a one- month period from students studying at Masters level in Verona, Italy. 25
fully completed responses were collected and compared with results from the previous study. The incidents
were transcribed and entered into a spreadsheet from which clusters and themes could be drawn. Incidents
were arranged and re-arranged into ‘like’ groups until all the anecdotes in each group were more similar to
each other than to any other groups. The process ended when no new groups emerged. To assess validity,
analysis was carried out by two researchers. A comparison was then made of the results with the findings of
the previous study by Moyes et al (2015).

4. Findings
A total of 21 usable questionnaires were collected. The gender split was 8 male, 12 female and 1
undisclosed. The age group was mostly in the 17-21 years category (n=12) with 10 from the 22-24 years of
age category. All were studying for a Masters degree at either 1st (n=12),2nd (n=8) or 3rd year (n=1). The
majority of incidents reported involved ‘talking’ with 14 narratives referring to ‘chatting noisily’ and a
further 3 complaining of ‘talking and laughing’. This fits with the previous findings by Moyes et al (2015)
where over 50% of the disruptive behavior involved talking in class. There were single incidents recorded of
the following: arriving late / early; arguing with the teacher; not collaborating with each other; sleeping;
putting on make-up; using a mobile phone; and telling sexual jokes. One respondent reported a more
positive event when his understanding of the topic was helped by another student asking the teacher a

4.1 Actions Taken

In most cases the lecturer ignored the behavior, although it was reported that this was often due to the large
size of the class and therefore the lecture may have been unaware of the incident. One lecturer left the class
and did not return; another stopped the class. In only 3 incidents did the lecturer try to ask for the behavior
to stop. One lecturer waited until the end of class to talk to the offending students. The diagram below
highlights the action taken in the Scottish campus.

Figure 1 Actions taken by tutors

In all instances, the respondents felt that the tutor should deal more effectively with the behavior.
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5. Discussion
In conclusion, disruptive behaviour by students is clearly a problem across campuses and different levels of
academic study. Additionally, this behaviour, once started, seems to continue – so if year one students are
not challenged and corrected, there is evidence that they continue to behave in this manner right through into
Masters level. This implies that some students, who are within a few months of applying for and taking up
posts with employers, cannot behave appropriately and with respect in a group situation. This challenging
behaviour is not limited to the larger classes – smaller, tutorial-sized groups also feature in the results.

The teaching space has a special meaning and students have a clear view of what is acceptable within it. The
behaviours themselves are not particularly offensive, but they indicate a lack of respect for and engagement
with the purpose of the class. The lesson for universities is that even relatively minor transgressions, such as
using mobile phones, looking at Face Book and Twitter on laptops and arriving late, are seen as
unacceptable by many students in a learning situation. These behaviours would not be upsetting in most
other group situations, such as in a shop or cafeteria, therefore it is not the offensiveness of the behaviours
which appears to be at issue, but rather their location.

Words used by students are indicative of the key impacts of disruptive behaviour. Students report that they
are ‘frustrated’. This shows that the impact of this type of behaviour is to block the desire of students to have
an effective learning experience. In other words disruptive behaviour is a barrier to learning. None of the
other words used; such as ‘intimidated’, ‘distracted’, ‘stressed’ and ‘annoyed’ indicate that effective
learning is taking place.

It would appear that students are instrumental about their learning and when their learning opportunities are
compromised by the behaviour of others they expect this behaviour to be managed. This is in line with the
findings of Anderson and Sullivan, 1993; Bolton and Drew, 1991 and Fornell, 1992 that customers expect
other customers who are misbehaving to be dealt with by the service provider. Students are clear that it is the
job of the tutor to do so. But, the results show that not all teaching staff are willing to engage in the
management of student behaviour and some may not accept that it is part of their role as tutors. That is an
issue which universities must address. However, to further complicate this problem, where the same
incident was reported by several respondents, they did not all agree on the appropriate corrective action, or
when that action should take place. For example some felt that misbehaviour should be dealt with privately
outside of the class-room, whist others wanted action to be taken immediately. In our example where a
student intervened, some, but by no means all of the students, supported the intervention. Therefore a larger
scale study is required and policies will need to be more nuanced than a simple list of rules.

To begin to address this, particularly where inexperienced staff are involved, a ‘Students’ Charter’ may help
to tackle the issue: ensuring that both staff and students are aware of the process involved.

Our study does not explain why this type of behaviour occurs – clearly, talking all the way through a
two-hour lecture is not acceptable, nor is using technology to watch television. Yet there is evidence of this
happening. An alternative approach to analysing the research results, using Semiotic Analysis, may uncover
trends and connections between behaviour and outcomes which may contribute to an explanation of why
students behave in this way.

The research at present is location-specific, and although the students in the response group were drawn
from a number of countries, they were predominantly Scottish. Therefore we do not have a cross-cultural
view of the phenomenon. Future research could look at the impact of misbehaviour in different countries
and unpick whether what is acceptable behaviour in a class might vary from country to country.
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Authors’ Backgrounds

Dr. Jacqueline Douglas is a Senior Lecturer in Quality Management within

Liverpool Business School at Liverpool John Moores University. She is a
Certified Lean Six Sigma Black Belt. Her research interests include Quality
Management within Higher Education, Critical Incident Technique, Lean Six
Sigma and Service Quality. She has a large number of conference and journal
publications to her name including Quality Assurance in Education, The Journal
of Higher Education and Studies in Higher Education. She is also a paper
reviewer for a number of journals including Studies in Higher Education and
The TQM Journal.

Dr. David Moyes is retired from the University of Scotland, where he taught
Marketing. His research interests include Critical Incident Technique and Word
of Mouth feedback from customers.

Dr Alex Douglas is the Editor of the TQM Journal. He was an Associate

Professor in Service Quality Management at Liverpool John Moores University
until his retirement in 2014. He is a Chartered Quality Professional (CQP), a
Senior Member of the American Society for Quality, a Fellow of the Higher
Education Academy and a Certified Lean Six Sigma Black Belt. He has attended
conferences presenting research papers all round the world, including
Australia, China, Finland, France, Israel, Italy, Malaysia, Mexico, Russia,
Sweden, USA and the UK. He has had over 80 articles and research papers
published in conference proceedings and a wide range of journals.

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