[Santa Clara University]
Department of Mathematics
and Computer Science

Classroom Etiquette and Courtesy

by D. C. Smolarski, S.J.

Link to Russian translation at bottom of the page.
DISCLAIMER: The contents of this page, with the exception of text quoted verbatim from official university publications, represent the opinions and preferences of the author, and should not be interpreted as official policies of Santa Clara University or its Department of Mathematics and Computer Science. Nonetheless, by comparison with similar informational pages at other schools relating to the same topic, one notes that much of what follows is common practice in college classrooms.


There exists a certain etiquette or set of customary rules of courtesy that apply to classroom situations, particularly on the college level. One can view these rules as forming a code of conduct appropriate to the semi-professional level of interaction that should be commonplace in the university setting between teachers and students. For those not familiar with such rules, this web page serves as an introduction.

A classroom is a formal setting, but formality does not mean that the educational interaction that takes place in the classroom is by nature impersonal, rigid, or "stiff." Both instructors and students in a classroom have rights and responsiblities, both should respect the other and treat them with common human reverence, both should do all they can do to help the educational process achieve its maximum effectiveness and to help the classroom truly become an environment for learning by all present.

Those who may think that "etiquette" in a university classroom is an archaic concept are invited to perform a web search using the keywords classroom and etiquette to see how widespread is the concern about this topic! In particular, one might look at the following pages:

A university or college classroom provides an ambience that traditionally is significantly different than the ambience found in primary or secondary schools. One difference is that in college level classes, the burden of the educational effort is on the shoulders of the student -- the instructor conveys some information and answers some questions, but it is the student's responsibility to become an "active" learner. Another difference is in the amount of "outside" work (i.e., "homework") done for a class. The traditional college norm is that for every "hour" (i.e., standard 50 minute period) spent in the classroom, a student should plan on spending at least two hours outside the classroom learning the subject matter of the course through additional reading or class assignments. (Thus, at Santa Clara, since most lower division meet approximately 200 minutes a week and thus are given 4 units of credit [since 4 times 50 minutes equals 200], the rule of thumb is that students should spend, on the average, about 8 hours a week per course outside of class learning the course's subject matter.)

These and other differences between what commonly occurs in high school classrooms and what has traditionally been considered the norm in university classrooms means that some students need to adjust their expectations in response to a new learning environment.


The published policy at Santa Clara University regarding attendance (cf. 2008-2009 Undergraduate Bulletin, p. 342) is that individual faculty may set attendance policy and prescribe penalties for absences. Attendance is required in my classes. By enrolling in a course, a student tacitly accepts the responsibility of participating in the classroom educational experience. Actual physical presence (with any resulting verbal interaction between instructor and student) can be as necessary to understanding the course's subject matter as completing homework assignments.

The attitude that "I paid my money -- I have the right to skip class if I want" betrays a "consumerism" approach to education rather than the cooperative, interactive process that education has been traditionally seen to be. The "attendance optional" attitude may unconsciously be related to the "entertain me"-attitude of many TV watchers. This sort of attitude disassociates the viewer from the "action" taking place and thus the viewer has no qualms about skipping a TV program occasionally or regularly, particularly if the viewer is not being "entertained" by the program. An alternative image is to use the "health exercise" image in which a person participates in an activity not because it is always a pleasant experience, but because the person is convinced that active participation will provide benefits that far outweigh any inconvenience or momentary unpleasantness.

There are many legitimate reasons for missing a class -- illness, family crisis, transportation problems. However, skipping class to study for a midterm in another class or to complete an assignment is a sign of poor time management and poor planning and would not be considered legitimate excuses by most instructors.


"Better late than never" should not be the operative proverb that justifies coming to class late and entering the classroom after the instructor has begun the class lecture. Although at some social gatherings, it may be permitted to be "socially late," most rules of behavior applicable to professional situations (e.g., medical appointments, job interviews, etc.) consider tardiness as unacceptable behavior.

One cannot control one's arrival time if one's car breaks down or if the immediately previous class runs over. Normally, however, students should plan on arriving on time.

Entering the classroom after the instructor's presentation has started can be distracting both to the instructor as well as to other students, especially if the person arriving late walks across the length of the classroom between the instructor and the assembled students. Those who come late should seat themselves as close to the entrance as possible and avoid any sort of disruption.

Students who arrive late should consult other students about any announcements made at the beginning of class. Quizzes missed by late arrival cannot be "made up."

Other Class Disruptions (Bathroom Breaks/Electronics)

The standard class period (for Monday, Wednesday, Friday classes) at Santa Clara is 65 minutes. Please do not start putting books away, closing up notebooks, and zipping up book-bags 5 minutes before the official end of class. This can be disruptive and distracting to both the instructor and classmates.

Students should not normally leave or re-enter the classroom during the class period. Doing this can be distracting, and can give the impression that you do not respect the educational process taking place.

The 65 minute class period is of such a length that it should be rare for someone to have to leave because of physiological needs. If illness or medication has affected your digestive rhythm or kidney functioning, and you realize that it may be necessary for you to leave during a class period, please arrive early enough to sit close to a door so that you may leave and return with a minimum of disturbance.

All attention during class should be focused on the instruction/lecture. iPods should not be used. Cell-phones or pagers should be turned to silent. NO TEXT MESSAGING.

Classroom Ambience

The classroom is a place for the conveyance of knowledge. Ideally, there is interaction between the instructor and the students that helps to convey knowledge from the instructor to the students.

Distractions can easily hinder the difficult process of conveying this knowledge. Thus, for example, students should avoid talking to each other during the lecture (see below regarding talking in class).

Students should refrain from other activity which can be distracting either to the instructor or to other students. In particular, classrooms are not cafeterias. Thus, the classroom is not a place to eat breakfast or lunch while the instructor is lecturing. NOTE that there are explicit prohibitions against bringing food or drinks into certain classrooms on campus!

Head Covering

The tradition of western society is that head coverings (hats, caps, berets) are worn when needed outdoors, but, as a general rule, that males do not wear head coverings indoors unless the hat is part of a uniform.

Such a tradition admits of exceptions, as when males remove head coverings when the national anthem is played before a sport game outdoors, or when males of some religious traditions wear head coverings during indoor prayer or even at other times.

As a general rule, then, common rules of etiquette assume that males will take off hats, including baseball caps, whenever indoors and particularly in classrooms!

Classroom Interaction

One classical pedagogical method is often termed the "Socratic Method" in which an instructor unfolds new material by asking questions and leading students to provide answers. This more intense method is not always possible in courses in Mathematics or Computer Science, but some interaction between instructor and students is to be expected, and students should be prepared to answer questions, and should expect that they may be called upon to provide answers.

On occasion, some instructors may suggest "group" problem solving approaches for certain problems as part of the class period.

Aside from such interaction, talking or whispering between students should be avoided. If someone has a question about something the instructor wrote on the board or some statement, it is preferable to ask the instructor. If one person is confused, there are probably a half dozen other people who are also equally confused but afraid to admit it. The person with enough courage to ask a question publicly to the instructor may, in fact, be considered a hero by those who wished that someone would ask that question.

Normally, raising a hand suffices to draw the attention of the instructor to the student who has a question. In those cases where an instructor may be having a (seeming) one-on-one conversation with the blackboard and does not notice the presence of a raised hand, a gentle "Question!" spoken by the student would actually be appreciated by many faculty members.

Every student in the class has equal rights in the class. Therefore, no one should monopolize the instructor's time to the detriment of the educational environment. If a student has many questions, that student should probably consult with the instructor during office hours rather than asking questions in class.

Office Hours

University faculty members hold office hours to be able to individualize the learning process. Some students find certain concepts very difficult while others may find the same concepts quite easy. In order to respond to those students experiencing difficulty, office hours provide the opportunity for such students to consult with the faculty member outside of the formal class period.

In particular, I (and many other faculty members) would prefer that students see me (them) during office hours about difficulties experienced with homework problems or with programming assignments. Consultation during office hours usually can take place without time constraints that occur when questions arise during class and a certain amount of new material must also be covered.

Study (Review) Sessions

Review sessions before exams (Midterms and Finals) will be scheduled in elementary level courses if there is a desire among the students and if a mutually agreeable time can be arranged.

Such sessions are held for the purpose of answering any questions students may have. Such questions may arise from the subject matter, from class examples, from quiz or homework problems, from other assignments (e.g., computer programs), or (in Calculus classes) from sample exams.

Students experiencing difficulty in understanding the course material should particularly make an effort to attend such study sessions and have any and all questions answered prior to exams.

Students who do poorly on exams, yet do not attend study (review) sessions and do not turn in homework, should not expect to receive any "benefit of the doubt" in term of grades received for the course.

A Russian translation of this page may be found at: http://worldartsme.com/blog/archives/364.

This page is maintained by Dennis C. Smolarski, S.J., dsmolarski "at" scu.edu. Last changed: 29 November 2015. Link to Russian translation added: 9 December 2015.