What Causes Incivility in Online Courses, and How Can We Minimize It?

Incivility in an online course can reduce student satisfaction and negatively affect retention. This is why it's important to understand what causes it, design your course to minimize it, and know what to do when you encounter it.

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Incivility in an online course can reduce student satisfaction and negatively affect retention. This is why it's important to understand what causes it, design your course to minimize it, and know what to do when you encounter it.

Student incivility

Incivility can take many forms. It is not necessarily intentional behavior and can result from misunderstandings and misinterpretation. From their review of the literature, Lynda Norris Donathan, associate professor of imaging sciences, and Misty Hanks, instructional designer, both at Morehead State University, found the following types of incivility among students:

(Galbraith and Jones, p. 4)

Donathan and Hanks point to the following causes of student incivility:


Use the following techniques to prevent student incivility:


Taking steps to prevent incivility is no guarantee that incivility will be eliminated. This is why it's important to be prepared to respond to incivility. Donathan and Hanks recommend deleting inappropriate student posts promptly and explaining to the student who wrote them why you deleted them.

Sometimes those inappropriate posts generate responses from other students, which can lead to further conflict. When this occurs, it's important to contact students and try to get them to refocus. “I try to ‘talk them down'. It depends on what's going on in the class,” Donathan says.

When a student directs uncivil messages at another student, Donathan recommends acknowledging them without singling out anybody, redirecting students to the content, and reminding the students that they may critique the content but not the individual.

As an instructor it's important not to assume that students are being deliberately hostile or uncivil. “If you see a discussion post that goes off topic and seems to be becoming uncivil, it's an opportunity to point out that some people may see this from a different perspective,” Donathan says.

Playing devil's advocate in this manner avoids placing blame and provides a teachable moment. (If there is potential for embarrassing the student who posted the potentially offending message, communicate privately with that student.)

Faculty incivility
Incivility is not limited to students. Instructors may also engage in uncivil behaviors. These can include:

(Clark, p. 3)

Donathan and Hanks list the following factors that can contribute to faculty incivility:

(Clark, p. 3)

Recognizing incivility in one's own behavior can be difficult. One indicator of faculty incivility is the way that students respond. For example, when a student apologizes after making a completely appropriate post to a discussion board, it might indicate that the student views the instructor as being critical or negative.

If you sense that a student is interpreting your behaviors as uncivil, you may need to clarify your communication. When a student apologizes for appropriate posts, Donathan recommends sending a detailed message reassuring the student that the posts were fine and challenging him or her to think more deeply.

“Students need to see you as open, receptive, and friendly to them in your emails and discussion posts,” Donathan says.

When she wants to challenge a student to “dig deeper,” Donathan writes something such as “You've made a good point. Let's dig a little deeper. What do you think of … ?”

If the student is way off, Donathan recommends respectfully directing the student to review the textbook or other appropriate resources and to reconsider his or her response.

Fostering a civil learning environment is an essential role of the instructor and the instructional designer. Paying close attention in the design and facilitation of an online course can improve learning and retention and prevent incivility from disrupting the course.


Galbraith, Michael W. and Jones, Melanie S. 2010. Understanding incivility in online teaching: Why student incivility occurs. Journal of Adult Education,39, 1-10.

Clark, Cynthia. 2014. The Pedagogy of Civility: Strategies to Create an Engaged Learning Environment. Accessed November 21, 2014, at www.shawnee.edu/academics/celebration-of-scholarship/media/the-pedagogy-of-civility-clark-acg-2013.pdf.