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.

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:

  • Challenging authority
  • Challenging the instructor’s credibility or knowledge
  • Having hostile reactions
  • Making offensive remarks
  • Demanding special treatment
  • Missing or ignoring deadlines
  • Dominating discussions
  • Being reluctant to participate
  • Sending inappropriate emails
  • Being academically dishonest
  • Harassing or belittling others

(Galbraith and Jones, p. 4)

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

  • A consumer orientation—Some students might think that because they register and pay for a course, they’re entitled to an A.
  • Lack of experience with civil online behavior—Behavioral expectations in other online venues are not the same as in online courses.
  • A sense of anonymity—Some students feel emboldened by not being visible to others in the online course. As a result, they may express themselves in a less civil manner than they do in a face-to-face environment.
  • Feeling threatened by being challenged or loss of power—Both the content and learning experience of the online classroom can lead to feelings of insecurity, which can contribute to incivility.


Use the following techniques to prevent student incivility:

  • Describe your expectations in the course syllabus.Define what is appropriate, and identify the consequences of uncivil behavior. “It’s not enough to rely on the institution’s code of conduct. You have to be more specific than that because most of those were written a while ago or do not specifically consider online courses,” Hanks says.
  • Set expectations, model appropriate behavior. Donathan provides students with a “netiquette” handout that gives guidelines on how to interact in the course.
  • Introduce yourself, have students introduce themselves. Let students know your credentials for teaching the course so students perceive and treat you as a professional, Hanks says. Learning about your students can provide opportunities for students to relate the course content to their lives.
  • Provide frequent feedback, particularly early in a course. “I don’t believe an online instructor needs to be in the course every day, all the time, but it’s important to give parameters so that students know that if they haven’t heard from you in 20 minutes, it’s not OK to be paranoid and upset,” Hanks says.
  • Engage students. When students are actively participating in an online course, the amount of incivility decreases. “Engagement makes for a happier learning environment,” Donathan says. “When students are participating in active learning, they’re less likely to exhibit uncivil and disruptive behavior patterns.”

    Donathan further recommends engaging students in ways that are meaningful to them, encouraging and enabling them to apply the learning to their professional lives.

  • Communicate frequently. Misunderstandings can lead to incivility. Good instructional design can reduce ambiguity and confusion, but an instructor doesn’t always have input on the course’s design. If you’re given a less-than-stellar course to teach, look for the problem areas and provide extra communication to avoid these pitfalls, Hanks says.


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:

  • Being disinterested
  • Making snide remarks
  • Invalidating students
  • Humiliating students
  • Retaliating
  • Being hostile
  • Sending inappropriate emails
  • Presenting an attitude of superiority, exerting position and power
  • Having unrealistic expectations
  • Threatening to fail or dismiss students

(Clark, p. 3)

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

  • Juggling a heavy workload
  • Coping with problematic students and incivility from other faculty
  • Dealing with constant change
  • Meeting demands for publications, external funding, promotion and tenure, etc.
  • Managing home, work, family, financial pressures, etc.
  • Not understanding why students don’t understand
  • Receiving hostile communications from students

(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.

Leave a Reply

Logged in as Julie Evener. Edit your profile. Log out? Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Related Articles

Love ’em or hate ’em, student evaluations of teaching (SETs) are here to stay. Parts <a href="https://www.teachingprofessor.com/free-article/its-time-to-discuss-student-evaluations-bias-with-our-students-seriously/" target="_blank"...

Since January, I have led multiple faculty development sessions on generative AI for faculty at my university. Attitudes...
Does your class end with a bang or a whimper? Many of us spend a lot of time crafting...

Faculty have recently been bombarded with a dizzying array of apps, platforms, and other widgets that...

The rapid rise of livestream content development and consumption has been nothing short of remarkable. According to Ceci...

Feedback on performance has proven to be one of the most important influences on learning, but students consistently...