Dealing with Difficult Students and Students with Problems

According to College Teaching magazine, around 20 percent of college students display active resistance to learning. This could range anywhere from spotty attendance, to talking or doing other things during class, to outright confrontation with the professor. Students who bring such attitudes and actions to class can be disruptive to the general ambience of the classroom. Thus, it is important to consider what you can do as an instructor to help address these issues.

First, realize that as an instructor, you too contribute to the classroom mood. Beginning on the first day of class, try to communicate a positive classroom environment that shows sensitivity to your students and their feelings. Encourage class discussion and collaboration between students. When students feel as though they are part of a community where their opinions or questions can be voiced safely, they may be less likely to become frustrated with the instructor or their peers.

Unfortunately, while cultivating a positive learning environment can help prevent problems, it will not eliminate all student issues. Beyond classroom conflict prevention, TAs may need to address interpersonal conflicts that have already occurred between students in other settings or respond to chronically disruptive students.

When a student is unhappy with a professor, the same rule of thumb applies as in preventing problems: display empathy and react in a way that helps the student feel comfortable discussing their problem with you. Responding in a way that sounds authoritative and closed to discussion may cause your students to be more defensive. On the other hand, reacting in a way that shows you are trying to understand the student’s point of view may disarm them to the point where you can help them weigh the alternatives and consequences of their actions. It may also be helpful to talk to the student outside of or after class, where they are not “on the spot” in front of their peers.

Empathy for your students is essential, but this does not require you to be excessively lenient. At times, students may become focused on grades, rather than on comprehending class material. It is important to help these students understand that their grade is based not on one assignment, but on their cumulative efforts the whole semester through. If a student complains about a particular grade, first listen. Then, help your students to understand why they received the grade they did, and assist them in developing strategies to succeed on future tasks. Remember that instructors do not “give” grades, students “earn” them, and you do not have a responsibility to soften your standards to appease a student who has not performed appropriately. Further, faculty have a responsibility to the integrity of the course to ensure that learning can occur, whether a student is happy with the curriculum or not. Listen to your students, and practice empathy, but do not feel as though you must compromise your classroom standards.

Most challengingly, instructors are occasionally faced with extremely disruptive students who may appear threatening, and are not appeased by the policies above. In such situations it is important to realize two things. First, you also have a responsibility to the other students in the classroom. If a student is recurrently causing problems, you DO have the authority to ask them to leave for the sake of the rest of the class. Second, you are not alone in responding to the student. In the case of an emergency or immediate danger, the Rutgers Police Department should be contacted—732-932-7211 by cell phone, or 911 from any university phone. If you are unsure that a problem is urgent, contact the Office of the Dean or Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) for advice.

If you are concerned about crossing the line between professor and friend, remember that when a student is in distress, your role as a human being exceeds your role as a professor; it is important to help students seek the help that they may need in an appropriate and timely manner. You may refer students to CAPS to help them get the assistance they need.

Finally, from time to time professors are faced with more chronic and documented learning problems. The Adjunct Advocate reports that up to 9% of American college students may have some sort of disability, and more than 1/3 of these disabilities may not be visible to the common observer. When dealing with students with disabilities, the university has a responsibility to provide “reasonable accommodation” for students. Students also have a responsibility to register with the student disabilities office to make sure this accommodation is provided to them. If you receive notice from a dean that a student is disabled, and requires extra time on exams or assistance, you should respond appropriately and helpfully. However, you are not responsible for retroactive help if a student notifies you late in the semester, or if a student does not inform you of their disability in a timely way through the proper channels. Again, communicate empathy, but expect responsibility from your students. As with general conflict prevention, generating a friendly classroom environment may help students feel comfortable asking for the assistance they need in advance. Be sure to invite students to speak with your privately at the first session of every course if they feel they need a special accommodation.

In this spectrum of teaching issues: conflict prevention, dealing with individual student/teacher conflicts, dealing with chronically disruptive students, dealing with disabled students, and more, it is important to remember to treat your students with respect. In all situations, strive to engage your students as people in a way that encourages empathy and discussion. Teaching at a large university, it is often difficult to know each student by name, but it is important to strive to do so. Problems big and small can only start to be addressed when we have the courage to ask students “Is everything ok? Is there something I can help you with?” While one ought to be firm and consistent about curriculum and classroom policies, it is also essential to view your students as individual people, and to be ready and willing to help them seek outside help as needed.

©2017, School of Graduate Studies, Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey