Dealing with Difficult Students

Reading a recent post from Stanford University’s Tomorrow’s Professor on dealing with difficult students made me realize that The Innovative Instructor had not dealt with that topic specifically in four plus years of posting. Time to remedy that situation.

Four students in a lecture hall setting, three female, one male. The male and one female appear bored and inattentive.The excerpt from a book [How to Teach Adults: Plan Your Class. Teach Your Students. Change the World, by Dan Spalding, 2014 Jossey-Bass, San Francisco] is from a chapter on managing a class. The short and concise How to Deal With Difficult Students lists eight pieces of advice, all useful considerations, from “Never attack the student,” to “Listen and validate,” to “Draw a line,” with the advice to “focus on the behavior, not on the student.”

Two articles from the archives of Faculty Focus Higher Ed Teaching Strategies offer different approaches to the problem. In Four Tips for Dealing with Difficult Students, March 26, 2010, Jason Ebbeling and Brian Van Brunt suggest taking a collaborative approach using four principles—Express Empathy, Develop Discrepancy, Avoid Argumentation, and Roll with Resistance—to acknowledge a problem and work with a student to correct it. The second article, Dealing with Difficult Students and Other Classroom Disruptions by Mary Bart, June 4, 2012, suggests a proactive approach. Setting expectations on the first day of class and clearly communicating those expectations both verbally and on the syllabus can set the tone for the learning environment you want to create. Still, the author acknowledges, even when an instructor does everything right, there is a potential for a student to be disruptive. Suggestions are provided for having a conversation with a difficult student from a point of concern for the student’s success.

In searching for material on this topic, I discovered a site that instructors might find useful in general for teaching: Unfortunately, the site is no longer being supported and updated, but there are great resources available in the archive—just be aware that the material may be dated. In most instances, that is not an issue. The Classroom Management guide by Linda Rodriguez is a case in point, offering solutions to specific issues under the heading of dealing with difficult students. These include undermining the instructor’s authority, leaving class frequently, verbal or physical threats, cell phone disruption, monopolizing discussions, and disrespectful behavior among others. A handy PDF version of the suggestions can be found here. Keep scrolling down the page to find more tips on setting classroom atmosphere, managing class time, facilitating connections in the classroom, and helping students to be successful college students.

The Innovative Instructor welcomes your comments and suggestions on dealing with difficult students and other classroom management topics.

Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Image Source: Microsoft Clip Art