Problem Students

A sensitive approach towards your students can prevent many problems. If you phrase questions and criticism carefully, you can generally avoid defensive or hostile responses. If you are supportive, encouraging, and respectful of student ideas in class, then you can correct wrong answers, point out feeble arguments, or highlight weak points in a positive manner without discouraging your students. Rather than asking what is wrong with a written paragraph or a problem solution, ask how it could be improved. Instead of asking what the weak point of an argument is, ask how well it applies to or uses the material for the session. Rather than dismissing an idea immediately, ask the student to clarify it using the material for the session. At the same time, it's important to maintain your credibility. Don't, therefore, respond to student questions with "good point" when the ideas are in fact poorly presented. Always show students the courtesy of fully attending to their answers when they offer an idea; don't use that time to write on the blackboard or scribble on a note pad.

You are also more likely to work more smoothly with your students if you resolve for yourself feelings that you may have about your authority as a teacher. Students are confused by- and often alienated from- a teacher who alternately acts as a friend or peer, then as a stern authority figure. You will also want to be careful about teasing or sarcastic humor since these are all too easily misinterpreted.

However careful you are, you may still run into some students who present problems. A few recurrent types-and ways to work with them-are discussed below.

The Arguer

If a student insists that you are not "allowing him his opinion" (or her opinion) when you disagree with a statement he has made, point out that you disagree because the statement does not correlate well with the session's material. If the student begins to disrupt the discussion, offer to talk privately after class or during office hours. Remain calm and nonjudgmental, no matter how agitated the student becomes. Always use evidence when disagreeing with a student. Using the authority of your position as teacher rarely proves anything in a disagreement and can inhibit discussion. You can largely avoid having students feel that you are putting them down by not beginning critical statements with "I". Phrase criticism with reference to the material for the session or other commonly shared information from the course.

If a student is stubborn, refusing to postpone a disagreement until after class or office hours and completely disrupting a class, remain calm. If the student is agitated to the point of being unreasonable, ask him or her to carry the grievance to a higher authority. Make apparent your willingness to discuss the issue calmly, but do not continue trying to reason with a student who is highly agitated. If you remain calm in the presence of the group, the student may soon become cooperative again. In an extreme case, you may have to ask the student to leave the classroom, or even dismiss the section. Seek to make your response as calm as possible and avoid making an issue out of a small incident. The hardest part of such a situation is maintaining your professionalism and not responding as if personally attacked.

The Over Talkative Student

Over talkative students can deaden a class. If a student is dominating a section, try to elicit responses from other students. Call on someone else even though the over talkative student volunteers a response. Emphasize to the group that it is the quality, not the quantity, of responses that most interests you. Make sure they see that you consider the group's project a communal and not a competitive activity. If the student does not recognize the importance of listening to what other members of a group have to offer, talk with him or her about it privately. If the problem continues, talk to the student's advisor, dorm resident fellow, or both to try to develop a strategy for dealing with the over talkativeness. Do not ridicule an over talkative student or make comments to other students in the group, but try as tactfully as possible to keep the group's activity going without reinforcing the talkative behavior.

In large group discussions, the "over talkative student" may actually be trying to help the instructor when others are not volunteering. One way to deal with this is to meet with the student and express your appreciation for her (or his) contributions. At that point it may be useful to acknowledge that the student is, in effect, one of your "aces-in the hole" a student you look to when the conversation lags. Explain that you may not call on her each time she raises her hand, but because you're consciously trying to encourage others' participation- even if it takes some time to draw them out. This type of conversation can help the student understand that you value her efforts and acknowledge her strengths while gracefully allowing you to solicit other opinions.

The Silent Ones

The student who never speaks out in class also presents a problem. By making sure that all members of a class (if small enough) know each other by name and by trying to create a safe environment, you can sometimes overcome the silent student's fear of speaking. Occasional small group activities-where the students discuss issues in pairs, for example-can also make it easier for a shy student to open up. By testing out ideas in small groups, those who lack confidence may be assured that they won't look foolish if they volunteer their answers to the larger group. As with the over talkative student, do not ridicule or put the silent student on the spot, but do try to elicit answers from him or her- at first perhaps, once every session and later in the semester more frequently, when he or she begins to appear more comfortable responding.

Talking with the student privately can also help. Reasons for being silent may vary. One silent student may merely enjoy listening. Another may lack confidence to contribute. The latter is very common among first year students. Some students simply have quiet personalities; others may be undergoing personal stresses that inhibit their speaking in class. Still others may be unprepared. Even after you gently encourage them to speak, they may remain silent. This is their right, and ultimately you must respect their privacy.

Not all silent students are shy or hesitant to give their views. In some cases, the silent students may merely reflect our bias - as teachers - towards quick responses. We're uncomfortable with silence in the classroom and wind up, albeit unwittingly, privileging the "quick responding" students who rapidly formulate and share their answers or opinions. Many students, however, need more time to assemble their thoughts; these students may prefer to more carefully craft their responses - thinking of alternative possibilities and ruling out unsubstantiated conclusions. One solution is to give students time (perhaps 1 to 3 minutes) to write out their response to a particular issue or problem. This puts the careful thinkers on an equal plane with the quick responders. Exercises that allow more time for reflection may have the additional advantage of providing rapid responders time to realize that their initial (sometimes half-baked) answers to a problem are flawed.

Requiring all students in your sections to come and talk with you during office hours at the beginning of the quarter and a second time during the quarter can help alleviate both over talkativeness and silence by putting students more at ease.

The "Grade Grubber"

You may find that some students will unrelentingly pursue you if you give them a lower grade than they expected. Many faculty and TAs complain that they have had even A-'s vigorously contested! There are ways to minimize such incidents. Make it entirely clear from the beginning exactly what you expect in papers or tests. If possible, hand out guidelines for a good essay or examples of a superior exam answer. When you do put the grade down, note in some detail weak or strong points of the work and suggestions for a better performance next time. With papers, you can give students the option of initially handing in a draft that you will not grade but that you will criticize.

When students actually come to you to contest their grades, indicate that when you reconsider their marks, you retain the right to adjust them up or down. If you are the TA, advise students that in the case of unresolved differences, the professor will make the final decision. (Be sure to discuss this with the professor beforehand, however.) When no resolution is possible, brief the student on which office to turn to (such as the chairperson of the department) to pursue an appeal.

Although grade grubbers can discourage you and appear to undermine the academic enterprise, remember that this generation of students is under pressures you may not have experienced as an undergraduate. Competition for graduate and professional schools is fiercer than ever before. You may have more success if you listen to and respond to some of the underlying anxieties that form the background for their complaints about grades.

Attachment: Problem Students [PDF, 40 KB]