Working With Challenging Students As A PhD Student: Ten Top Tips

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Teaching as a PhD student is, on the whole, an enjoyable and fruitful experience which provides you with invaluable skills and experience for an academic career. There are, however, some occasions on which students can prove challenging for a relatively inexperienced university teacher. Whether this is disruptive behaviour or a failure to complete work, such experiences can prove demoralising and stressful for the tutor. This article aims to provide some advice and suggestions for working with challenging students as a PhD student.

1. Clearly identify the student involved and their actions.

In a large lecture theatre, it can sometimes be difficult to single out a disruptive student, but it is important to at least try to find out their name. In a smaller session, such as a seminar, this is much easier. Be clear on the nature of their actions, as it can be easy to exaggerate or to underplay their role once the class or lecture is over.

2. If you have the opportunity to speak to the student after the lecture or class, try to do so.

If not, then contact them about a time to meet to discuss their actions in the future. In any case, have a clear strategy for what you want to say to the student. Adopting an aggressive tone will be disruptive and unhelpful; opening the conversation with an open question such as ‘why do you think I have asked you to come along?’ is far more constructive.

3. Get to the root cause of the students’ actions.

Have they failed to hand in work because of a wider problem? Are they disrupting your lecture because their friends have been distracting them, or do they have a genuine issue with some aspect of your teaching? Again, asking open questions is the best route to take here, and be sensitive for wider issues.

4. Speak to colleagues and departmental secretaries or administrators.

Find out if there is anything that you should know about the student in question. If you have scheduled a meeting to discuss their behaviour, then you should try to do this before the meeting.

5. Contact the student’s personal tutor or supervisor with details of the student’s actions.

Be as explicit as possible and record these comments in writing to ensure that you have a clear written record of your response. You may also wish to contact the course leader for advice and so that they are also aware of the situation.

6. Offer support to the student and be open to suggestions.

In the possible event that the student’s actions can be explained by some aspect of your teaching, be prepared to adapt your style or your explanations, but you should also be clear that any changes must also be in the interests of the wider group. Suggest to the student that they seek some support in peer mentoring schemes or with other institutional support services.

7. Seek further advice...

...and suggestions from your teaching mentor or a more experienced colleague: do not be afraid to share your experiences. It can be easy to try to forget about challenging students, but this simply prolongs the problem.

8. Keep a reflective diary or record.

This not only provides you with further written evidence but also enables you to reflect on how you handled the situation. This can be excellent evidence for job applications and interviews.

9. Try to maintain a cordial working relationship with the student and don’t take their behaviour personally.

While there may be a genuine issue with your explanations of tasks, for example, or the clarity of your lectures, on the whole these are easily rectified and you should try not to take this behaviour to heart. It’s also important not to appear aggressive to the student in question and to maintain cordial relations.

10. Use this experience to develop your teaching practice in the future.

Learning to work with challenging and disruptive students as a PhD student will mean that you are better equipped to deal with such situations when teaching and lecturing in the future.

PhD Section


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