Dealing with the ‘Challenging’ Student

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Of course, most students are lovely, intelligent, undemanding, and fully understand the constraints on your time. But just occasionally, you might encounter a student who is unfamiliar with the conventions and boundaries of academic interaction.

There are, of course, many different ways in which a student can be ‘challenging’. I discuss a few of the more common ways, below.

1. Making excessive demands on your time / attention

One of the more usual challenges offered by such students (and of course, colleagues!) is demanding your time and attention excessively, by email as well as in person.

Try to view this as an expression of anxiety. Be sympathetic to the student but also be firm about your boundaries. Do not make special arrangements to see him or her outside the class, but invite him/ her to your office hour. If this does not address the matter, explain to them that you have a duty to other students as well, and must make time for them too. If, however, the student’s anxiety remains excessive, consider referring the student to your university’s learning support and/or counseling service.

Such behavior can also be avoided or managed early on, if you make sure to explain to your new students what it is that an academic does. Tell them that you have an office hour once or twice a week, but also explain to them that you have many other responsibilities outside the classroom – which is why you have ring-fenced that time exclusively for them.

The same can be said of email communications: tell them early on that you will respond to emails within the timeframe set by your university - usually 2-3 working days in term-time, for the same reasons of other calls on your time.

If you feel a student’s expectations of you are excessive, always remember that there is a large pastoral support network in universities. Remember that you are not a counsellor, and that your role is to offer academic guidance.

2. Disrupting classes

In many cases, students who disrupt classes may do so inadvertently, out of carelessness, poor timekeeping, or a lack of awareness of behavioral conventions in the classroom. Again, letting students know early on that you expect them to be on time, to turn off mobile phones in class, to respect others when they are talking, and to be prepared to work in class, will lay the ground for positive interaction.

But very occasionally you may encounter a student who appears to be deliberately disruptive. Such students may talk while you are talking, challenge your teaching, or display hostile behavior.

Remember that the issue is probably not personal to you. Do not add to the tension by responding with anger, sarcasm, mockery, or in any way that might result in the student feeling humiliated. Be fair and equitable in your dealings with all students.

Often a group will ‘self-regulate’ if the teacher does not show any signs of being provoked. But if the behavior persists, arrange to speak to the student in private, to see if there is an underlying issue that can be resolved. In many cases the student simply needs some direction or attention, or can be directed to a module or programme that suits his or her needs better.

However, the bottom line at universities is that your students are adults. There are no disciplinary measures that can be applied to behavior, and you cannot do more than suggest to students that polite, respectful behavior is in everyone’s best interests.

You can, however, take steps to minimize the disruption for yourself and other students by tackling the issue head on in private, by using the support systems in your institution, by consulting with colleagues, and by keeping a level head.

3. Take care of yourself

In the more extreme – and extremely rare – cases, remember too that the University has a duty of care to ensure your own personal safety and wellbeing as well as that of students. If the behavior you experience is threatening to you or damaging to your reputation, then it is time to consult your University’s harassment / dignity at work policy, and to take the appropriate steps.

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