April 28th, 2009

Dealing with High-Maintenance Students


Do you have one or two high-maintenance students in your classes? If you do, then you know how they can sap your energy.

The funny thing about high-maintenance students is they often look quite the opposite when they first present themselves to teachers. They appear to be extremely conscientious and motivated. They are among the first students to show up during office hours. They ask questions and want to discuss assignments in detail.

But at some point what appeared to be interest and dedication turns into something less constructive. Perhaps you returned a quiz on which the student scores 9.8 out of 10. The student follows you to the office, asking for repeated explanation of why the .2 of a point was taken off. They express disappointment and frustration, seemingly unable to reckon with the fact they still got an A. Next the student may express concern about being placed in a group with certain other students, some of whom she just knows don’t “like” her. Then there are personal issues, illness or family problems, all of which spawn requests for deadline extensions and discussions of difficulties in other courses. And on and on it goes.

Based on personality research, Lisa A. Burke (reference below), proposes that high-maintenance students are most likely those who rate high on conscientiousness—individuals who are described as methodical, achievement oriented, diligent, organized, exacting, and purposeful—and those who rate low on agreeableness. Those with that combination of traits are characterized as being strict, rigid, industrious, hard, and deliberate. “These students are unlikely to be considerate or cooperative … and at the same time are likely to maintain high expectations and definitive prescriptions … for their own school-related outcomes (grades).” (p. 750)

Burke cautions that the predisposition many academics have to help and support students allow them to be easily drawn into responding to the needs of these students. A situation of co-dependency may result where the student needs a lot of help and the faculty member supplies a lot of help. The problem here is that the more help the faculty member gives, the more the student needs. It’s a vicious circle.

Based on research with managers, Burke recommends that faculty members help these students to find their own solutions. The teacher provides general direction, resources, and tools. This prevents the high-maintenance student from dumping his or her incessant concerns on the instruction to solve.

Perhaps it is comforting to know that high-maintenance behaviors try the patience and test the mettle of virtually all college teachers. Students like these confront us with the fact that sometimes the most important lessons we need to teach have nothing to do with course content.

Reference: Burke, L. A. (2004). High-maintenance students: A conceptual exploration and implications. Journal of Management Education, 28 (6), 743-756.

Excerpted from High-Maintenance Students, The Teaching Professor, Feb. 2005.

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