April 27th, 2009

Classroom Management Tips for Online Courses: Dealing with Difficult Students


Raise your hand if you’ve come across these students in your online course.

The Know-it-all who answers questions asked of the instructor so as to contradict him/her rather than add perspective to the discussion.

The Mutineer who complains openly to classmates about what’s wrong with the class, and encourages others to do the same.

The Controller who wants all the assignments in advance, and has to have the first and last word on everything.

The Staller who delays logging into the course, and always has an excuse for not getting things done in the same timeframe as other students.

The Must-Have-an-A student who early on in the class declares that she must get an A in the class or her life will be ruined.

The Noisy student who begins new topic threads even though he is continuing the same topic, or rambles endlessly about tangentially related topics.

The Quiet student who is current with her assignments, but rarely participates in online discussions and seems to prefer to “learn by lurking.”

In the online seminar, Managing Expectations and Handing Difficult Students Online, Dr. Susan Ko, executive director of the Center for Teaching and Learning at the University of Maryland University College (UMUC), provided tips on how to handle these types of students, and the unique challenges they can create in the online learning environment.

Like the old cliché that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound a cure, one of the best ways to prevent problems from taking root in your class is by communicating expectations early and often.

“Managing student expectations is important in any class but even more so for online and blended courses where it’s easy for students to feel lost,” says Ko. “Even well structured, academically rigorous online classes can have diminished effectiveness due to a lack of clear expectations.”

Ko presented the following strategies for keeping online students focused and on task:

  • Set expectations from the very first communication.
  • Reinforce due dates, schedules and timelines for achievement of objectives.
  • Post materials and conduct activities on a pre-set schedule.
  • Allow students to keep track of their own progress.
  • Be organized – students take cues from their instructor.

  • Gail Purdy

    I think that, being a behavior analyst myself, that "Bad Behavior" is sometimes the elephant in the room. People don't really go to school to be taught how to deal with behavior in the classroom but they should. I have recommended to university programs that teach educators (kindergarden through 12th grade) to add a whole class just on how to handle behavior in the classroom. It will be interesting to see if there is any inappropriate behavior with a class of adults in an online situation.

  • Patricia

    I am an online student (age 58) just recently starting on my degree in Psychology w/Behavior Sciences. I do have a question for you! New to the online classroom, I find the class discussion area to be somewhat un-educational and invasion of my privacy. I did attend college many years ago (in person) and never had to depend on my peers as part of my grade. Now, it seems that it is a large part of the grading system. The instructor is basically absent, other than for referencing websites, pages such as "youtube" for examples of how paper should be constructed.
    The requirement is that 2 replies must be made per assignment and must be in a positive tone. Okay. I don't feel that I should be grading their paper! Many of the assignments appear to be copied and pasted as in a robotic action purely to say the right thing at the right time for the right grade – without using one's MIND. Even the comments of the instructor are seemingly pre-written (macro'd) as a time saver – no personalization – no real effort.
    If this makes me an elephant in the class – then so be it. But I have always been taught to use the mind I have and not other's words or thoughts. When a question specifically asks my opinion on a subject, I respond with MY opinion and not a pre-formed text. I have been countered by peers as in "you need to change your way of thinking". Really? You have got to be joking!
    My goal is to go in to the field to help others that have experience what I have gone through for many years – spousal abuse and child abuse. There are no texts that can soothe a person experiencing this horrible pain, Change my way of thinking in order to help? I know better.
    Please tell me how using one's own mind is being an elephant to the class. My email is dskancer1953@yahoo.com.