Faculty Focus


Five Techniques for Dealing with Problem Students and Other Classroom Challenges

James is a first-year student who is enjoying the freedoms of being out from underneath his parents’ rules. He’s an average student academically, but is often a distraction in class. He is perpetually texting or surfing the web, and gentle reminders from the professor to pay attention fail to keep him on task for long. His behavior is having a negative effect on other students in the class and the professor is reaching his breaking point. The final straw came when the professor noticed James was wearing headphones while taking an exam.

If you were in this professor’s shoes (and maybe that’s not too hard to imagine) how would you handle a student like James?

During the recent online video seminar Classroom Management 102: Working with Difficult Students, Brian Van Brunt, EdD and Perry Francis EdD used role playing to demonstrate both effective and ineffective responses to students like James. Some of the ineffective approaches include ignoring the behavior and hoping it improves, embarrassing the student in front of the class, and enforcing a new, no technology rule for everyone in the class.

But there’s a better way, of course, and it centers on setting clear expectations upfront and communicating those expectations to the students. It also means being willing to share a little bit of yourself so your students can see you as a real person. In the case of a student like James, you could, for example, let him know that you’re addicted to your Blackberry or iPod, but when you’re in class you shut it off out of respect for the class. And while you can sympathize that it’s sometimes hard to pay attention in a class that fulfills a requirement, but is not part of one’s major, you also need to be firm in communicating your expectations for classroom behavior, and the consequences for ignoring class rules.

“One of the things that I’ve discovered in the time I’ve taught is if we don’t address things appropriately they have a tendency to fester and not just impact that particular student, but impact the entire classroom and make it less than it could be,” says Francis, a professor of counseling at Eastern Michigan University.

The scenario with James was just one of four scenarios played out during the seminar. Others involved a veteran struggling to adapt to civilian life, an extremely shy student, and an ultra-competitive student who participates in class to the point of distraction. In working with each of these student types, Van Brunt encourages the use of what is known in the counseling field as motivational interviewing, which includes the following five techniques.

Express Empathy

  • Avoid communications that imply a superior/inferior relationship.
  • Respect the student’s freedom of choice and self-direction.
  • Attitude change attempts are gentle, subtle and change is up to the student.

Develop Discrepancy

  • Change occurs when a student perceives a discrepancy between where they are and where they want to be.
  • Help student develop a discrepancy by raising their awareness of the adverse academic consequences of their choices.

Avoid Argumentation

  • Don’t argue, it tends to evoke resistance.
  • Show the consequences of their behavior.
  • Help devalue perceived positive aspects of their negative choices.

Roll with Resistance

  • Invite new ways of thinking.
  • View ambivalence as normal.
  • Evoke solutions from the student.

Support Self-Efficacy

  • Persuade student that it is possible to change his or her own behavior and thereby reduce overall problems.