Four Tips for Dealing with Difficult Students

Managing students who are disruptive, those who lack motivation and appear as though they would rather be any place than in the classroom, is easier when faculty take the right stance. Anything is possible when faculty have faith in the students they teach. Learning starts with a dedicated teacher interested in meeting the challenge of how to present content in a way that successfully navigates the barriers students erect.

Believing in students is the right stance, but it doesn’t prevent students from coming to class unprepared, handing in assignments late, asking for exceptions, and talking in class. The principles of Motivational Enhancement Therapy, originally developed by W.R. Miller and S. Rollnick to help college professionals engage students with drinking problems, offer strategies that faculty can use with disruptive students in class. Each of the four principles described below has the professor acknowledging the problem and then working with the student to develop a plan to correct the problem. It’s an approach built on collaboration.

  1. Express empathy—The professor communicates with the students from a position of power, but the professor still respects the student and practices active listening. Despite the power associated with being the professor, the teacher recognizes that the behavior that needs to be changed can be changed only by the student.
  2. Develop discrepancy—Students are motivated to change when they perceive a discrepancy between where they are and where they want to be. The professor can make students aware of this discrepancy. “You want an A in this course and yet you are regularly losing points by not being in class to take the quizzes.” “You want to be a successful manager and yet you fall asleep whenever you lose interest. What’s going to happen when the staff meetings you’re required to attend get boring?”
  3. Avoid argumentation—Arguing with students only makes them more resistant. It is highly unlikely that the professor is going to persuade a student (whether that student needs to come to class or get work done on time). A more indirect approach may be better. “When you miss class, you are wasting money. You pay for each class and get nothing when you aren’t there.”
  4. Roll with resistance—Don’t meet it head on. Invite the student to think about the problem differently. Rather than imposing a solution, see if the student might not be able to generate one. “You missed the assignment. What’s a fair consequence for that?”

College professors aren’t law enforcement officers. They aren’t expected to be entertainers or hand-holders. They do have the responsibility to create a classroom setting that engages students and fosters relationships based on mutual respect. Students should not text in class or arrive late or hungover any more than professors should show up the minute class begins, lecture, and leave promptly when it’s over. Learning occurs when both work together, treading softly on differences and celebrating strengths.

Reprinted from Successful Classroom Management, The Teaching Professor, October 2008.

For more on dealing with difficult students, watch a preview of the 20 Minute Mentor program “How Do I Stay Calm When Students Push My Buttons?”