Three Tips for Handling Disruptive Online Students

Disruptive students, in any teaching and learning environment, are a challenge to manage, but they can be particularly so online. And it may take longer for an instructor to realize that a student is actually being disruptive online, since online communications can be ambiguous and one always wants to give students the benefit of the doubt.

In those cases in which a student is openly abusive to the instructor or other students, it is essential for the instructor to immediately refer the issue to administrative authority. But there are many students whose disruptiveness, if skillfully handled by instructors at the start of such behavior, can be forestalled from reaching the extremes.

Posting a code of conduct in the class can certainly help set the tone for the class, but there are a few other general techniques that seem to be effective:

  • Assume a tone of formality when handling a problem—formality in online classrooms signifies seriousness and firmness, especially when contrasting with an otherwise more casual instructor tone.
  • If the student has made his or her issue publicly known by posting something inappropriate in the class forum, handle the issue by using both private email communications and a public clarification.
    The latter should not address the disruptive student but the class as a whole by calmly reminding the students about the course requirements, restating objectives or purpose, or referring students to resources for solving problems, as the case may require. Meanwhile, a private email to the student can allow whatever personal communication seems appropriate.
  • Do not allow yourself to argue on the level of the student or get too caught up in one student’s drama. Remember that the other students are equally deserving of your attention.

For more information about managing expectations and working with difficult students, see Ko and Rossen, Teaching Online: A Practical Guide, 2nd edition (Routledge, 2008).

Susan Ko is the executive director of the Center for Teaching and Learning at the University of Maryland University College.

Reprinted from Tips from the Pros: Three Tips for Handling Disruptive Online Students, Online Classroom, February 2009.