Interested but Noncompliant Students: Annoyance or Opportunity

If you have been teaching for any time at all, I’ll bet you’ve encountered what I call the interested but noncompliant student (hereafter, the INC). Here are some examples encountered in my courses: In an ancient language course, one INC would not take the trouble to learn her noun forms and verb endings but, fascinated by the language, went online to find an inscription that she tried to decipher. Another INC read more than I have in a subdivision of my field. He wanted to talk about it endlessly before and after class, so much so that I had to chase him away to give other students a chance to talk to me. Am I describing student behaviors that sound familiar?

Sometimes, INCs are the brightest students in the class, but they may have the poorest attendance records. They may not read what’s been assigned because they’ve discovered something else in the field that interests them more and are busy reading that. They may shine in class discussion, but have not mastered the specifics they need to know in order to understand the content.

The question is how do you deal with INCs? Teachers can take an authoritarian approach and treat them like any other students who don’t do the assigned work. I don’t recommend this approach because it will likely kill their interest in the course. Maybe it’s better to follow their interests and let them set their own agenda for the course. I don’t endorse this approach either, because every field has basic concepts that anyone interested in the field is expected to know. It seems to me we need to come at these INCs from two directions at once. Let me explain.

Student interest in a subject is a beautiful and fragile thing; it shouldn’t be squandered. In some situations and with some areas of study, we can allow an INC to customize the assignments, so long as that student has already covered the basics in his or her own reading. Based on my experiences, I’d like to offer some suggestions and advice:

  • Assign the INC a nonstandard research project and have him or her present it to the class.
  • Allow the INC to substitute one reading for another.
  • Ask the INC to tutor students who may be struggling with course material that the INC has mastered.
  • Give the INC an opportunity to facilitate or share more at length in classroom discussions when he/she knows a lot about the topic.
  • Above all, treat the INC with respect as a fellow learner.

At the same time, INCs must be held to standards determined by the teacher. We are the content experts and know what knowledge students need to take from our courses, if they are to do well in subsequent courses or the field in general.

In addition, we open ourselves up to charges of favoritism when we allow one student to do what he or she wishes or appear to give that student instructor-like status. If the course has an attendance policy, it needs to apply equally to everyone. All tests are graded the same way.

Interested but noncompliant students: are they a source of annoyance or an instructional opportunity? Both, I think, but with a little forethought we can minimize the annoyance and maximize the opportunity.

Carl B. Bridges is a professor at Johnson Bible College, Knoxville, TN.

Excerpted from Dealing with the Interested but Noncompliant Student, January 2009, The Teaching Professor.