Problem students come in all forms, and may be “difficult” for wide variety of behaviors. While it’s impossible to create neat little categories that adequately describe the full range of problems encountered by college faculty, a good starting point may be to classify the behaviors as annoying, disruptive, or dangerous. Each requires a different type of response based on the context of the behavior.
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dealing with problem students
We know from the literature, and more directly from conversations with colleagues, that most college teachers are concerned, annoyed, frustrated, and occasionally angered by the way students behave in the classroom. But are these behaviors of concern to other students in the classroom?
Students’ expectations for top marks, whether they earned them or not, unfortunately can be coupled with foolish tendencies on the part of some teachers (this writer excepted of course) to play the role of the avuncular professor. The kindly avuncular professor is easily deluded to think that “encouraging” students with exaggerated praise and slight grade inflation will be helpful. It isn’t. How do I know? For me, the tell-tale sign is that often after handing in my grades, I feel a mild self-loathing. This is the feeling I get when I give grades that don’t truly reflect the totality of what I experience from students.
A few weeks ago I did what professors all over the land did: I logged my students’ grades and handed them in. This capped the end of an academic year in which I have never been more reviled and hated. In fact, this semester I gave my students permission to hate me to the fullest, and I in turn allowed myself the drunken freedom of “hating” them as well.
Difficult students are a potential problem for every faculty member. This is why it’s important to learn ways to deal with inappropriate or disruptive student behavior. In an email interview with The Teaching Professor, Brian Van Brunt, director of the Counseling and Testing at Western Kentucky University, and Perry Francis, professor of counseling at Eastern Michigan University, addressed some of the key issues involving these types of students.
Most people, when they conceive of hell, conjure up an image of a subterranean inferno to which sinners are forever consigned to an afterlife of endless suffering and punishment. But according to Dr. Gerald Amada, author of Coping with the Disruptive College Student: A Practical Model, hell also can take many temporal forms, especially in the world of academia.
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 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 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?
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.