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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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?
For quite some time now I’ve been interested in a widely held set of assumptions faculty make about the need to assert control at the beginning of a course. The argument goes something like this: When a course starts, the teacher needs to set the rules and clearly establish who’s in charge. If the course goes well, meaning students abide by the rules and do not challenge the teacher’s authority, then the teacher can gradually ease up and be a bit looser about the rules.
Campus tragedies, like those at Virginia Tech and Northern Illinois University, served as a wake-up call for the need to refocus efforts and attention to campus safety issues, and the role that everyone plays in recognizing potential red flag behaviors among students and others on campus.