Embracing Challenging Students

14734962322_45d7fff3e9_zby Mitch Lorenz, Graduate Assistant, Reinert Center

Following thoughtful class design, lecture preparation, online class portal updating, and first day of class clothing selection comes the time when we, as teachers, must step into the classroom and actually interact with students. Regardless of the degree of preparation, unexpected problems may arise as students begin to interact with you and the class materials. Some students may not agree with your approach, and they may tell you as much. In fact, some students might go so far as to question your thoughtful wardrobe choices as well!

Patterns of behavior from a few students in every class are so consistently similar that many teaching resources feature an entire section devoted to these “problem students.” Here are some of the types of students, as identified by McKeachie and Svinicki (2013), who may prove challenging and strategies to use when you have one of these types of students in a class.

Aggressive Students:  These students fall primarily into two categories: those challenging class materials and those directly challenging instructor authority. When a student challenges class material, whether due to interest in the topic or exposure to prior knowledge, it provides an opportunity to generate a dialogue with the class as a whole. These types of challenges often reflect a desire for further exploration of the topic, and one student speaking up (i.e., appearing aggressive) can help highlight similar feelings among the quieter students.

When a student appears angry with you as an instructor, whether due to your teaching style or a perceived lack of fairness, it can be extremely challenging to deal with. Above all else, avoid responding with hostility, as this will only aggravate the situation. If possible, seize the opportunity to better get to know the student, making a serious attempt to listen to their point of view. Even if you disagree with their perspective, it would be unfair to fail to acknowledge their feelings. Be as objective as possible in presenting your point of view without relying on your power as the instructor. Try to avoid being overly defensive and acknowledge if a mistake has been made. Finally, don’t be discouraged when some students are not satisfied, regardless of your approach.

Discouraged Students: After a few weeks of class, when the nature of the class (and the workload) has become clear to students, you may notice some students appearing discouraged. This may be especially true for freshman and transfer students who are dealing with a change of scenery and shift in their support structure. These students may miss class, appear ambivalent in their writing, or express self-doubt. One way to encourage these students is to bring students from previous semesters back to share their experiences. Hearing how a peer dealt with feelings of frustration or self-doubt, and how they overcame them, may encourage students while providing them with some strategies they can use when they feel discouraged.

There is one “truth” vs. “everything is relative:” Many students consider instructors to be dispensers of fact. Others believe everything is relative. Students who prefer to be presented with facts may struggle with scenarios in which multiple competing theories exist, or when there may be no clear “right answer.” Following a discussion of multiple proposed answers to one question, this type of student is likely to wonder which answer is the “right one.” Other students may recognize that there are often multiple, equally valid, perspectives, and they may use this belief to challenge anything presented as fact. When students fall into the extreme of either camp it can be particularly challenging. For these types of students, the best approach may be to serve as a role model by designing your class in a way that does not emphasize one “true” answer while openly embracing the uncertainty associated with not always knowing which approach is best.

If you’ve taught, you have likely encountered students who fall into each of these categories. You probably also realize that there are plenty of other types of challenging students you may encounter. In addition to challenging you as an instructor, these students may also challenge your ability to manage the classroom. For ways to address classroom management-specific concerns related to various types of students, I recommend checking out a recent post by Dipti Subramanium. Finally, teaching is an interaction and any problems that arise are a result of the interaction between you, the class you’ve designed, and the students. Keep this in mind and ask yourself what you may be doing to influence the behavior of your students. You may be able to proactively avoid issues through changes to your own behavior!



McKeachie, W. & Svinicki, M. (2013). McKeachie’s teaching tips. Cengage Learning

Image courtesy of Texas A&M University, via Flickr

One Response to “Embracing Challenging Students”

  1. I really appreciate the reframing opportunity this blog post offers, especially heading into a new academic year, with lots of students who will be in a state of transition.

    One other thought about seemingly “aggressive” students that may be worth mentioning: students coming into U.S. classrooms from other educational cultures may be accustomed to and comfortable with a more “challenging” style of interaction and debate than would be instructors and students who have been mostly or entirely educated within the U.S. I’ve had students from other countries and cultures in the past say, “this is what debate looks like in my own educational experience.” It’s just a good reminder that what one person experiences as a kind of combativeness, another may experience as robust dialogue and intellectual exchange.

    One strategy for preventing misunderstandings in this area is to ask students, early in the term, to share their past experience with classroom discussion, debate, dialogue, and to engage in some conversation about what the norms are for YOUR classroom. That can help to create buy-in and set clear expectations for everyone.