Dealing With Problem Students in Higher Education

July 19, 2021

It would be nice if problem students and disruptive classroom behavior ended with high school. Unfortunately, even college-level educators occasionally need to handle difficult students, and virtual classrooms can provide their own disciplinary challenges.

What follows is a list of strategies for classroom management — dos and their corresponding don’ts. These can help you defuse situations or even anticipate problems, preventing inappropriate behavior from happening in the first place.

Post a Code of Conduct

Along with a syllabus of assignments, provide your students with a code of conduct that covers topics like attendance requirements and protocol for class discussion. For example, you might include an email policy with rules for polite correspondence and average response time. Have students sign off on the code to show that they’ve read it and agree to its terms.

Don’t change the rules mid-course or enforce them arbitrarily. Be consistent.

Model Mature Conflict Resolution

This is as important with young adults as it is with children. Treat the student with courtesy, and stay calm. When you talk about feelings, use I statements. For example, “I feel disrespected when…” Above all, stay professional. Make it clear that you won’t tolerate classroom disruptions, but avoid language that can come off as judgmental or hostile even when confronting difficult behavior.

Don’t personalize the situation or antagonize the student.

Clarify Course Requirements Publicly and Formally

When problems arise, you need to discuss them privately with the online students who are involved. However, you also need to manage the larger classroom’s response to those problems. A student may post their grievance or an inappropriate comment online, or students may discuss classroom dynamics between themselves. Restate relevant rules or requirements in an official channel. 

Don’t publicly name students involved in disciplinary infractions.

Use a Secondary Channel of Communication

This one is specifically geared towards the phenomenon of the disappearing student. Particularly in online courses, some students go AWOL. They may start out strong but gradually let assignments slip and their attendance drop. At the beginning of the semester, ask students to share their primary email address. When they go missing, contact them using it as well as a university-issued address. If they’re not checking in on their academic responsibilities, they may not be checking academic accounts either.

Don’t let students fade away unnoticed.

Use Your Resources

You’re not alone. And there are certain classroom problems that you shouldn’t handle on your own. If you have a student that threatens you or other students or makes you fear for their safety, you need to get official university personnel involved. Before the course begins, look into official resources — either online or in person — on which you might need to call.

Don’t let potentially hostile or even dangerous situations escalate.

Your resources don’t end at the limits of your institution. There’s an active and invested community of educators online, eager to share their own trials and successes. 

Caduceus is part of that community. We provide content such as tips for new teachers and ways to combat a lack of motivation in online courses. We update our blog frequently, so check back regularly for new articles

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