Successful strategies for dealing with challenging students

Tue 1 Dec 2020

In a perfect world, students would arrive on time, be well prepared, and positively engage with every lesson, but as every teacher knows this is rarely the case. Dealing with challenging students is part of the job, even in a higher education environment when students have chosen to be there. Here are some tried and tested strategies for dealing with difficult students as a novice higher education teacher.

Disruptive students

Noisy or inconsiderate students prevent others from getting the most out of a lesson and can be distracting for you as well. As a higher education teacher, you may not have the disciplinary powers that you would with younger students but there are some effective techniques you can try:

  • Make direct eye contact with the offending student so they know you are aware of the disruption. Stopping while you are mid-sentence will often prompt other students to shush them without the need for direct confrontation.
  • Direct a question to the area where the disruptive student is sitting to focus attention on that part of the classroom. You can also physically move there and continue to teach while standing next to the offending student.
  • If students are talking about semi-related issues while you are teaching, try engaging them in a discussion with the entire class or break the class into small discussion groups.

Advanced students

As a novice teacher in a higher education environment, you may find that some students attempt to challenge your authority to show off to classmates or demonstrate their own knowledge and experience.

  • Make sure you model the behaviour you want to see; avoid taking an argumentative or defensive tone, dress professionally, and maintain firm student-teacher boundaries.
  • Outline the course content and objectives clearly on the first day – students will be less inclined to challenge you about what they are learning if their expectations are firmly outlined from the beginning.
  • Don’t be afraid to admit your limitations – getting flustered or defensive about a lack of expertise on a subject can look unprofessional. Instead, tell students you’ll do some research and get back to them.

Needy students

If one particular student is making excessive demands on your time and attention, it’s important to deal with the issue early on.

  • Don’t make special accommodations for the student – reinforce your institution’s policies about set office hours and stick to the guidelines for responding to emails and messages within a specific timeframe.
  • Be empathetic about personal problems but remember that you are not a counsellor. Refer students with emotional or psychological issues to the appropriate people within your academic institution or outside organisations if appropriate.

Interested in a teaching career in Higher Education? Falmouth University’s Flexible Learning PGCHE programme can help you develop as a creative, confident, competent and committed teaching and learning practitioner. Visit our course page for more information.

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