Office of the Faculty Teaching Fellow

Students 101 - Hardcore Troublemakers

Every professor encounters difficult students. Some students are simply uninterested, while others are more troublesome. The aggressive passive-aggressive student, the interrupter, the hijacker, the shy student — most faculty members are familiar with them all. And, as I have learned firsthand over many years of teaching, faculty members must approach each type in a slightly different way:

Uninterested Students. On any given day of teaching, most faculty members teach some uninterested students. Monthly, weekly, hourly, student engagement waxes and wanes. How best to approach the uninterested student? The professor must discover common ground. Of course, the larger the class, the more difficult that is to do. In fact, it is useful to remember that a small number of students are intentionally uninterested in their education, and even the most amazing teaching will not engage them.

Still, you can frequently make connections between your course and your students' lives. For instance, a student asks for clarification of a point during class, and you respond by using a video-game analogy. She had earlier proudly told you she helps build virtual communities, and your response now acknowledges that. Why choose a soccer analogy when the video analogy is highly relevant to her? The addition of life interests to a professor's response equals a connection.

How do you collect such information? The first day of class is a golden opportunity. Professors now have available a student's name, address, phone number, and e-mail address. Still, I ask each student to write that information again on a note card, along with a response to "What do you do?" I leave it at that, even though students are puzzled. Many students grandly present themselves in this opening. Secretly, that is the real question, not "What is your e-mail address?"

Many students list their jobs ("I'm a nanny"; "I'm a paralegal") and their interests ("I like snowboarding"). But students also write, "I was really sick last term and am afraid about doing well in here," or "I have a toddler, and I'm in an Irish folk band." That information is always available during the course to ease anxiety about student personalities, to help reconnect with students, to enlarge common ground with those who are already engaged, and to inform encounters with problem students. You can use that information discreetly as the course unfolds, in lectures and discussions, in responses, in designing assignments, and if problems arise.

You can also gather valuable information about students by being present during lecture breaks or before or after class. Many students will eagerly reveal their outside interests. Also, you should try to design written assignments where students themselves are asked to find relationships between the course and their lives or majors. And if you are teaching nonmajors, know which ones are more represented and make lecture and discussion points with them in mind.

Aggressive Passive-Aggressive Students. Some students can be aggressively uninterested in class — for example, reading the newspaper and other texts, shopping on their computers, obviously daydreaming, and even sleeping. Will you be laissez-faire or interventionist?

Such students are unobtrusively showing disrespect for your teaching. They may be lost causes, but you must attempt to retrieve them. Why? Because the institution expects it. Read again your ratings forms, which reflect institutional expectations. They very likely include questions such as: "Did the course or professor challenge you?" and "Did the professor promote active learning?"

If subtle approaches with the student are ineffective, make an appointment to talk. Why waste your time? The student who regularly reads the newspaper is already on your mind, so square away the assumptions face to face. "Since you read the paper during class, you seem uninterested in the course. Can you tell me about how you see this course?" However the conversation goes, you will make the point that his behavior is distracting to you as a professor and disrespectful. Except for extreme cases with incredibly unreasonable students, a respectfully led meeting in which you have attempted to get to know the student should yield some success.

For example, during a required philosophy course, a creative-writing major had begun working crosswords. After class I asked if she would do that in an English course. Her "no" opened up a conversation about how my course was sometimes slow for her. I suggested that she replace crosswords with writing "riffs" inspired by the lecture that I was giving. That solution worked and was a compromise on both our parts. A key point is that I had to know something about the student — her love of writing — to resolve the situation.

Interrupters. You cannot ignore the committed interrupter. An interrupter is not the student who asks a good number of astute questions. The interrupter is both annoyingly frequent and not selective. A course needs a modicum of uninterrupted segments for the professor to accomplish goals.

How do you decrease the interruptions and increase quality? Meet with the student, but beware. Have you made your judgment too early and in error — or too late and the classroom dynamic is irreparable? Will you turn an interrupter into an aggressive passive-aggressive student or worse?

Acknowledge the student's passion for learning and explore how to rechannel that passion. Enlist the student's help by asking her to dial back: "I see how you have shown others how to speak up, but for some it takes more time to warm up. What do you think about letting others have the floor too, now that they've seen how you do it?" You are asking the student to be a leader and take social responsibility.

Also offer a weekly meeting. Students will rarely take you up on that offer, or they will excuse themselves from meeting consistently. Yet the student has the friendly attention of the professor and is likely to rely on that special connection, attenuating the need for the spotlight.

Hijackers. Woe to the professor who finds a hijacker has seized the class. A hijacker consistently tries to publicly undermine your authority.

If thinly veiled disrespect were limited to just that one student, it would not be a serious problem. Instead, the hijacker will seek live, public assent from others in the class for his view, regardless of what the professor thinks. A hijacker is not necessarily a person with contrary views appropriately expressed. Unlike the interrupter, the hijacker has an agenda in mind, and it involves you and your course.

A typical hijacker attempts to persuade the class — before, during, or after a session — that the course or the professor is deeply flawed. Encountering my first hijacker, I initially liked how he bravely spoke up in class and seemed genuinely interested. Yet before long, he was challenging policies and disregarding reasoned responses.

For example, "Why do we have to take an exam in this course when we've all obviously read this stuff?" That day he posed the question, which I had already answered several times with appropriate context, to the class. I let several students answer, but mostly they were intimidated. Then I responded again, moved on, and lost a night's sleep. I knew I had to do something, but what was this student's motivation? He was intelligent and produced good work.

I set up a meeting with him. Beforehand, I informed the chairman of my department and queried a professor in the student's major. Unexpectedly, I got stories of how the student had pedagogically tortured that professor (lots of raw feeling, no good prescriptions).

In the meeting with the student, I asked him about his attitude toward the course and the aim of his behavior. "I like your passion for learning, but your fellow students are in a difficult course and need to trust in the professor to be successful. I also need to be able to lead with some authority, and what you do in class is not constructive." I gave examples and asked, "What is your goal?"

The student claimed no goal but acknowledged my concern for the other students, since I kept pressing. The meeting was contentious. We reached some understanding without blame, and he stopped trying to hijack the course. The payoff: Other students found their voices, and I slept at night. A hijacker must be dealt with directly and honestly.

Painfully Shy Students. Some students have taken a vow of silence, to be broken only if necessary. They never voluntarily speak in the class. They'll even hide in writing assignments designed to reveal their perspective. For a painfully shy student, the larger the group, the greater the pain.

Why should you care? Within reasonable boundaries, it's your job to try to find a way to educate all students, no matter their learning style or abilities. Mission statements often claim leadership as a value, and leaders must be able to communicate confidently.

What should you do? It is a mistake to publicly chide a painfully shy student: "You don't like us enough to talk to us?" Encouraging is not a mistake. Yet repeated "encouraging" becomes chiding. "Don't be afraid, we're all friends here" is subtle chiding. Call on the student as you normally would, but make an "out" available. If the student balks, eventually offer, "If you'd like to pass on this question, let me know." Others will be eager to answer.

Also, to bring in shyer students, create a welcoming atmosphere with nondismissive responses to questions. Arrange for such students to get a chance to talk in smaller groups. Ask them to bring written ideas to voice in class: "These ideas are first rate. It would be wonderful for you to sometimes share your thoughts aloud in class. Others could benefit."

Those are just a few tips based on my experiences. When thinking about teaching troublesome students, keep in mind that many colleges offer help through "teaching centers." Also, simply accept that some problems have no reasonable solution. Once you have done your best to communicate respectfully with all your students, however difficult, you have earned the right to sleep at night. Section: Commentary Volume 55, Issue 6, Page A120 (October 3, 2008)

P. Sven Arvidson is a visiting associate professor of philosophy and senior faculty fellow in the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning at Seattle University. His most recent book, "Teaching Nonmajors: Advice for Liberal Arts Professors," was published this year by SUNY Press.