Dealing with difficult students in an online class presents some unique challenges. Certainly, faculty are aware that there is a line of abusive language that must be dealt with directly and in conjunction with others at the University (remember the Dean of Students can be your greatest resources in such situations). But what about the disruption that is less hostile – the discussion post that is critical of the course organization, the complaints that go to other students instead of you, or the message dripping with sarcasm?
Teaching online is more time consuming than teaching face-to-face and the prep time is probably double. It is that preparation that can make
the difference in heading off the critics. Good course design and a comprehensive syllabus are the foundation of a successful course and fewer jabs from the disgruntled student.
Sometimes the difficult student is venting and needs just to be heard. Courses can be daunting and both personal and work demands can take a student to the edge. Dr. Alan Lyles at the University of Baltimore describes his approach as one of “compassionate rigor.” Can we address the disruptive student’s behavior with compassion without bowing to a lessening of standards or course expectations?
In his paper on Dealing with Problem Students and Faculty Thomas Tobin reminds us that we all know at least one faculty member who is disorganized (I’d respectfully add thorny and/or cantankerous). The breakdown in organization and communications can often be the source of complaints. Are you are willing to examine the causes of difficult students or only make it a student issue?
In a face-to-face environment we might use non-verbal to address a difficult student. Giving a student “the eye” or standing a little closer to their desk as you continue teaching are strategies that can’t be reproduced online. You can however try a few of these techniques:
- acknowledge the difficulty of the assignment, provide additional instruction( if necessary), and encourage the student
- allow a draft submission or create an environment where it is okay to make mistakes
- make your learning objectives realistic and achievable
- build relationships with your students that allow for both your praise and critic
- keep it simple. Make your instruction as clear and yet comprehensive as possible.
- provide timelines not just deadlines
- ask students to contact you with questions
- set firm rules for decorum and interaction (between students and with you)