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Online Teaching Library > For ONLINE Instructors > Online Teaching Challenges > Responding to Challenging Students Online


Workshop Description


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We all have students who “push our buttons” in some way - who argue or disagree or rebel or otherwise disrupt our orderly classrooms. And this happens in online classes, as well as on campus. Working from a strategy and a template/script can speed up your response time and make the process less stressful!

In this workshop, Jenny Michael (Online Education) presents a step-by-step approach to responding to your challenging online students. The approach is outlined below - along with some prompts to help you craft thoughtful, measured, and effective replies. (See also our workshop on Engaging Your Absent / Silent / Invisible Online Students.)

(Workshop date: Fall 2011)

Guidelines

A. Create & Communicate Clear Expectations

One of the best ways to avert classroom challenges is to clearly communicate your expectations to your students right at the start of the semester. Draft your key policies and then post them in the Discussion where your students will see them. You can do this in one or more announcements, or you may prefer to use informational topics.

(lightbulb) TIP (lightbulb)

One effective strategy is to require students (1) to review your policies and (2) to post a message stating that they have read and understood them. This method also provides an opportunity for you to answer questions related to your expectations and to elucidate anything that is not clear to students. Learn more about this approach to Posting Class Policies.

You can download additional guidelines for drafting course policies and rubrics, along with samples:

B. Reflect Before Responding

If you’re feeling tired or angry or insecure or frustrated, those feelings are likely to color your reaction when you read a (possibly) challenging post from one of your students. Psychologists have shown that when we’re experiencing negative emotions, we tend to interpret other people’s meanings negatively. What is more, we humans have evolved a “negativity bias,” which prompts us to read all ambiguous messages as negative — even when we’re not feeling bad ourselves!

So when you come home after a long, frustrating day and find a message from a student that instantly raises your hackles, take these steps before dashing off an angry response:

  • Breathe!
  • Reflect on how your emotional state may be influencing your perception of the situation.
  • Have someone else read the communication if you’re unsure about its meaning.
  • Don’t waste time pondering the truthfulness of the student’s statements.
  • Don’t take the communication personally.
  • Determine to respond as if students are not challenging your authority, even if they are.
  • Sleep on it before taking action…

C. Respond Strategically

When you’re ready to respond, use the script and prompts below to help you craft your reply.

  1. Acknowledge the student’s experience (pain, distress, frustration, etc.)
    • I appreciate...
    • I recognize that you're finding this part of the course challenging...
    • I am sorry you are having such a difficult time in the course. The course is very challenging and learning new things can be frustrating.
    • You’re obviously dealing with a lot this semester.
  2. Explain your focus in terms of the goals and policies for the course.
    • ...my job is to do everything I can to help students meet -or exceed!- the requirements of the class.
    • My goal is to help you develop the new skills and knowledge described in the syllabus.
    • This course is designed to engage you with… This skill will serve you well in anticipation of the midterm and final field projects which require you to...
    • Although you're finding this part of the course challenging, it's a challenge you must surmount because the course is built around this task.
  3. State your position (reiterate your policy).
    • [Regarding resubmittals]: If you understand and agree with my feedback on your paper then I don't think you'd benefit -as in learn more- by redoing the assignment.
    • I can't waive this requirement.
    • As for your grades, there were key components in the assignment that needed to be addressed. (See my feedback.) Without those elements, your assignment missed the target.
    • According the policy outlined in Module X, I do not accept late work.
  4. Propose the next steps.
    • If you will turn in your project... by X date... I will offer feedback.
    • Focus on...
    • Get in touch with the Academy Resource Center. I can make a referral for you, so they know you’ll be contacting them.
    • Use the writing lab.
    • Once midterm grades are posted (probably by tomorrow morning), get back to me via the email system if you still want to resubmit.
    • Take this as an opportunity to reflect and look more closely at the details of the assignments in the future.
  5. Ask the student for confirmation or agreement.
    • Let me know if you’ll be able to meet this goal...
    • If there is something I can do to clarify anything else that you feel confused about, please let me know. That's why I'm here.
    • Keep me posted on what you decide….

Examples: Here are two examples of instructor posts that use this script. The “decoded” version of each shows you how the message incorporates the five elements of the script.

EXAMPLE #1

Dear Student J:

I'm glad you've contacted me. It does seem like you're dealing with a lot this semester! Nevertheless, my job is to do everything I can to help my students meet -or exceed!- the requirements of the class. That being said, you've missed the major deadline set for last week. I can make an adjustment, since midterm grades aren't due from me until Sunday evening. Therefore, if you can submit your midterm field project by the end of the day on Friday, I'll accept it -and read it eagerly! (Submit it here in email.) Let the other missing assignments go in favor of focusing on the present module 8 and your future work in class. Please let me know ASAP if you can adhere to newest schedule.

I DO wish you and your family all the best.

Sincerely,
Instructor R

EXAMPLE #1 (decoded)

Dear Student J:

  1. Acknowledge the student’s experience.
    I'm glad you've contacted me. It does seem like you're dealing with a lot this semester!
  2. Explain your focus in terms of the goals and policies for the course.
    Nevertheless, my job is to do everything I can to help my students meet -or exceed!- the requirements of the class.
  3. State your position (reiterate your policy).
    That being said, you've missed the major deadline set for last week. I can make an adjustment, since midterm grades aren't due from me until Sunday evening.
  4. Propose the next steps.
    Therefore, if you can submit your midterm field project by the end of the day on Friday, I'll accept it -and read it eagerly! (Submit it here in email.) Let the other missing assignments go in favor of focusing on the present module 8 and your future work in class.
  5. Ask the student for confirmation or agreement.
    Please let me know ASAP if you can adhere to newest schedule.

    I DO wish you and your family all the best.

    Sincerely,
    Instructor R

EXAMPLE #2

Dear Student T,

I am sorry you are having such a difficult time in the course. As I have said recently, it is very challenging material. Learning new and unfamiliar things can be frustrating. But with patience and practice, we can move through it.  My goal is to help you develop these new skills and knowledge that appear in the syllabus.

As for the grades, there were key components that need to be addressed (as I've laid out in the feedback), and without those elements your assignment missed the target. As for the memory tips assignment, I can see that there was intention behind grouping the information as you did. At the same time, there were no tips for students, and that's what I was trying to assess.

Use this as an opportunity to reflect and look more closely at what is being asked in future assignments. If there is something I can do to clarify anything that you feel confused about, please let me know. That's why I'm here.

-Instructor M.

EXAMPLE #2 (decoded)

Dear Student T,

  1. Acknowledge the student’s experience.
    I am sorry you are having such a difficult time in the course. As I have said recently, it is very challenging material. Learning new and unfamiliar things can be frustrating. But with patience and practice, we can move through it.
  2. Explain your focus in terms of the goals and policies for the course.
    My goal is to help you develop these new skills and knowledge that appear in the syllabus.
  3. State your position (reiterate your policy).
    As for the grades, there were key components that need to be addressed (as I've laid out in the feedback), and without those elements your assignment missed the target. As for the memory tips assignment, I can see that there was intention behind grouping the information as you did. At the same time, there were no tips for students, and that's what I was trying to assess.
  4. Propose the next steps.
    Use this as an opportunity to reflect and look more closely at what is being asked in future assignments.
  5. Ask the student for confirmation or agreement.
    If there is something I can do to clarify anything that you feel confused about, please let me know. That's why I'm here.

    -Instructor M.

More suggestions for responding to challenging behaviors

  • In all future communication, reiterate the same information and position without escalating emotions.
  • Don’t engage with lengthy rambles or rants. Ask the student to re-frame their post with a specific question about content and/or requirements for the course.
  • Respond only to direct questions related to the content of the course.
  • Re-read your response (aloud) one last time before you hit send. Remember that your response could make its way to the Executive Office.
  • Delete posts with profanity, insults or anything you think will be offensive to other students.
  • When the problem is beyond the scope of your responsibilities or is in violation of the AAU code of conduct, take these steps:

    1. Contact the director to share your concerns and send screen shot of the post.
    2. Delete the post.
    3. Email student to explain why you deleted the post. Include the link to the Code of Conduct. Copy your director.

Credits

Workshop and guidelines developed and presented by:

  • Rachel Levin (Faculty Development)
  • Jenny Michael (Faculty Evaluation & Coaching)
  • Marian Shaffner (Faculty Development)

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