Dealing with Difficult Online Students

Written by: Andrea Zellner



Photo of man with feet up on desk in front of computer screenAndrea Zellner is a Phd student in the Ed Psych/Ed Tech program at Michigan State University. She can be found on Twitter at @AndreaZellner.

I have been teaching online in some fashion since 2008, and in the course of that time I have learned a thing or two about dealing with the difficult student. Before we go on, however, I want to note that if a student is behaving in a threatening manner, you need to immediately contact your college or university and allow professionals to deal with such conduct. It is important that threatening or abusive behavior be dealt with immediately and by a full team of professionals at your institution. Now, back to the difficult student. When I was learning to become a High School teacher, in our educational methods course we spent a great deal of time discussing the difficult student. The most effective techniques, I’ve found over the course of both my face-to-face and online teaching career, have to do with trying to pinpoint the motivation behind the disruptive behavior and doing my best to address it. This is often known as Cooperative Discipline. It is with this lens that I approach students online as well, but there are often additional constraints when teaching online that can make dealing with students even more difficult.

There are three main ideas that I keep in mind as I deal with my online students in general. The first is that these people are busy. Often the motivation behind taking an online class has to do with convenience. In online courses, it becomes even more important to have the course fully outlined, with clear guidelines, expectations, and assignments clearly laid out as soon as possible. Secondly, it is incredibly frustrating to deal with technological fails. This also relates to the first point. If my students have a two-hour window set aside for the online coursework and there is an issue, waiting for an instructor to resolve that can quickly eat up that two-hour chunk of time.As an instructor, I try to honor my students’ time by responding as quickly as possible to their emails. Sometimes this lag time coupled with technological issues can result in a very frustrated student. Finally, emotion and intent can often be hard to discern in an email. I always assume the best intentions. If something is unclear, I always ask for clarity.

1. The AWOL student. In fully online teaching, issues of student attendance become even more difficult to deal with. A student may begin the course fine, and then slowly just disappear. Tasks go unfinished, lectures remain unwatched, and emails go unanswered. It’s hard to say at first whether they are just struggling or they’ve decided to leave without warning. One way we’ve addressed this in one of my online courses is to begin the semester with an online survey. Our survey asks for a secondary email address beyond the university issued one, which has more times than not been the method by which the AWOL student is found, and either a solution is found for the missing time or the student is encouraged to drop the course. The key here is to persist in contacting the student. I’ve been known to set calendar reminders to send a routine daily email to students who have gone missing.

2. The seemingly angry student. I’ve found that 9 times out of 10, an angry student email isn’t actually angry. Sometimes it’s just that the student is a terrible email writer. Other times, they are expressing frustration on their end, and it has nothing to do with me. The quick reply resolves the issue and the student responds with gratitude. If the issue isn’t quickly resolved and the student is still seemingly angry, it’s best to then suggest a phone call or video conference. Human interactions are tricky, and they are even more so online. When people can’t see or hear one another, and they are constrained by the time lag between messages, it’s easy to be misunderstood. I have yet to have an issue with a student that wasn’t resolved through a quick discussion.

3. The back-channel complainer.  I have been on both sides of this one. On the one hand, as an online student myself, I have been subject to the worst teaching methods. It’s frustrating to have one’s time wasted by bad online pedagogy and teaching malpractice. On the other hand, it is so incredibly difficult to design and implement a good online course.  Teaching online, in my experience, is more time consuming and less readily yields rewards compared with teaching face-to-face. In short, there probably is a little validity to the complaint. I’ve found that when a student’s complaint is brought to my attention, there is often often valuable criticism hidden in the complaints and they can be used to further improve what I am doing as an instructor. The other usual outcome in dealing with the back-channel complainer is that perhaps the content is too difficult or he or she is struggling in some other way. If this is the case, the student ends up able to receive extra help and almost always ends up grateful for the intervention. The key in both cases is to open the gates of communication and allow the student to share their complaints without judgment.

In the end, teaching online requires similar skills to face-to-face teaching, but those skills must be mastered to an even greater extent as an online instructor. Above all, give your students the benefit of the doubt. Be respectful and patient. Re-direct problem behavior in constructive ways. And finally, I’ve found that discussing difficult students with other online instructors (leaving out details that might jeopardize privacy, of course) is often the best way to handle a tricky situation. Find a colleague to read the email before you send it off: it will save you a world of trouble.

How do you handle difficult students online? Have a tricky situation you want to crowdsource here in the GradHacker community? Let us know in the comments.

[Image by Flickr user Omegaman used under creative commons licensing.]

Additional Resources:

“Dealing with Difficult Students in the Online Classroom” presentation:

General Classroom Management tips:

Scenes from a Classroom: Managing Student Conflict:

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Andrea is a PhD student in the Ed Psych/Ed Tech Program at Michigan State University. Her research interests focuses on the impact of digital badges on student motivation in online learning settings. Her additional research interests include teacher integration of technology, and the impact of online and social network settings on motivation and learning. She is a former High School English and Biology teacher and misses it every day.

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