Is trouble all that they can spell?

April 29, 2005

There may be many reasons why students are difficult and disruptive.

Harriet Swain finds that getting to the root of the problem and then talking about it can go a long way to resolving the issue

Jack and Jill spent your first lecture chatting, your second snogging and your third on their mobile phones to their dealers. If you object, they call you "beardy four-eyes". While many students can be difficult to teach at times, these two spell trouble.

One thing you have to establish is whether they can spell anything else. Some students may cause problems because they are struggling with the course. Others may have some kind of disability that has not been properly identified or supported.

Rik Middleton, assistant staff development officer at Essex University, says the first piece of advice he offers is to think before reacting.

Chris Rust, head of the Oxford Centre for Staff and Learning Development, says you have to find out why problems are happening. "Is it that they are lost? Is the course pitched at the wrong level? Do they not see the relevance? Are they not doing the necessary reading? Is it that you are a bad teacher?" he asks.

It could be that some students are studying a particular course only because their parents made them and they are not really interested. It could be that poor timetabling means that by the time they reach youthey are exhausted - or hung over. "Don't jump to conclusions," he warns. "Talk to them."

He says that an important part of avoiding problems with students is making sure that you have engaged and motivated them. You need to be clear about the relevance of a particular teaching session both to the subject and their degree outcome.

Alan Clements, professor in computing at Teesside University, says what matters most is getting the support and respect of the majority so that troublemakers are isolated. He recalls that once, when a student tried to make fun of his chattiness, he said to the class: "I have been criticised for going off-topic, and I will respond to this by talking about computer hardware for an hour with no asides."

This led several students to approach him to say that they liked his style and that the complaining student was not typical.

Rust suggests appealing to the students as a group when the problem becomes bad enough to confront directly. He advises saying: "We seem to have a problem here - people are not preparing or are talking - what are we going to do about this?"

Alternatively, separating a class into smaller groups can help re-engage concentration as well as giving you the opportunity to talk to troublesome students quietly on their own, he says.

All agree that it is essential to establish and discuss ground rules for behaviour from the beginning.

Clements says consistency is vital along with ground rules. "I really hate being heavy-handed and I have often let a student break a rule," he says.

"This leads to many others banging on my door to protest. Sadly, there's no one more illiberal than a student when it comes to rules." He used to argue that he would rather let a student hand in a good piece of work a day after the deadline than get a poor piece in on time, he says. "I have had to change this view because of my experiences."

Roger Kline of lecturers' union Natfhe says setting ground rules at the start means that when something goes wrong, you can refer back to the rules without personalising your problem with a particular student.

Deborah Lee, senior lecturer in sociology at Nottingham Trent University, who is writing a book about students who attack their lecturers, agrees that it is important for the students to know what is expected of them. But she says much of this is up to university managers. The university itself needs to have clear regulations in place to deal with these students so that academics know where they stand and what sanctions they can use. In addition, staff must know that they will be supported if they go to their manager with a problem.

"The emphasis should be on the managers themselves recognising that there are problems out there and that it is not always the fault of the academic," she says.

Kline says there is an institutional context in that increased class sizes can make it more likely that students will behave inappropriately. He says every institution should have in place policies for staff and students that set out guidelines for dealing with sexism, racism and bullying, and he advises lecturers to make sure that they are fully aware of where their university stands on these issues.

If you are concerned by a particular incident, make a careful note of it, tell the student you have done it and warn him or her of the possible consequences. Then tell your line manager, he says.

"You have to be careful not to overreact," Kline says. "But there comes a point where you have to do something if you are in the position in a lecture where it has impeded your ability to teach or the ability of other students to learn."

Middleton says it is important for new lecturers not to take problems personally - and for people to try to make sure that they learn from their own bad experiences.

Further information Graham Gibbs, Discussion with More Students , Book 3 of the Teaching More Students project, The Polytechnics and Colleges Funding Council/Oxford Centre for Staff Development, 1992 Tony Claydon, CD-ROM Responding to Students' Behaviour: "What Would You Do?" , Northumbria University, 2004, contact


* Find out why students are being difficult

* Don't be boring

* Set ground rules and keep to them

* Get the support of your institution

* Make your priority the learning experience and health and safety of the other students

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