Dealing With Difficult Students


Sheila Sammon, School of Social Work
Shelly Lancaster, McMaster Ombudsperson
Allison Sills, Physics and Astronomy

About This Session

The luncheon meeting on the topic of Dealing with Classroom Civility generated a very lively discussion. The invited guests mentioned a variety of useful strategies identified below. Feel free to give them a try.

Ground Rules for Classroom Discussion to Minimize Disruptions

  1. Ask students to set rules around managing a discussion.
  2. Insert some of your own ideas as well. For example:
  • You can attack ideas but not the person.
  • No “put downs”; Can’t make “fun” of each other.
  • No sexist/racist comments.
  • No one will be allowed to monopolize the conversation. No one should speak for more than five minutes. When transgressions take place, refer back to the ground rules established for discussions agreed upon by the class.

Diffusing a Difficult Situation: Meeting with a Student

  1. Keep your office door open.
  2. Position the student closest to the door (if the student feels intimidated). See students only during daytime.
  3. Keep Notes. Should the issue go further at least you would have a record of what you have said to refresh your memory.
  4. Invite another person to be present during the meeting. If you do this, you may also wish to suggest the student invite another person to be present.
  5. Ask someone (a colleague or administrative assistant to call you on the phone or in person) partway through the meeting, particularly if you are concerned for your own safety.

Preventing a Difficult Situation: the 24-hour Approach

On the first day of class, describe your “policy” for dealing with issues that arise. The policy should be added to the course syllabus to which you can refer the students.

  1. Explain to the class:

    "My policy is that I will not address an issue until 24 hours have passed."

  2. If you have a problem you would like to discuss, please do the following:
  • Notify me about the issue. (If the student mentions the issue in person, thank the student and ask them to send you a note by email or in person if you won’t lose it.)
  • Send a note or email to ensure that I remember to address the issue or question.
  • After the note is submitted, wait for 24 hours.
  1. I promise to reply within 24 hours.

Student Rationale

  • This allows me to deal with problems and issues more equitably between students.
  • If I am not having a good day, it gives me time to cool down.

What it Does for You

  • Gives you time to ask an experienced colleague for advice.
  • Gives you time to cool down.
  • Gives the student time to cool down and discuss the situation with their peers. After 24 hours students are usually more reasonable about issues and have talked about the issue with their peers who have helped them moderate their response.

For Students Who are Really Having Trouble

Contact those in the bottom third of the class (by email or for smaller classes, suggest you meet in person) to say, “You did poorly on this test (or this assignment). What went wrong?” This allows you to refer the student to sources of assistance as appropriate.

Possible Advice

  • Assistance. CSD (Centre for Student Development) - writing clinic, study tips, bereavement counseling, psychological counseling, learning disability accommodation. Making personal contact with a student and discussing the issue may be enough to motivate them to improve.

  • Is this the right path for you? It may be kinder to help “counsel them out” of the course or program. CPEC (Career Planning and Employment Centre).

  • The “drop” date for this course is… Students may not always realize this is an option while they still have time to ensure it does not appear on their transcript.

  • Suggesting the student takes one less course. If a lighter load helps them make it through, does it matter if it takes a little longer to complete the program? Sometimes this can be an option.