Having Difficult Conversations with Students

So long as there is not a threat to physical safety, you are encouraged to speak to students about behaviors that may be concerning, disruptive, or annoying. This maximizes the opportunity for learning by letting the student hear directly from you how their behavior may have impacted others. If you decide not to confront a student about his/her behavior, at least one of these things usually happens:

  • You will continue to be frustrated and the student may never know why, and therefore is not likely to stop the behavior
  • The student will engage in more egregious behaviors if he/she thinks your boundaries can continue to be pushed
  • Other students may withdraw from your course if they perceive you aren't addressing the behavior
  • You determine later that you wish you would have done something about it, but then it feels too late
  • The student drops the course but then enrolls in a future course of yours (or another instructor's) and he/she presumes the behavior is acceptable

The following outline can be helpful as you determine how to discuss behaviors of concern with students:

  1. Build rapport and explain why you want to talk to the student. Remember that you both have the same goal - for him/her to be successful at Harper.
  2. Describe (in detail) the behavior that occurred.
  3. Describe the effects of the behavior - both on you as the instructor as well as on others in the class, including the student him/herself.
  4. Ask the student why this may have occurred, and then listen to the student's perspective. Don't interrupt them, and don't get defensive.
  5. Inform the student what your expectations are for the future. Ideally, this will just be reiterating what is already on your syllabus or in the Student Code of Conduct.
  6. Offer ways that you can help the student to be successful in changing the behavior. An example might include that if the student attempts to interrupt, you will motion discretely with your hand for the student to stop talking. It is also helpful to ask if the student is connected to any campus resources (such as Health and Psychological Services, an advisor/counselor, or Access and Disability Services). If not, you can offer to provide the student with contact information for these offices.
  7. Describe what will happen if the student continues with the same behavior. Examples might include meeting with the Chair of the department or being asked to step outside until he/she can control the behavior.
  8. Inform the student how you plan to follow up on the situation. Frame this as you are attempting to ensure that you have communicated clearly, so that you are both on the same page. Often an email is a convenient way to do this - you can summarize the conversation and offer information about campus resources. This also ensures that you have documented the situation in case it happens again. Depending on the situation, you might also inform your department Chair and/or Dean, or provide an fyi referral to HEAT. 

While these steps may seem simple, they do actually work when it comes to figuring out how to approach situations that are frustrating or cause discomfort. Having these conversations makes it much easier to focus on your teaching, and to ensure you are providing feedback to students so they can rise to the level of your expectations. If they do not, then it makes it easier to file a formal report the next time the behavior happens.