March Prism - 2002
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Teaching Toolbox

Pushing All the Wrong Buttons

- By Linda Creighton

Count yourself lucky if you don't have a class with at least one student who drives you up the wall.

It comes right after the cheese at college and university cocktail parties—a little whine. Awful, funny, hard-to-believe stories about students and how rotten they can be. To an outsider, it might seem that professors really dislike those they teach. To anyone who has taught, however, it is usually a welcome relief—a catharsis—to trade anecdotes and experiences with other teachers. And in that respect, it's a healthy way to handle what might be one of the toughest jobs in the world. “Almost anyone who deals with students complains,” says Berry Perlman, who, along with a colleague in the psychology department at the University of Wisconsin at Oshkosh, conducted a study last year to help faculty identify and fix teaching problems. “The issue is whether teachers can keep a perspective on their own frustrations and address problems, or whether their complaining seeps over into blaming the students. That serves no one.”

Maybe your engineering classes have a few students whose habits set your teeth on edge—or maybe you find yourself griping more than a little to colleagues and spouse. So, is it the students, or is it you? And what can you do to make sure your complaints don't suggest something more serious than a routine need to vent?

Sandy Goss Lucas, an experienced teacher and professor of psychology at the University of Illinois at Champaign, is the author of an article for the American Psychological Association journal APS Observer on identifying problem students—who, both she and Perlman agree, fall into pretty universal categories—and dealing with them.

First, have you complained about the “Disaster Is My Excuse” student? They're always in your class, those students whose alarms didn't go off for a noon exam, whose printers jammed, who broke a hand. The forces of another world keep this student—sometimes well intentioned, sometimes deliberately misleading—from fulfilling requirements. Lucas suggests handing out in advance written consequences for missed or late exams, papers, or projects. Recommend time-management or organizational-skill workshops. Study groups and small class groupings have proved themselves extremely effective at rehabilitating habitual procrastinators.

Second, don't you just hate the “I'm Not Really Here” student? “They appear in class, but you wonder why,” says Perlman. Engineering students are often so intimidated by the level of difficulty in courses that they never volunteer questions, much less opinions. Lucas says easy ways to try to bring out a reclusive student are to start a dialogue by writing comments on papers, learning the student's name and saying hello, and encouraging e-mail correspondence. “I still exchange e-mail with a student who was in my class three years ago and barely said a word,” says Lucas.

But Professor Karl Smith, director of undergraduate studies in civil engineering at the University of Minnesota, says engineering professors need to work harder to break the ice. “Students don't challenge teachers nearly enough, especially first-year students who think the professors have all the answers,” he says. “But when we have 30 or 40 percent of engineering students bailing out after the first year, we need to take a look at how we're teaching.” Understanding the different ways students learn is crucial, says Smith. “The most important thing we do is help people learn how to think.”

Third, don't you just love the student who thinks, “I'm Here, Why Can't I Get An ‘A'”? Perlman at Wisconsin says, “Some students act like they're in school only to get their ticket punched,” an offensive attitude to hard-working and seasoned educators. But Perlman says things are more complicated for students today, and some of the stress is showing. “They have more blended families, more instant communication, more complex lives.” Like it or not, he says, students today are consumers, and engineering education must change to meet that reality.

Professor Smith at the University of Minnesota agrees, and sees a positive direction. “Medicine and business have changed the way that they work with students, using problem-based approaches, putting students into small groups where they have to decide what they need to know and how they should solve a problem. That's the way engineering works in the real world, but we've been slow to embrace these strategies because they require quite a lot of skill on the part of faculty.”

Oh, and fourth, don't you just despise the “What Do You Mean, You're the Professor?” student. Amazed to find that someone else is in charge, this student questions everything. Often a high achiever, his or her constant challenges disrupt the class flow and interfere with other students' learning. A low-key reprimand in class or talking to the student outside of class focuses attention on the impact on other students. Convey that you are interested in his or her comments and would be happy to talk during office hours, says Lucas. Rarely, this does not work, and you might then privately ask the student to withdraw from the course. N.L. Gage, Professor Emeritus at the School of Education at Stanford, says, “In my 40 years of college teaching, I had to choose this course of action only once.”

Fifth, another type that might make you roll your eyes is the “Hey, You Made a Mistake on My Grade!” student. If grading on exams, quizzes, and papers becomes a point of contention, a written policy can help, says Lucas. She helped develop a one-page form that students may fill out if they feel unfairly graded. Verbal confrontations can be handled by listening, nodding, and maintaining eye contact. Acknowledge anger and summarize the points made by the student. Usually a calmer discussion can follow.

And, finally, you know you've been a little ticked off by the “Unidentified Problem” student. Lucas cites the instance early in her teaching career of a student who consistently came to class, seated himself in the front row, and as soon as she began her class, fell dead asleep. Lucas privately asked the student what she could do to make the course more engaging for him. “He almost started to cry, confiding in me that he was just totally overwhelmed with his schedule of work and university life.” A time-management course helped him sort things out, and he completed the course. “If I hadn't talked to him, I would have just gotten angry,” she says.


Who, Me Responsible?

Now that you've gotten it off your chest about who drives you crazy, maybe it won't surprise you to find that many educators say the best solution is to strive for excellence in teaching. “Engineering schools get the best students,” says Karl Smith of the University of Minnesota. “If we're not successful with them, it can't be entirely their fault.”

More often, if students don't perform well, faculty is being asked why. “Legislators are putting pressure on state schools for more faculty accountability,” says Smith. The Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology is having a huge impact, too, with its outcome-based accreditation process. Says Smith: “Increasingly, engineering schools have to document that students actually have learned something.”

This approach undercuts the familiar lament of faculty that students don't remember anything. Smith suggests that newer teaching methods can open the door to better results for both students and faculty. “All that many faculty know is, ‘We've covered it, we're done,'” he says. “That's just the beginning. More and more we're starting to do research to try and understand how students learn engineering. We're getting better.”

Even with the best of students, teaching is a tough job, and sometimes gets less respect than research. “Research is exciting and you get visibility,” says Perlman. “You never get that in teaching.”

It's also important to assess who's doing the complaining. “If it's someone who consistently gets great teaching evaluations, then it's normal,” says Perlman. “But if it's someone who isn't doing as good a job as you might want—too much research, getting tired and burned out—then we're not holding ourselves responsible.”

Making sure your teaching skills are honed regularly can go a long way toward living happily with students, say the advisers. “Working with difficult students is part of my teaching.” Says Perlman. “Problems are not something I have to get rid of so that I can get back to teaching.”

Reading material, courses, and seminars in teaching excellence can keep complaints in perspective. Mentoring a younger colleague “can force you to take a look at what you're doing,” says Perlman.

Perhaps most important of all, keep your sense of humor. “I had two kids. I am now more empathic to the fact that students do not take my courses seriously,” says Perlman. “For the average experienced faculty, intrinsic satisfaction takes you only so far. We are people too, and it feels good to have a student say ‘That was a good course.' But with experience you realize those moments are to be treasured because you don't get them a lot.”


Linda Creighton is a freelance writer based in Arlington, Va.
She can be reached by e-mail at


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