Tips for dealing with problem students and student problems

by Mariana De Maio
PhD student, University of Florida

There isn’t a teacher who hasn’t had to deal with student problems and problem students. Sooner or later you will have to deal with a student who has a problem or a student who is disrupting your teaching, so it’s better to be prepared. There are three common problems that higher education teachers face:

Students with academic problems

Some students may be aggressive or may challenge the materials presented in class. This is a good opportunity to delve further into the subject matter and to teach the student how to approach the subject in a critical fashion.

Some students seek the “truth” because they see the world divided into true and false statements. This is a good opportunity to guide these students into the complex pathways of the subject matter, arriving at various conjectures and competing hypotheses and presenting a set of ideas upon which the profession may agree.

Sometimes students arrive in a course without the appropriate preparation. If there is a discernible pattern evolving over time, there is an opportunity to address their shortcomings by preparing materials utilizing different media so students can have easy access to the specific materials you wish them to review for your course.

Discipline problems due to class management issues

It’s important for you and your students to have a clear, understandable and reasonable set of rules because it tells the students what to expect from the first day of class regarding issues of attendance, behavior, plagiarism, teaching style, exam expectations, grading style and any other issue that you would consider essential. The syllabus is a great tool for this purpose because the syllabus constitutes a sort of social contract with your students.

Sometimes, you may have students who will like to be noticed by you and others. They will have many questions, comments and may interrupt often, making other students feel inhibited to participate. In these situations it would be advisable to politely signal the student to wait until others had a chance to participate and, perhaps, having a brief conversation outside the classroom regarding class behavior may complement your classroom strategy.

Sometimes, some of the students don’t stay on top of the course material. This may force them to cram for the exams leading to, perhaps, undesirable academic outcomes, even if the manage to pass. One way to address this issue is to give students brief quizzes, homework or some other periodic activity to promote them to stay abreast of the course’s evolution.

If you happen to have disruptive students, this may suggest that there could be an issue with the material or the delivery, but aside from that the discipline issue will need to be addressed to avoid affecting other students. Changing seating assignments, calling on the students or talking to them outside the classroom could be viable alternatives to address the problem.

When students turn work in late, it’s sometimes difficult to determine if the excuse is valid or not. Many factors come into play and one needs to be fair, flexible and use one’s intuition to ascertain each situation. One way to mitigate the probability of occurrences could be to routinely check the progress of assignments. This could be particularly useful with term papers, to avoid surprises for both, student and instructor.

Discipline problems caused by a student’s emotional issues

It’s important to keep in mind that many students come with a heavy psychological baggage.  Sometimes this doesn’t get in the way of their classroom experience, but many students may seem angry, frustrated, may overreact during the discussion of a particular topic, may even exhibit signs of depression, even to the untrained eye. If faced by any of these students, it’s suggested that you seek professional advice and help on how to handle the student. You shouldn’t try to help the student if you aren’t qualified to do so.

At the University of Florida the Counseling and Wellness Center — and–.aspx — is a great resource for professors and teaching assistants to consult on issues related to the emotional and psychological well-being of individual students or other members of the university community.

Other resources on campus

Teaching More Effectively Workshop SeriesSponsored by the Graduate School & the AT Teaching Center

Free workshops for teaching assistants and other graduate students who want to improve their instructional skills are conducted each semester. There are two strands of workshops: “Improving Your Teaching” and “Using Technology to Enhance Learning.”  Certificates of participation are given for attending each workshop strand (one for pedagogy and another for teaching with technology).

Troubled and Disruptive StudentsIdentification of students with serious problems; strategies for dealing with these students.

Suicide Prevention workshop – Suicide is the third leading cause of death in college-age students only behind accidents and homicide, and suicidal thoughts and attempts are even more common. Most individuals who feel suicidal give some warning signs of their thoughts or plans; unfortunately, due to the stigma and complexity of discussing suicide, many warning signs are often disregarded, unrecognized, or not acted upon by family, peers, professors, or others in the campus community. In this interactive workshop, Dr. Wayne Griffin of the UF Counseling Center will increase your awareness of the issue and provide you with tools to refer distressed and suicidal individuals for help.

Informational handouts will be provided to program participants.


Cursan A. & Damour L. (2006) First day to final grade. A graduate student’s guide to teaching (2nd ed.) (pp. 106-140). Ann Arbor, MI: The University of Michigan Press.

Doyle, T. Effective Ways of Dealing with Disruptive Students. Retrieved from:

Silvestri, M.M. & Buskist, W. (2012) Conflict in the college classroom: understanding, preventing and dealing with classroom incivilities. In Buskist, W. & Benassi V.A. (Eds.) Effective college and university teaching. Strategies and tactics for the new professoriate (pp. 135-153). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Sorcinelli, M. D. (1994) Dealing with troublesome behaviors in the classroom. In Prichard, K. W. & McLaren Sawyer R. (Eds.) Handbook of college teaching. Theory and applications (pp. 365-373) Westport, CT: Greenwood Publishing Group.

Svinicki, M. D. & McKeachie, W. J. (2011). McKeachie’s teaching tips: Strategies, research, and theory for college and university teachers. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, Cengage Learning.

Van Hook, S. R. Dealing with Disruptive Students. Retrieved from:

Mariana De Maio is a student in Mass Communication Teaching.

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