Suggestions for responding to challenging behaviors of students online

Many of the situations we confront with difficult students online are not very different than we contront in the physical classroom, but the social distance of students not facing you or each other can lead to some exagerated behaviors.  On the other hand, many of the challenges come in asynchronous rather than synchronous modes - thereby giving the instructor at least a brief period of time to assess, seek advice and formulate a considered response. 
Setting the Context
The online classroom draws upon a wide range of skills of the instructor, managing the class can be challenging.  Our good friend and colleague Curt Bonk of Indiana University includes UIS as an example of quality and access in his speeches and publications.  His most recent book is The World Is Open. Bonk sets the context for the instructor and online classroom management in this short video :
University Code of Conduct
It is important that we familiarize ourselves with the University Code of Conduct for students:
Included in the code are topics the following that might be relevant to the online classroom:


   The following categories of conduct are specifically prohibited and may form the basis for disciplinary action:

  A.      Violence, the threat of violence, harassment, or intimidation directed against another person or persons.

  B.      The intentional obstruction or interference with any person's right to attend or participate in any Campus function.
  C.      Hazing.
  D.      Unreasonable obstruction or disruption of teaching or other Campus activities. 
  H.      Intentionally entering false fire alarms or bomb threats; tampering with fire extinguishers, alarms or safety equipment; refusing to follow directions to evacuate a building as directed during any emergency condition.
  M.     Acts in violation of Board of Trustees and/or University and/or Campus policies, regulations or rules.  These include, but are not limited to:

     1.         Human Rights Policy

     2.         Sexual Harassment Policy
     3.         Alcoholic Beverages Policy
     4.         Drug-Free Workplace Policy
Due process is described in the code for violations in these and other areas that may impact the online classroom.

Before we even begin discussing the difficult student, here are some things you can do to head off difficult behaviors before they surface:
  1. Be explicit and detailed in your syllabus.  Make sure that your expectations - and what behaviors will not be tolerated - are clear to all students at the outset.
  2. Create clear and concise grading rubrics that define what is expected in each assignment as well as how the final grade will be calculated.
  3. Model the expected behavior in your postings and in sample responses. 
  4. Consider inviting a student peer mentor into the online classroom to model responses and to confidentially field questions from the students, providing a front line response.

Here are some of the common types of behaviors that we may encounter:
Some Behaviors of Concern
  1. Discussion dominator student - A student may dominate discussion in the db to the point that other students are discouraged from making contributions.  This student may post contstantly, day and night, jumping onto the discussion as soon as s/he is permitted.
    1. The first line of action in this case (and in so many others) is to respond directly to the student by email, txt message, or phone call.  In responding, you may want to begin with a positive statement to assure the student that you recognize the engagement and interest s/he has in the class.  Be careful to differentiate between the value of the student and the value of the behavior in the context of the class.  Explain that you understand the student's knowledge and enthusiasm, but that you need to enlist the student's help in assuring that all of the students have an opportunity to share their ideas.  Our experience is that it is not unusual that students exhibiting this behavior have been suppressed in other classes or other parts of their lives. 
  2. Strongly opinionated student - A student may be driven by an inflexible dogmatic dedication to a viewpoint or principle to such an extent that s/he berates other students with differing viewpoints.  In some cases these may become as extreme as religious or racial bigotry and bias. 
    1. It is important to set a tolerant tone at the outset of the class.  You may even want to put a statement in the syllabus that all opinions will be respected and personal attacks will not be tolerated
  3. Belligerent student (or what Susan Ko refers to as the mutineer) -This is the student who directly challenges either your pedagogical approach or the content that you are presenting. Ko describes situations in which she talks about responding to posted student complaints such as “this teacher didn’t provide enough feedback” etc that gets agreement from other students and starts losing control of the classroom.
    1. Ko suggests responding to the substance of the concern without acknowledging the hostility behind it. A follow up personal email can be helpful, acknowledging their frustration and encouraging the student to contact you privately if they need more feedback on an assignment.
  4. Threatening student (and the legal line) - Just as in the physical classroom, a disturbed student may cross the line into an area of threats or other obscene name calling or remarks that are not protected speech. 
    1. Such comments demand immediate attention.  It is important that you inform the department head, dean or upper administration.  In turn a decision should immediately be made on whether to inform the university police.  The safety of all students is of utmost importance.
  5. The emotionally disturbed or psychotic student - Most faculty members are not trained to diagnose psychoses and emotional disturbances.  But, most everyone can identify erratic, illogical, or overtly paranoid postings.  In these cases, it is important to take action immediately. 
    1. Contact the department head, dean and ask for the proper path to get help for the student so that s/he does not intimidate or injure another student or him/herself.
  6. The "I must have an "A" to graduate" student - This student is one who has much at stake, posts long and often - too often.  Many of us have encountered the student who will fill a forum with 20 or more posts of relatively little substance. 
    1. Certainly, this student is not unique to online.  In this case, praise for the quality rather than quantity work is in order.  But, an instructor might consider having a "side bar" conversation with the student to explain that it is best to look at the discussion board not as an individual platform for monolog, but rather as one for two or three-way engagement among students and the instructor.  Sometimes one can call upon the higher values of the student to encourage a collaborative team approach.
  7. Disappearing group member – This student is doing individual work but isn’t contributing to group assigned tasks. Even though other students within the group contact them, this student doesn't respond. 
    1. The group must move forward.  Direct emails and calls to the student may help. 
    2. It may be possible to minimize this impact by designing group tasks in my online courses such that each group member has a specific assignment within the group task.  If one fails to come through, the others can move forward and create a report that will stand on its own. 
  8. The "Rip van Winkle" sleep past midterm student - This student is one who participates little in the first weeks of the class,  then awakens to the possiblity of failure and seeks special dispensation from penalty for lack of participation in the early part of the class. 
    1. This one is open to different interpretations.  If one considers that it is the primary value of the student to complete the course assignments, one might have a lenient late-submission policy.  If, on the other hand, if one engages in a social constructivist approach, the lack of participation significantly hurts fellow students as well as the individual. 
    2. Please see this example of how one might correspond with such a student
  9. The "needy" online student - This student needs confirmation of seemingly ever action in the class.  S/he needs reminders and clarifications of most assignments.  The faculty member becomes a surrogate parent.
    1. A quality, detailed syllabus and rubric system can go a long way toward addressing this problem.  When the student repeatedly asks for confirmations, the instructor may simply refer the student to the syllabus.  Over time, the student may learn to become more self-sufficient.


Describe your "difficult" student

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Laurel V. Newman, Ph.D.
Chair, Department of Management
Director, Online Programs-College of Business & Management
University of Illinois at Springfield
One University Plaza, MS-UHB 4054
Springfield, IL  62703
Phone: 217/206-7931
Fax: 217/206-7543
Ray Schroeder, Director
Professor Emeritus
University of Illinois at Springfield
One University Plaza, Brk 425
Springfield, IL 62703
Phone: 217/206-7531