Reflections Newsletter

Teaching Tips: Dealing with Challenging Situations, Fall 2002

Lesley D. Harman, Faculty Associate
Teaching Support Centre
Number 48, December 2002

It is rare to make it through one’s teaching career without encountering a challenging situation or two with students. As with anything else in life, however, these can hopefully be avoided with awareness and care. If something does come up, however, it is how one deals with it that matters. Potential problems range from classroom management issues such as conflicts with students, to dealing with academic dishonesty. And in most cases, prevention and resolution boil down to simple communication.

Familiarize yourself with departmental and university policies and resources

There are clear Senate guidelines which must be followed for organizing your courses around dates in the academic year, such as scheduling tests, exams and assignments. Footnote The office of Services for Students with Disabilities exists to facilitate learning opportunities for students with special needs. Footnote The office of Equity Services exists as a resource to educate and mediate on equity issues, most notably sexual harassment and race relations. Footnote The Ombuds office is there to help and mediate in the event of conflicts. Footnote

State clearly in writing your expectations for student conduct

The course outline is like a contract between the professor and the student. As professors vary in their teaching styles and expectations as to what kind of learning environment they wish to foster, it is important to communicate clearly at the beginning of a course what these expectations include. In addition to standard information such as prerequisites, antirequisites, course requirements, book lists, and important dates, include in your course outline your expectations for student conduct. For example, will you be taking attendance? What kind of documentation do you require in the event of a student missing a test? How will you assign any “subjective” marks such as participation grades? What is your policy on late submission of written work? What penalties do you apply for cheating?

Educate your students on matters of academic integrity

Sometimes we erroneously assume that students all share the same definitions of academic honesty and dishonesty. In his extensive research on academic integrity in US colleges, Don McCabe discovered that cheating is widespread, and this has much to do with a lack of awareness and education. In addition to actual cheating on tests and exams, he found evidence of extensive plagiarism, unauthorized collaboration on projects, and falsification of data. Attitudes and behaviour may very well be modified through taking the time to explain what you define as cheating. Footnote

Consider utilizing as a deterrent for plagiarism

The university’s plagiarism checking software,, is enjoying increasingly widespread use. Footnote When applied, students are required to submit written work electronically. This powerful tool detects submission of essays, in whole or part, which already exist in its extensive database, as well as improperly referenced material. The hope is that by requiring this of students, it will serve as a deterrent to cheating and a reminder of the importance of academic integrity.

Carefully document all problems and concerns

In the event of a student appeal, it is essential that there be careful documentation of everything! Keep notes on how your grades were calculated. This is especially important when assigning so-called “subjective” marks on the basis of classroom participation. Keep any other related documents such as letters from the Office of Services for Students with Disabilities, doctors’ notes, letters from and to students during the year. Keep tests and exams for at least eight months after your grades have been submitted.

Take action promptly and effectively

There are different ways of dealing with challenges, but ignoring them usually will not make them go away. In your classroom, if there are management issues, draw them to the attention of the class in a way that will inform and educate without bringing public embarrassment or shame to those involved. For example, if you sense a climate of intolerance or hostility building, attempt to defuse it and give the class an opportunity to get back on track in a more civil way. Some problems are better dealt with on a one-to-one basis. Ask the student involved to see you in your office hours and discuss your concerns. Listen to their accounts. Often the behaviour of so-called “difficult students” stems from lack of awareness of your expectations, or from legitimate issues in other parts of their lives.

Give everyone a chance to learn and grow

We teach through example as well as through lecturing, writing, and mentoring. The manner in which one handles a problem may be as memorable as the problem itself. Hopefully even the most unfortunate or regrettable situation can be turned around into a learning opportunity.

Teaching Support Centre
Room 122, The D.B. Weldon Library
Western University
London, Ontario N6A 3K7
(519) 661-2111, ext. 84622