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College Success Resources for Faculty: I have a student who challenges me in class

I Have a Student Who Challenges Me In Class

Most MPC students are polite and behave appropriately in class, but occasionally, a student may challenge his or her professor in class in a way that may make the instructor and the other students uncomfortable. Women professors seem to be more at-risk for this sort of in-class haranguing than men, and men students are more likely to precipitate it. Regardless of who challenges who, inappropriate challenges create an uncomfortable classroom climate for the professor and the other students.

What Can You Do?

Students may challenge professors in any number of ways. Some will use body language, such as excessive eye-rolling. Others whisper sarcastic comments to nearby students. One professor reported that a student flatly refused to do an assignment because he said it was the stupidest thing he'd ever heard. Another student wrote, "You don't know anything!" in a journal entry, even after the professor made it very clear the entries would be collected.

The first thing to remember is that what you perceive as challenging behavior may be something else entirely. One professor took aside a student who seemed to be rolling her eyes at everything he said. When he told her he wondered if she had a problem with him or the course, she was flabbergasted and said, "Actually, your class is my favorite one ever and I've decided to change my major so I can take more classes like this."

Some students "challenge" because they misconstrue what constitutes intellectual behavior. They think arguing and fault-finding means they are brighter than students who "go with the flow." They assume their ability to "think critically," impresses you, and they would be surprised to learn that you resent their behavior.

Some students have a history of being praised for challenging. In high school, they may have been egged on by peers, coaches or parents for being "smart alecks." They think their behavior is "cute" and that they have the right to express themselves whenever and however they want. Teachers at their high school may have tolerated aggressive behavior because the student's family is powerful in the community, for example. Bullying is a coping mechanism they take with them to college.

Some students when they earn their first C, they challenge you in an effort to make their disappointing performance your fault.

Other students need affirmation and attention, and create situations where they become the center. One student constantly interrupted his professor to tell her that her lectures were boring. When she had activities, he complained that they were unhelpful and wasted his time. When the professor asked students to do an informal evaluation of the course, the student apparently forgot his other troubles and wrote that she didn't praise him enough.

Regardless of why students challenge, their behavior is best dealt with directly. Pull challengers aside after class and cite specific examples of what they said or did. Quoting them word for word can be effective. Explain why their behavior is disruptive. Calmly spoken, but blunt statements are the best way to deal with challengers; after all, remember that they are publicly engaging in aggressive behavior. If subtlety worked with them, they wouldn't be challengers. Challengers can have a variety of responses to confrontation; some, if they truly were hoping to impress you, will be hurt. Others, who enjoy bullying or who have decided you are the cause of their problems, may get combative. If you can, work to keep your demeanor calm. Praise these students for their willingness to participate, but explain that their choices are off-putting to peers and to you. One question that often stops challengers in their tracks is, "What do you hope to gain by your behavior?" Based on their answer, you may be able to give them insight into ways they can accomplish their goals less abrasively. Making deals with challengers can work well too. One professor struck a deal with a student that he could only argue about one thing during class time. All other arguments had to wait for office hours. Giving challengers jobs can be one way to stop the behavior. One professor asked her challenger to write notes on the board during class discussion. The student liked being the center of attention, and surprised her when he went from making derisive comments about the discussion topics to playing an active role in making sure all voices were heard, and that everyone's views were accurately represented.

Of course, some students may exhibit challenging behavior because they are under terrible stress, or they are mentally ill. If a student makes bizarre accusations or what they say doesn't make logical sense, call counseling or submit an early alert on the student so they get the appropriate help.