When students react to test or paper grades by growing angry and accusing you of being unfair, an inadequate professor or a poor test writer, you may not know how to respond to their attack. In return, you may become so defensive, angry or offended that even the thought of seeing the student again may make your blood pressure rise.
What Can You Do?
There are basically two different types of angry students; disappointed Super Achievers and students who are truly in trouble. Super achievers are often first year students who successfully balanced challenging extra-curricular schedules with college-prep courses. Suddenly, here at MPC they are earning grades substantially lower than they usually do. The second type of angry student is more troublesome; these are students who are doing their best, but are truly failing and are headed for serious academic trouble.
In both cases, the root cause of the anger is fear. A super achiever's self-identity is wrapped up in academic success. When this is threatened, they take it out on you. In some cases, they become so worried that they truly believe a B in college writing will keep them out of med school, or that it will be impossible for them to make up any points they lost. Some have been told repeatedly that college is so hard that they assume any mistake will derail them permanently.
When a super achiever grows angry over a test grade, many faculty are torn between wanting to defend themselves against attack, and wanting to reassure the student that a C on a college test is hardly the end of the word. Try to avoid defending yourself. Angry super achievers are masters at twisting your words in an attempt to make you the source of their problem. If you say, "I've used this test successfully for years", the student hears, "I haven't kept up with the changing needs of my students." The fastest way to disarm an angry super achiever might be to say some version of the following, "I am on your side. I know you are angry about your grade. I'm not in this job because I enjoy upsetting students, and I don't like it when they feel bad about their work. I'd be delighted to work with you to raise your grade." Since ultimately, a super achiever wants the best grade possible, this often moves them from anger mode into problem solving mode.
Once you get them listening, work to pin-point exactly why they are upset and attempt to address that. For example, some students might assume that if they earn a low grade on an exam, they will earn a low course grade. In some classes this is true; in others, the student will have many opportunities to make up lost points. Let them know what your policies are. Others get upset if they think they are the only student who earned a low grade. Some will see their grade positively if you are able to point out that many other students earned the same or a lower score. If they know that such grades aren't uncommon on tests in your course and that many students have gone on to be successful college students and people, they may calm down. One student, who earned an 87 out of 100 on a college writing paper, was combative and angry about his grade until he learned that the high score in the class was 90, which meant he earned one of the top scores. Your knowledge of the 'big picture' can help students put their grade into perspective.
The second type of angry student is a bit tougher case. These students are truly in academic trouble and they are angry because they are afraid college won't work out for them. If the student is failing, point out that you have some concerns about their ability to be successful in the course, but work hard to keep your demeanor neutral or supportive. If they share with you that they studied endlessly for the test, suggest to them that they get academic counseling through the appropriate Student Support Resources. Take every opportunity to express that you'd love to see them do well, and that their grade doesn't impact your opinion of them as a person. One professor claims she has gotten students to seek help by saying, "I really wish you weren't experiencing so much stress right now. If I could make your stress go away, I would. However, I think the best way to prevent this from happening again is to get some help at Student Support/Counseling, etc."
Other struggling students may be experiencing failure because they are in a class that is inappropriate for them. For example, a student who plans to be an English major might take calculus to fulfill the math requirement. If he or she fails an exam after spending hours studying and even working with a tutor, he or she could drop the course and take something less stressful. If appropriate, help them understand drop and withdrawal policies.
While it is a good idea to use your knowledge of student success and your course to help students decide on a course of action, avoid making statements like, "Some students aren’t cut out to be science majors." If the student has had a lifelong dream of becoming a doctor, that may be a crushing thing to hear on top of just having failed a Chemistry test. They may not be ready to simultaneously adjust their perception of themselves as students, and adopt a new life-goal all in the same day. Instead, focus on the matter at hand; getting the student through the course, or getting them out of a course in which they cannot be successful.
If you think the student may have an emotional problem, you could suggest it might help them to talk to someone. If the student is receptive, you could refer them to MPC Student Health Services.