5 Strategies Needed for Uncooperative Students

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Does every class run perfectly and without a problem? In a traditional classroom an instructor is able to visually assess how students are performing and responding to the demands made of them. However, with this visual element missing in an online class, it becomes much more challenging to “read” or get a feel for the pulse or mood of the class, especially when the class is not meeting at a scheduled time.

There is an aspect of online teaching which seems inevitable for educators and is likely to occur with every online class. It involves students who either remain distant from you as their instructor or they simply refuse to cooperate with you. Students who have this disposition may make demands about their grades or outcomes, resist viewing and utilizing feedback, or not accept constructive criticism in an objective manner.

Some students may be open to receiving constructive criticism and coaching, while others will require time before they will begin to interact directly with you. There will be other students who are going to be challenging simply because they have established patterns of thought or negative beliefs about instructors in general. There is also a trend now where students feel empowered with anonymity to freely speak their mind, without concern for respect or consequences when a lack of basic professionalism is maintained.

A perfect class would be easy to teach as every student would be responsive to your communication and feedback. But that isn’t always the case and it will help your work as an educator to have strategies available which can be used as part of your teaching style or practice when students become uncooperative.

Always Maintain Communication Attempts

Have you ever talked to a student and you knew from the moment the conversation began nothing you could say would change their attitude or disposition? They already established a closed mindset and it could be based upon perceptions or experience they’ve had with other instructors or the school.

Working with online students poses a unique challenge. You can be open to working with them and request a conversation by phone only to discover students simply do not respond to you. I know from my experience as an educator some students are either not conditioned to personalized interactions or they want to retain their anonymity. Trying to break through this type of mindset barrier can be challenging, even with the best of intentions.

My philosophy as an online educator is to respond to student emails within a matter of just a few hours on weekdays. On the weekend I will watch for emails and answer any pressing issues or concerns. While it establishes a level of responsiveness on my part, students may still not respond to those attempts to interact personally with them.

You should develop your own strategy. The time an uncooperative attitude comes into play is when you want to communicate with students about their progress and they simply ignore your attempt, or worse, they respond in a hostile manner or the tone of their communication is aggressive. When students maintain a disposition like that it can be difficult to gain their cooperation.

A Student’s Perspective

When students are non-responsive, or they do respond and seem to be uncooperative, it is often done so from a reactive state of mind. From my experience, there have been times when a student has viewed their cumulative grade or feedback for an assignment and had a reactive response. They may have believed the grade was unjust, they “worked hard” on an assignment and deserved a perfect score, or there can be any other number of reasons. Those students will either remain silent, finally reaching out when their frustration has built up, or eventually disengage from the class.

Those reactions may be tied to beliefs which were built upon unrealistic expectations. For example, a student may believe any amount of effort exerted on their part should equate to a certain grade. It is certainly understandable students may have a reaction and possibly with strong emotions; however, it is not acceptable to respond back to them with an aggressive demeanor. It serves no purpose and works against the development of a productive working relationship as they will resist any further attempts to provide helpful feedback and constructive criticism. 

Different Forms of Uncooperative Students

There are different types of uncooperative students. There is the shy student who may feel intimidated by their instructor, there may be a type a student who feels fully in charge of their education and doesn’t prefer any other interactions with their instructor, and then there are students who believe they know what is best for their development and won’t communicate unless their instructor is able to persuade them to change their perspective.

There are other forms of uncooperative students and due to the nature of an online class you may not get to know what their mindset is until you communicate with them. Consider this example: You have an uncooperative student who contacts you but they will not listen to you. You can either try to find common ground and discuss their progress or request another time to talk so they can regain their emotional balance.

While it is not pleasant working with students who are not responsive or uncooperative, or they are difficult to communicate with, it can help you learn more about yourself as an educator and prompt a time of professional self-evaluation. This is a time to ask yourself what can be learned so you are able to either reaffirm your teaching method is on target or make self-corrections as needed.

Five Strategies Every Educator Needs for Uncooperative Students

There are strategies that I have used and taught online faculty to use, which you may also find helpful as well.

#1. Be Proactive When Working with Students

The first step an online instructor can take is to be proactive in their approach to working with students. Encourage open communication through scheduled office hours, with availability for one-on-one communication (such as class messages or telephone appointments), and include notations in your feedback that encourages students to ask questions. For example, I always end my written feedback with a notation that asks students to contact me with any questions about their feedback or progress in class.

#2. Make Outreach Attempts with Students

A challenge for online teaching is the possibility students may slowly disengage from their class. When students are not communicative it can either mean they are not cooperating or they are in the process of withdrawing from the class. You may not know the reason why until you talk to the students, so make every effort to reach them. One of the clues available to me are missed deadlines for discussions and assignments. I’ll send a message and ask the student if they need assistance or have questions. This doesn’t mean I will change the late policy rules, but it does demonstrate I care about the student.

#3. Keep the Momentum Going

Once you are able to gain cooperation with your students, and you have established a productive working relationship them, don’t assume it is set and complete for the duration of your class. Maintain your efforts to keep them engaged and continue to offer personalized assistance throughout the duration of the class. If a student was uncooperative once, they may still have a negative belief about instructors and/or learning, which means it will take more than one positive interaction to overcome their doubts.

#4. Address an Uncooperative Mindset

When a student does not contact you, and they have an uncooperative mindset, it means there is an underlying need or negative perspective that may or may not be easily changed. In your outreach attempts you can offer to discuss the specifics about their progress in class and then decide upon an action plan. If you are able to speak with the student by phone and they become aggressive or threatening, it may be time to discontinue the call and talk with them during a less emotional time. Whatever you do, when you try to address a student with an uncooperative mindset, demonstrate empathy for them. There is something unresolved and through your tolerance, patience, and willingness to assist, you may be able to gain a breakthrough with them.

#5. Teach with Compassion

The best advice for working with any student, cooperative or uncooperative, is to always have their best interests in mind and address their academic needs. It may be challenging at times, especially if they are utilizing inappropriate communication. You may not always handle every situation perfectly because you can still experience natural human emotions; however, if you teach with a caring mindset, students will likely respond in a favorable manner.

Maintaining Open Communication

For online classes, communication in the form of online posts, messages, and emails may feel impersonal. This can be overcome by being highly self-conscious of the tone used and how it may be interpreted. As to working with online students, make it your goal to always maintain open communication.

What does this mean? It is a mindset of welcoming your students’ attempts to communicate directly with you, whether by email, phone, or other methods that you have established for them to use. When they send you an email or message, demonstrate through your reply you are glad they have reached out to you and do your best to welcome future communication.

As an educator, be the one who demonstrates a cooperative demeanor as a means of modeling it for your students. For those students who resist your attempts, or they simply won’t respond to you, they might not ever change their approach. Be sure to make outreach attempts to demonstrate consistency and a caring attitude at all times.

Becoming an effective educator is an ongoing process of learning through trial and practice, and error at times, attempting to gain cooperation and responsiveness from your students. Make it your goal to do what you can to be open and responsive to all students – even those who challenge you. When you turn a lack of cooperation into collaboration, you have successfully harnessed the transformative power of education.

About Dr. Johnson

Dr. Bruce A. Johnson has 35 years of experience teaching and training adults. The first half of his career was spent in the field of Corporate Training and Development, with his last role as Manager of Training and Development.

Then in 2005, he made a transition into the field of distance learning. Over the past 18 years, he has been an online instructor, Faculty Development Specialist, Faculty Director, Faculty Development Manager, and Dissertation Chair.

Dr. Johnson is also an inspirational author, writer, and educator. His life mission is to teach, mentor, write, and inspire others. He has earned a PhD in Postsecondary and Adult Education, a Certificate in Training and Performance Improvement (TPI), a Master’s in Adult Education, and a Master of Business Administration (MBA).

As a scholar practitioner, Dr. J was published in a scholarly journal, and he has been a featured presenter at an international distance learning conference, along with presenting at three faculty conferences. He has also published over 230 online articles about adult learning, higher education, distance learning, online teaching, and mindset development. Dr. J published three books related to higher education, including two about online teaching.

Getting Down to Business: A Handbook for Faculty Who Teach Business.

Transform Adult Education: Expert Teaching Strategies for Educators.

Transform Online Teaching: Expert Strategies and Essential Resources Every Educator Needs.

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