A Challenging Student, in more ways than one

I have a challenging student in my intro course this semester. In twenty-five years of teaching, I’ve never had a student quite like this one. He appears bright. The first week, he spoke up regularly in class. Since then he has become increasingly beligerent.

On the first day of class, I asked the students to define economics in their own words. I wrote a sample of definitions on the board and grouped them by themes. Next I proposed examples that the group agreed were relevant to economics but that were inconsistent with a given definition. For example, to challenge the definition of economics as the study of money, I suggested Robinson Crusoe. Economics was clearly relevant to his situation, despite the lack of any money. My purpose here was to expose to students their mistaken views of what the discipline was about. The recent literature on cognition suggestions that failure to refute mistaken preconceptions limits transfer of learning.

Last week, I offered my definition of ‘theory’ to which the student interjected “Well, you’ve spent the last week trashing our ideas; it seems only fair that we should be allowed to criticize yours!” While thinking that he seemed to be overreacting, I told him that I welcomed criticism.

Yesterday as always, I began class by asking for any questions. The student stood up and said, “I want to tell you that I’m very disappointed in this course so far. It’s been over two weeks, and I feel like I haven’t learned anything.” The class seemed shocked, and I replied that I was sorry to hear that, but that there was much to come in the course. At that point, another student stood up and said, “I took Greenlaw’s micro course last Spring, and I found it very interesting.” Yet another stood up and said, “I think this course is very interesting, too.” I moved the discussion back to the topic of the day, but couldn’t help continuing to think about the student and his comments.

Is it possible that he’s learned nothing from the readings or the class discussion? If so, I think I should suggest additional readings to push his learning further. Or is it perhaps that he’s one of those students who wants everything to be tested spelled out explicitly so he knows what to memorize for the exams? I will know more after the first assignment at the end of the week.

Even if he hasn’t learned anything, what do I make of his public challenges? What does he think he’s trying to accomplish that he couldn’t achieve with a private conversation or email? The rest of the class seems to think he’s an idiot.

I plan to talk to him privately and ask these questions. Can you suggest anything that might shed light on this situation beforehand?

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9 Responses to A Challenging Student, in more ways than one

  1. Isaac says:

    I don’t think I would have handled that situation with as much grace as you. Kudos.

    Giving him the benefit of the doubt (that he is bright, that he actually does have something to contribute to the learning experience of the rest of his classmates), a few ideas come to mind.

    First, I can recall that when I first took economics courses @ NOVA before returning to UMW, it was because I was a Marxist intent on arguing with the professor against the tenets of capitalism. I was eventually persuaded by the logic and explanatory power of economics, but that doesn’t change my initial motivation. Perhaps this problem child has a political chip on his shoulder? That, combined with the slow pace UMW principles courses tend to take (relative to my experience elsewhere), may be frustrating for him and motivate him to bellicose.

    Second, he may be bright… and also socially inept (two qualities that often go hand in hand).

    Third, he may be so caught up in the high school system of teaching facts that he is unable to grasp the collegial notion of being taught how to think critically. The absence of a definition is the absence of something equivalent to one’s childhood teddy bear, and he may not see the value of being weened off of common notions of what economics is (or what economists do).

    Fourth, if he genuinely, intuitively gets what you’re saying and is bored to tears, he may be trying to liven things up a bit. I admit to having done this a number of times in some classes. For instance, when I have ended up in classes where everyone seems to be a leftist, I have purposefully and vociferously played the devil’s (the right’s) advocate. Related to this: if he genuinely, intuitively understands all that he has been taught so far, he may actually feel he’s learning nothing since it appears to require no effort, or appears purely logical.

    Possible ideas: Suggest he audit an upper level course, or perhaps you could bring in some of your upper level students to present their research in economics to demonstrate what economsits do. (Incidentally, World of Warcraft was always a hit the 3 times I’ve presented it, and I’ve been working on ideas of how to make it more accessible to those with only a cursory understanding of economics). If he strikes you as worth your time, perhaps you could set up weekly meetings with him to discuss an article of your choosing from WSJ or the Economist.

    Of course, there is also the possibility that he just wants attention, in which case a lecture on showing respect seems more in order. Also it is possible that your teaching and his learning styles are completely incompatible, which would be neither person’s fault. Perhaps someone else in the department could take him on to more success?

  2. sleepycat says:

    In addition to Issac’s excellent comments here are few others.

    You don’t mention whether this student is a traditional undergrad fresh from high school or an adult. While the standing up in class is over the top, it is not uncommon for adult learners to initially challenge an instructor and test their mettle so to speak. Especially someone who is used to being in charge of a situation and molding it to meet their needs and their needs alone.

    You don’t mention the ethnicity or perceived SES of the student. It is also possible that the student comes from a situation where he has systematically experienced economic hardship and blames the system of economics as constructed in the US for those hardships.

    You could ask if he would talk to you out of class in office hours to see what his expectations are for the course. That is one thing I like to do at the beginning of each semester with all student. It helps to better manage expectations and shape the course so it meets their learning goals.

  3. Jenny says:

    Is he a freshman? I’m left wondering if he is just having trouble adjusting to the differences between high school and college. Instruction at high school is often very different from instruction at the college level.

    I hope that through your patience he will flourish and exceed expectations.

  4. sue says:

    Thanks for sharing that situation re: your student. I’ve seen some of this before in teaching Chinese history to American students. The ‘China’ to which they are introduced, and the frames of exploration, often differ from the ones they know or imagine before arrival to the course. Occasionally a student will be frustrated that the curriculum isn’t following a script or fulfilling a familiar framework.

    I think there can be different causes for similar outbursts. Some are troubled if the curriculum isn’t following a clear line or narrative, if the questions seem too open-ended (rather than a unidirectional dissemination of what passes for Knowledge, what is imagined as Expertise.) The exchange that you mention re: “trashing our ideas… we should be allowed to trash yours” also seems to indicate a concern re: a student’s conception of competing politics (perhaps), issues of power within the classroom (definitely), and more. I think that kind of competition is often best defused with a private conversation. The real question, of course, is what a student is looking for in the course. It’s a simple one to start with, which also reminds that the course is as much his to invent as the professor’s – which, of course, may itself be the root of the discomfort. As mentioned elsewhere, it’s a fine line between intellectual exhilaration and trauma…

  5. I think all the comments made above are excellent, considerate ones, but I have to say that my instinctual reaction is that this student is looking, not for additional challenge or a more effective learning situation – if that were his goal, he could have approached you privately – but for attention.

    I was recently put into a situation similar to yours. A student who was clearly bright and perhaps slightly advanced for the level of the class in which he had been placed began acting out in class, challenging me in ways that were increasingly belligerent and disrupting everyone else’s learning process. My response was much like yours: I tried to be patient and to acknowledge his position, and not to humiliate him or silence him. I answered his questions seriously and, when he was inappropriately challenging or simply impolite, I waited for him to settle down and then moved on.

    The truth was, though, that his behavior escalated, and he made my life miserable. He was clearly afraid to approach me in person – he didn’t show up for personal appointments, for example – but acted out his boredom and hostility in the safety of the classroom. The other students, like yours, clearly thought he was an “idiot.” On the end-of-term student evaluations, several students commented that he’d been extremely annoying and suggested that I should have thrown him out of class.

    If I were faced with that situation again, I would handle it entirely differently. If a student stood up and announced, “I haven’t learned anything in this class,” I’d tell him, “I’m sorry to hear that, but if you don’t mind, I’d like you to stay after class so we can discuss it then. And if anyone else has similar complaints, I’d like to hear them too, but privately for now.”

    I would then ask the student, in private, to explain his reservations, and I would acknowledge them, but would also explain that I expect my classroom to be a place in which everyone addresses everyone else with respect, and that such an announcement, at such a time, in such a tone, was not respectful. I would only then ask him what I could do to help him feel like he was getting what he needed out of the class.

    I would address the topic with the class as a whole, as well, probably in the following class (although, if I thought on my feet quickly enough, I might do it right in the moment he started acting out.) I would tell them that I am entirely open to adapting to their needs, but that I expect the classroom to be a place where respect is the paramount rule, and if they aren’t sure they can bring up their complaints in a considerate and respectful manner, they need to come see me privately before introducing the topic to the class.


  6. Serena says:

    This student isn’t the one who wrote this column in The Bullet, is he?

    I really disagree with the assumptions made in this article, and I know that Shannon is pretty upset about it too.

  7. Mary-Kathryn says:

    As a {almost} 44 year old adult who is attending UMW, my view is one of joy. I eagerly anticipate what my professors say in each class. Many times I don’t understand and need help. Am I too far above everyone to ask for help? No. Do I declare boredom when written material reads like Greek to me? No. Do I sometimes panic when I have to do new things? Yep.

    But through it all, I am the student who welcomes my teachers. This does not mean I must personally agree with every word uttered on this campus. As a Catholic, it’s a sure-fire bet THAT won’t happen. In or out of classrooms. However, I’m here to focus on the love of learning–no matter what class it is. Just because I don’t “get it” right off the bat doesn’t mean a declaration of boredom should be announced.

    As for the young man, his behavior brings out the mother in me and I would be sorely tempted to treat him as old as he acts. Call Momma and Daddy [they pay for college} and let him be adult enough declare his disappointment to them. I know what my reaction would be.

    I’m not keen on The Bullet for its’ content. I find such headlines as “Row Team Screwed” along with the sex column, to be less than good reading. The mentioned article above came across as arrogant and simply left me wondering why the author was at school. It didn’t seem his intent was to learn at all. As far as the battle cry about being adults…well yeah, you need to BECOME one before you talk about BEING one.

  8. Chuck Wooldridge says:

    You should speak to the deans ASAP. The deans should be able to determine whether the student is acting the same way in every class (in which case it probably has little to do with your teaching). Like others, I suspect some deeper problem that can’t be solved in the classroom alone.

  9. Pingback: Pedablogy: Musings on the Art & Craft of Teaching » Blog Archive » Challenging Questions

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