The 10 best ways to avoid student complaints about classwork

By Jennie Young

It is more imperative than ever that we establish ourselves as calm and trustworthy leaders, writes Jennie Young.

I’ve spent most of my career engaged in efforts to improve the classroom environment. My first teaching gig was in a rough high school setting, and while the first year on that job was the hardest of my life, it delivered a crash course in effective classroom management.

When I left that school and stepped into a college adjunct role and then a lecturer role and then a tenure-track role, I continued to focus on the human-interaction elements of teaching. My doctoral dissertation (now book) examines the rhetorical impacts of how we talk to students.

This past year, I became an associate dean, and one of my duties is to hear and mediate student complaints, a responsibility that evokes the lessons of both my early-career scholarship and the years of teacher-training prior to that. It’s also given me a whole new perspective on how such complaints could be avoided almost entirely.

Here’s my Top 10 List of how to avoid receiving student complaints:

#1. Be responsive. Regardless of your position at your college or university, prioritize student e-mails. At the risk of sounding cheesy, students are the reason we’re here. Ignoring people is the most effective way to get them to go away, and if the students go away, everything goes away.

#2. Stay current. Discourse evolves over time, and what was acceptable to say at the beginning of your career may no longer be. For example, it can be challenging to adjust to addressing a single student by the pronoun “they,” but I’ve found that as long as I try—and apologize when I fail—students tend to be extraordinarily forgiving. And when you’re not sure of something related to a shifting cultural norm, just ask your students; they actually love to be consulted on things like this.

#3. Stop saying, “It’s in the syllabus.” The syllabus has evolved from a brief calendar of readings and assignments into something akin to a “terms of conditions” statement that almost no one would read. Expecting students to commit 14 pages of legalese to memory, multiplied by however many courses they’re taking, is unreasonable. It’s better to decide what your deal-breakers are and make them visible at the point of relevance.

For example, if you do not accept late work, include a statement like this in the assignment: “Reminder that after the Canvas dropbox closes, you will not be eligible for points on this assignment.” If excellent attendance is crucial to your course, then attach points to it, and then keep that item updated and visible in your learning management system. Don’t create a situation in which a student who submitted all the work and got high grades is surprised with an “F” on their transcript due to an attendance policy, even if your syllabus said attendance was mandatory.

#4. Make grading systems transparent, and keep them accurate and updated. Don’t engage in outdated assessment practices such as curving or weighting grades. Students don’t generally understand such practices, but more important, they are archaic and arbitrary. If one aspect of student performance is more valuable than another, simply allocate to it the representative number of points. If you must weight grades for some reason, be sure your LMS is set up to do the math automatically so that the overall average visible to students is accurate.

#5. Don’t publicly shame or scold. Today’s students are far more sensitive to that approach than those of previous generations. If a student is doing something that bothers you, whether it’s using a phone during class or consistently walking in late, discuss it with them privately. Not only does this maintain a healthier classroom environment, but it’s far more effective in fixing the problem. Plus, you don’t risk turning the whole class against you because of the actions of one student—because that’s what will happen.

#6. Never yell at or fight with students. Our students are technically adults, yes. But as faculty members, we are more adults, and we need to model that behavior. I almost never receive complaints about instructors who conduct themselves with consistently dignified adult behavior; yelling at or getting drawn into fights with students compromises your dignity and is never worth it.

#7. When you’re wrong, apologize. We all mess up, sometimes with something as simple as calculating a grade, sometimes to the degree of falling apart in front of students because we’re having a generally bad day. Students are really forgiving, though. Just say you’re sorry.

#8. Don’t violate boundaries. Do not give writing prompts that ask students to “describe the one thing you’ve never been able to share with anyone.” (This is a direct quote of a writing prompt that generated serious student complaints.) It should only be a student’s decision to reveal anything personal; professors or assignments should never make this seem like a directive.

#9. Don’t overshare. There’s a line here: it’s good for students to see us as human beings, and it’s fine for them to know that our car broke down on the way to campus, but they do not need to know the details of health concerns, relationship troubles or other students’ lives. If you’re unsure about the line, err on the side of less sharing.

#10. Work on your own emotional regulation. This one is more abstract and harder to define, but many student complaints are provoked by instructor anger, impatience, intolerance or emotional fragility. Students bring to the class a plethora of dynamics, experiences and traumas that we can neither predict nor control. That makes it more imperative than ever that we establish ourselves as calm and trustworthy leaders. Establishing a culture of emotional safety is vital to effective classroom management, and that really does start with the teacher.

If I were to categorize the totality of student complaints I have heard and mediated over the years, I would estimate that nearly 90 percent are due to something other than the professor’s efficacy: the student misunderstood typical workload expectations, for example, or had biases that are manifesting as complaints. (“Accent discrimination,” for example, is a real thing.) For the remaining 10 percent of valid complaints, I believe 90 percent could have been prevented by following the 10 tips I’ve listed.

Source: The 10 best ways to avoid student complaints about classwork (opinion)

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