One Size Fits All

When you face crocodile tears or red-faced anger from students frustrated with their grades, stay calm and stick with your standards, writes Rob Weir.

May 3, 2010

It’s crunch time, folks. As the end of the academic year approaches our offices are like Midtown Manhattan at rush hour; endless streams of students file through looking for that last-minute edge to push them to the crest of whatever precipice they’ve deemed essential to ascend. Try not to be cynical. You’ll see your share of brown-nosers trying to saddle a gift horse, and panicked slackers trying to overcome a semester’s worth of sloth with a two-week sprint to the finish. In my experience, though, most students actually want to earn the grade they’re seeking. There are, however, two types of students that can be very troubling if you don’t have much experience dealing with them: the weepers and the screamers.

When students cry, it’s important to appear sympathetic without giving in. If you’ve laid out grading criteria in your syllabus and the distraught student before you simply cannot attain whatever goal he or she has identified, do not pretend that it’s possible to do so. If you even hint that there’s salvation, a desperate student will take that as a promise. If the situation is futile and the student is going to fail your course (or get a G.P.A.-ruining grade), some times the kindest thing you can do is administer a mercy killing. Eventually.

Do not conduct important business with weeping students when they are upset. This doesn’t mean you toss them out of your office per se, but that is the short term goal. You should acknowledge their pain — it’s not a bad idea to have facial tissues on your desk at the end of the year — and do your best to help students regain composure. Insist, however, that you will not discuss any matters of importance until students are tapped into their logical sides. You don’t have to pretend to be Dr. PhiI; just say something such as “Look, you’re pretty upset right now and anything we discuss has a good chance of getting jumbled. Why don’t you take a walk, get yourself together, and come back to see me?” If possible, I schedule an appointment a day or two later; the cliché holds true: sleeping on a problem allows it to be seen in a new light. I’ve often had students return after an outburst having already figured out what they need to do next.

When students return in a calmer state it’s a good idea for you to set the discussion mood. You might wish to lower expectations by reminding students that you know that there’s a huge difference between the best one is capable of doing and the best one can do at a given moment in time. I tell a personal story — I got my only undergraduate D in a semester in which I had to undergo an emergency appendectomy over midterm and broke my writing hand two days before finals began. What you want to convey is that the world will not end because of a poor grade. I sometimes drag out inspirational tales of former students who overcame setbacks.

In 1969 Elizabeth Kübler-Ross articulated the now-classic five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Don’t be surprised if the first two unfurl at lightning speed. When it dawns on a student that the die is cast, it’s common for a student to accuse a professor of being mean-spirited and “unfair,” the latter the undergrad equivalent of being called a war criminal. You must be resolute as these emotions pour out. I try to listen a lot and say very little until the discharge is complete. At some point, though, I interject and insist, “No, I’m being radically fair. I hold everyone to exactly the same standards. It would be unfair for me to have a different standard for you.

Standards need to be mentioned because the danger point comes next. You can bet the farm that some students will come armed with reasons why their particular case is unique to Western society. Surely you can make an exception — perhaps some extra credit, or extra time to complete assignments…. Let me reiterate something I said in a previous column: do not grant any exceptions or extra credit unless you are prepared to extend those offers to every student. The skull-littered road to deans’ offices and review boards is paved with the remains of well-intentioned professors who fell for a sob story and gave one student opportunities not available to others. Stand your ground; just say no. It’s possible more tears will ensue after this, but they’re likely to be short-lived. Where you can really show your humanity is in moving the student to acceptance. Ready some advice on how students can move on. Show them, for example, how little a C- or D factors into an overall GPA based on 128 credits. Remind them that a failed course comes off the transcript if a course is repeated (if that’s the case at your college). Is there an online course the student can take to get the needed credits? Can they repeat the course as an independent study? Try to leave students with legitimate hopes, not the vain ones that induced the first crocodile tears. It bears repeating: Never allow tears to cloud your judgment or tempt you to set aside sound professional practice.

It’s more rare, but you might encounter an angry individual who seeks to intimidate you. Much as it pains me to type this, female professors seem to get more of them than male professors. (It has to be a gender issue; I’m all of 5’5” so my physical presence isn’t likely to deter bullies, yet I rarely encounter them.) Do not engage an angry student. If the student is red-faced with fury, you should adamantly refuse to discuss any issue at all until he (rarely she!) is under control. If the student tosses allegations about you or assails your character, a tried-and-true retort is a calm, “You are very angry right now. Imagine how you’d feel if I said these things about you. Let’s discuss these issues after we both calm down a bit.” If the student persists, you should insist that he leave your office; if he does not, you should walk to your door toward the security of the hallway where other faculty can intervene (or call campus security, if necessary).

If the student leaves quietly, pick up the thread in your next visit. To be on the safe side, though, when the student returns, leave your office door open when you meet. (You might also wish to schedule an appointment at a time when there will be other faculty on the hall.) My own experience has been that nearly every angry student turns repentant. I had one recently who e-mailed me a half hour later and called himself “an immature jerk” for behaving as he had. In such cases, the magnanimous course is to accept the apology and get down to business. I make a point of telling a student who has so humbled himself that I too have done things of which I was ashamed and we should both pretend that the incident never happened.

You should, however, use your professional judgment to assess the seriousness of the student’s outburst. The media so saturates us with horror stories of student rampages that we’ve come to see as highly possible levels of violence whose odds are actually infinitesimal. Small isn’t the same as zero, though, and none of us wants to be the one who missed the warning sign. Threats are beyond the pale and should be reported. So too should any manifestation of anger that strikes you as beyond that which a well-balanced individual might express in a moment of stress. Make others aware of the incident. I generally do several things. I first call my university counseling services and inquire if the student is under care. (They can affirm or deny this without violating rules.) I also let the appropriate chair or program coordinator know of the incident and seek advice. On a few occasions I have contacted the appropriate class and college deans.

I am happy (lucky?) to report that in 32 years of teaching, I’ve only had three students who actually were mentally unstable and all three were a danger only to themselves. Most of what we get is garden variety frustration, with the occasional games-player thrown into the mix. How do we deal with them? The same way you deal with the weepers, which is the same way you should negotiate with all students. There aren’t too many cases in which a one-size-fits-all approach makes sense, but applying standards is one of them.

Further Reading:

  • University of Oregon suggestions.
  • Education World’s comments are designed for younger students, but there are useful resources listed.
  • Counseling Services at the University of Massachusetts Lowell has made its 20-page manual on dealing with upset students available online.
  • Kaplan University has student testimonials on how they overcame failures that might be useful to passing on some students.
  • The alumni magazine for Stonehill College has a feature story on how former students coped with academic disappointments.
  • A Chronicle of Higher Education piece on crying students.
  • Google Books has made sections of Bruce Sharkin’s 2006 book College Students in Distress available.


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