Navigating Challenging Student Behaviors

I don't know about you, but it seems to me that student conduct has become more challenging over the past decade. Certainly, the pandemic seems to have contributed to it, along with the undeniable evidence of how anxious and stressed students are these days. According to Jody Greene, associate campus provost for academic success at UC Santa Cruz, students' lack of preparedness for the social environment and norms of college life, increased use of social media as a main form of communication, and the national political divide are all potentially contributing factors to the rise of these challenging behaviors (McMurtrie, 2023). 

However, human decency, civility, politeness, and respect are still high on my list, although this sometimes doesn't seem to be the case with students. If you have been in education for at least ten or more years, you may have noticed that as higher education moved into learners as consumers, students became more demanding of what they wanted and expected. After all, they were paying for it (their rationale). I have cringed more than once, hearing a frustrated student say to a faculty member, "I'm paying your salary," as part of their reasoning as to why the teacher should change something. One of the worst comments I ever heard was when a student told my colleague she was tired of paying for him to learn how to teach. 

These days, what I observe is equally painful, and more and more faculty members struggle with navigating these situations. Inappropriate classroom behaviors and aggressive demands are occurring more frequently, especially around course or program policies, deadlines, and examination schedules. I suspect many of us have encountered the very angry and demanding student who is challenging an assignment deadline or examination date because they failed to meet it or feel they can't due to a lack of time management or preparation, and they want an extension or the exam moved. It seems as though there is the expectation that the problem is ours to solve by being more flexible and breaking our policy to accommodate them. Or there is the panicked student who comes to our office at the end of the day just as we are heading out, demanding help with an assignment that is due the next day, who then becomes rude and angry when we say we are done for the day and heading home. As alarming, disquieting, and uncomfortable as such encounters like these are, you are not alone. The rise of these kinds of issues is significant, and many faculty are struggling with how best to handle these situations (EAB, 2023; McMurtrie, 2023; Prothero, 2023).  

Part of the challenge seems related to flexibility. During the pandemic, faculty were required to loosen their policies and to be very flexible given the unprecedented situation that affected all of us. However, with the pandemic finally behind us, trying to return to and re-establish expectations and rigor required during in-person teaching has been met with student expectations that we continue to be as flexible as things were during the pandemic. That just doesn't make educational sense for many of us, given our curriculum and programs. 

However, it is important for us to be flexible because sometimes, for reasons outside student control, things get jammed up in the semester, so moving the exam a week later or giving them another week to work on their paper makes sense because it gives all students to best chance to be successful. But such decisions should not be made lightly, off-handedly, or without full consideration of the effect on learning. Doing so risks making things worse for everyone (McMurtrie, 2023). Being fair and equitable to all students must be taken into account. Making an exception for one student could lead to a flurry of other students wanting the same or an accusation of unfairness. One of the most important things I have learned over my years was from an academic attorney who stated that the worst thing we can do is go against our policies. Once we break our own rules, we stand on shaky ground. 

So when faced with such challenges or demands that require adjusting or going against your policies, give yourself some time and tell the student you will consider it and get back to them. Then, talk it through with others, like your co-director and other program faculty. Discuss and review the request to determine whether making or accommodating the change will create another issue in a different course, go against the syllabus or a program policy, or create a disadvantage or hardship for other students. Decisions like this should be made based on what is in your syllabus and what is best for all students, not just for the one or two who want the change. Of course, there are exceptions for extenuating life events that are outside a student's control. 

Many challenging behavioral dynamics seem to result from miscommunication or lack of transparency about expectations. We all know students don't like surprises. The first step in navigating and potentially mitigating these inappropriate behaviors or demands from students is to be exceptionally clear and consistent about course expectations and policies, including those about behaviors, course requirements, due dates, and examination dates. Information about whether late work will be accepted and any resulting actions that will happen if something is handed in late are important to include. Creating and providing information about the process to follow when a student wishes to request some change could also be helpful. For example, in one program where I worked, any change requests related to a course were presented to the class president, who then scheduled a meeting with the course director to propose the change. 

A well-written learning-centered syllabus including and explaining all aspects and expectations of the course, potential consequences, and the rationale behind your policies and course expectations can help mitigate unwanted behaviors. And since we know students don't read our syllabi, taking enough time at the start of the course to go through it fully. Sometimes, we state our rules and policies but don't offer the educational or professional rationale behind them. To the student, it just looks like rules. For example, holding hard deadlines is done intentionally to help them learn how to manage their time effectively. This will serve them in clinical practice by completing their charts or required documentation on time. Or sharing your e-mail response boundary with them and why. For example, let them know you won't respond to e-mails after 6 PM or before 8 AM because that is your time with your family, and include your time frame for responding, such as within 24 hours or by noon the next day on weekdays. Also, be sure to let them know you are happy to meet with them during working hours to discuss things and provide help and support. However, tell them the expectation is they will maintain a calm and professional demeanor; if they don't, the meeting will end and be rescheduled. It is important to let students know they have a voice, but they must use it appropriately and professionally. You can share the reason for this requirement with them because it will serve them when they are in practice and have to navigate conflict with a colleague or supervisor. I think you get the idea. 

Professionally or faculty, an additional problem arises when we stand our ground in such challenges. These students think nothing of appealing to everyone up the leadership chain, from the program director, to the dean and even to the provost. If these student appeals are supported by institutional leadership, and we are asked to adjust and go against our courses or policies, faculty morale goes down. I have seen this firsthand and watched faculty painfully choose not to stand their ground for fear of bad evaluations or potential risk to their employment. A case in point is what happened at NYU in October 2022 when a full professor with decades of successful teaching experience at various prestigious universities refused to pass students who had failed his course. Since his course was the gateway to medical school, it was a high-stakes course. Eighty-two of the 350 students he taught signed a petition against him and submitted it to institutional leadership. To the horror of most of the faculty at NYU and across the country, the institution sided with the students and fired the professor (Calarco, 2022; Saul, 2022). 

Therefore, it is essential to discuss, review, and ensure that the policies, expectations, and requirements within courses and at the program level are educationally, professionally, and legally sound. All faculty should know and apply them consistently. Too often, I have seen an issue arise because the faculty member made a quick decision without knowing or remembering the course or program policy. Clarity, transparency, and consistency are key to reducing inappropriate behaviors or demands from students. 

Here are some suggestions for helping to mitigate challenging student conduct.

  • Ensure your syllabus clearly and fully defines the course requirements, expectations, policies, and procedures.
  • Take adequate time to review the syllabus at the beginning of the course.
  • Refer students back to the syllabus to find an answer about the course or remind them your decision is consistent with what is in the syllabus
  • Know your course and program policies. Knowing the policies and expectations of the other courses within the semester or quarter is also helpful.
  • Consider having the institution's legal counsel review the program and course policies.
  • If a situation arises:
  • Don't make quick decisions. Talk to your colleagues or program leadership.
  • Will you be going against your policies and requirements?
  • Is the change fair and equitable for all students?
  • When meeting with a student or even in a class challenge, remind students of expected professional behavior and demeanor. If they become inappropriate, end the meeting and reschedule.


Calarco, J. (2022). The NYU chemistry students shouldn't have needed that petition. The New York Times. 

Educational Advisory Board [EAB]. (2023). Two new EAB surveys reveal troubling trends in student behavior. 

McMurtrie, B. (2023). Students crossing boundaries: Rudeness, disruptions, unrealistic demands. Where to draw the line? The Chronicle of Higher Education. 

Prothero, A. (2023). Student behavior isn't getting any better, survey shows. Education Week. 

Saul, L. (2022). At NYU, students were failing organic chemistry. Who was to blame? The New York Times.



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