Six Ways to Reduce Student Complaints

Navigating student complaints can be uncomfortable and challenging at times. Emotions can run high, and it can be stressful. In my experience, the complaints are often due to misunderstandings, miscommunications, or mismatching of expectations. Early in my PA teaching days, I made a comment to a student in the physical exam lab. Honestly, I can't remember what it was, but that isn't important. What does matter is that I learned from one of this student's classmates that she was really upset and angry. I had no idea. My intention was certainly not that. Apparently, the student perseverated on it all weekend. I, of course, did not because I was unaware until Monday. When I found out, I was shocked that the student had taken my comment so hard. Rather than waiting to see if the student would come and talk with me, I sought her out and met with her. She was still angry and didn't really want to meet. I shared that I learned she was very upset by what I said. I apologized, letting her know the nature of my comment was meant to be supportive, but clearly it wasn't. I saw her whole body relax. 

If I had not taken the time to do that, my relationship with that student would likely have been damaged for the rest of her education. It may also have resulted in a complaint to the program director or shown up in a program evaluation. Additionally, her experience could have influenced other students to be fearful or not trusting of me. Our relationship with students, just like with patients, must be built on trust and honest communication. 

I read a recent article written by Jennie Young, a professor and associate dean at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, who presented her thoughts about ways to avoid student complaints. Many of her suggestions lean toward communication. I present a summary of some of them here, mixed with my thoughts based on my years working with PA students. 

  1. Be responsive and mindful.

I think the opening story demonstrates the importance of being responsive and mindful. However, being responsive also means communicating, connecting, or responding to students' inquiries, questions, or concerns in a reasonable time frame. This means we have to do our part to effectively manage our time, including e-mails, so we can address something with a student if needed. It also means we must have clearly communicated boundaries, which we will discuss shortly. I can almost guarantee that ignoring it will not make it go away. It is also essential to respond promptly when a complaint does arise. 

Being mindful refers to keeping a finger on the pulse of the students as a class but also as individuals. This requires being attentive when the mood or demeanor of the class suddenly shifts after something you or a student say. If you feel and see that shift, quickly decide whether or not you need to be responsive by inquiring what just happened or why. It can also happen when the students get frustrated because they don't understand something. You can also notice this with individual students. It's amazing how much we can see from the front of the room. Be responsive if you see a student getting frustrated, falling asleep or eye-rolling. Talk privately with the student after class and tell them what you noticed or that you are concerned about them. Once the students, both individually and as a cohort, know you are tuned into them, you care and you are going to be responsive, they feel safer, and you build a trusting relationship. Carl Rogers, a clinical psychologist in the 1970s, described three crucial qualities of an effective teacher: respect, empathy, and genuineness. I believe these are still important today. 

  1. Don't yell at, fight with, or publically call students out

One of my favorite sayings when talking with faculty is that students will never cease to amaze you positively or negatively. They will make your heart break open with pride and awe and frustrate and shock you. Although we all may be adults, as teachers, we need to stay the adults in the room. This means not yelling at or verbally fighting with a student, even if the student is. This also includes not calling them out in front of their peers, even in jest. I am sure you have noticed that students are much more emotionally sensitive and don't respond well to being called on or singled out when they don't volunteer. 

  1. When you make a mistake, don't make excuses. Own it and apologize.

I'm not sure I need to say much else here. No one is perfect. Perfection is an illusion. We all make mistakes, but it is how we react and respond to making a mistake that leaves a lasting impression. 

  1. Be transparent about your course requirements, expectations, and grading practices.

Students don't like changes, which is why the course syllabus should be completed by the first day of class. The syllabus should clearly describe, in detail, the requirements, expectations, and grading for the course. Confusion or misunderstanding related to grading is probably one of the more common issues that cause student complaints. It is worth the little extra time to ensure everyone understands the grading components of the course. This includes all the specifics about assignments, projects, and other subjective-based grading components. It is best to avoid making changes to course requirements and assessments once the class has started. If you must adjust something, be sure to talk with students about it, let them know the rationale behind the needed change, and, where possible, have them weigh in or give them a voice in the final decision. For example, deciding to move an exam date or change a component of an assignment. 

  1. Establish clear boundaries and don't overshare.

This one probably should be number one because of the importance of having clear boundaries, effectively communicating them to students, and directly addressing when students cross them, which is essential to minimizing misunderstandings, miscommunications,, and mismatching expectations. You should have a clear boundary between you and the students. You are in a position of power because you will be evaluating and grading them. Therefore, it is important that you treat all students equally and remain as objective as possible. Even though they are adults, they are not your friends, peers, or colleagues. They are your students. For example, determine your boundaries about your availability, when you will respond to e-mails, whether you will give them your personal cell phone number and allow them to text you (not recommended), when your office hours are, etc. Although teaching is not a 9-5 job, it doesn't mean you must interact or respond to students outside of usual business hours. Be mindful not to overshare personal things. Only share appropriate things that you are comfortable sharing with the entire class. Refrain from sharing personal information only with some students but not others. Students are very sensitive to real or perceived favoritism. 

  1. Self-check and self-reflect

Who we are and how we are as teachers directly impact students. They are very aware and sensitive to your mood, tone, and attitude. If you come into the room frustrated, irritated, and angry, students will pick that up and think it is because of them, or they will shut down because they feel uncomfortable in the presence of anger. The truth is we are all human, and sometimes, it is hard to leave it at the door. In those times, it is essential that you recognize you are on edge before interacting with the students and also consider telling the students. When I found myself in this situation, I would tell the students I was a little crunchy today, so if I don't seem myself, that is why. I also make sure they know it is not because of them. I have found that when I do this, students get it, and there aren't any misunderstandings. 

These days, navigating students can be challenging. They can react strongly when there is a mismatch of expectations, a miscommunication, or a perceived or real inconsistency. If such a situation occurs, they are quick to complain. However, we can actually help mitigate complaints by engaging in some of the suggestions provided here and hopefully role-model healthy ways to address misunderstandings, emotional upset, or conflict. 


Facing a Student Complaint. (2009). Inside Higher Ed.

Kelly, R. (2015). Managing student complaints. Faculty Focus.      

Rogers, C.R., & Jerome, F. H. (1994). A Freedom to Learn. (3rd ed.). Merrill/Macmillian Publishing

Young, J. (2024). Top 10 ways to avoid student complaints. Inside Higher Ed.   complaints-about-classwork-opinion?utm_source=Inside+Higher+Ed&utm_campaign= 43fd418b69-Career_Advice_Newsletter_COPY_02&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_-3cb14c2130-%5BLIST_EMAIL_ID%5D&mc_cid=43fd418b69&mc_eid=aaa7ff2fdf


50% Complete

Thanks for signing up!

 Watch for the newsletter in your e-mail.