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3 Ways To Avoid College Student Problems Before They Occur

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There are numerous articles on the internet that address this issue, and some are better than others. The tips I am about to share with you are strategies that have worked for me, and I hope they’ll work for you as well. I’ve found that most student-related-problems fall into two broad categories: 1) behavioral problems and 2) academic performance. Most of the behavioral problems can be mitigated before they even start in your classroom. How?

I’m glad you asked! In a nutshell, “Nip it in the bud!” Take action from the very beginning, and address potential areas of concern before they even occur.

Here are 3 ways to do just that!

1. Set Expectations

It begins on the very first day of class.  Layout your expectations (behavioral and academic) and all of your rules for your class on the first day.  You can’t expect students to behave in a certain manner that is acceptable to you unless you tell them what you expect of them.  So, how do you tell them?  First, clearly document these expectations in your syllabus, and go over them with your students on day one. Provide a copy of the syllabus to all your students on the first day of class, and take your time going over every detail of the syllabus with particular emphasis on your expectations.

What kind of expectations should you go over?  That depends on what is important to you and what is appropriate for the school where you teach. This will vary among community colleges, private schools, and large universities. There are a lot of other factors that will determine what you should include in your syllabus such as:

  • classroom size
  • classroom style
  • course requirements
  • student demographics
  • subject taught

Ask yourself what behaviors do you expect from students and what will you not tolerate? For example, some of the things that I expect from my students are:

  • absolute punctuality
  • preparedness
  • proper communication
  • demonstration of respect and courtesy towards everyone in the class
  • strict adherence to my instructions

Because of my student population and the discipline I teach, I also have a dress code expectation in my syllabus.

In addition to the behavioral expectations, I also include academic performance expectations so that students know and understand that they are expected to perform in my class. I don’t allow students to cruise in my classes. I make it clear that they are either there to learn and participate, or they are invited to find another course that is more suited to their pace and expectations. I have high expectations of my students because I care about them and want them to be the best.

I have also found that when you set high expectations for students and hold them accountable, students will rise up to the challenge and perform superbly if they are dedicated.  If your standards are too low, too vague, or have no measure of accountability, you’ll start to notice a lot of inconsistency in student behavior and performance. You will eventually find yourself dealing with more student problems than you want. So, use your syllabus as a contract between you and your students. Be sure to include anything that is important or relevant to you, such as communication protocols, deadlines, when and how to ask for help, how to requests special accommodations for students with certain disabilities, etc…

When communicating your expectations on the first day of class, your demeanor needs to convey your seriousness about your expectations and the consequences. Students will take their cue from you. If you look like you care and are serious about a particular expectation, so will they.

Besides documenting my expectations and going over them with students on the first day, I also test my students on the content of the syllabus.  Yes, I have a Syllabus Quiz, which students take on our second class meeting. It’s worth 5% of their grade.

2. Accountability

Expectations and rules are worthless if they do not have any consequences and/or if you do not implement them consistently and fairly among all students. I repeat; implement them consistently and fairly among all students whether they are “C” students or “A” students. Do not make allowances based on academic merit and/or personality and let things “slide” just because a particular student happens to be considered a “good” student.  Favoritism will damage your credibility in the eyes of the students and will land you in trouble. Don’t do it!

So how do you hold people accountable?  Well, that’s a topic for another article, but in short, your syllabus needs to clearly explain what will happen (consequences) if students fall short, violate, or fail to meet your expectations.  The consequences listed on my syllabus vary depending on the infraction, but here are some examples:

  1. Loss of 10 points (1%) for being late up to 5 minutes. (Students are marked as tardy if they walk in 1 second and up to 5 minutes after the official class start time.)
  2. Dismissal for tardiness beyond 5 minutes. I do not permit students to enter the class if they arrive to class 5 minutes after the class start time. I politely ask them to return to the next class meeting and mark them as absent.
  3. Unexcused absences or dismissal for tardiness beyond 5 minutes results in a loss of 20 points (2%).
  4. Any three of the above infractions (tardiness or unexcused absence) render the student eligible to be dropped from the class or receive a failing grade for the course.
  5. Demonstrating inappropriate behavior, being disrespectful, or cheating typically results in a student being removed from class for the day, being reported to the Director of Student Life, and/or receiving a failing grade. It depends on the infraction. This is a bit more detailed in my syllabus. (Check your school’s policy in dealing with these types of situations.)

As a program coordinator and former department chair, I’ve found that many student problems occur because the faculty :

  • did not provide clear expectations in the syllabus.
  • provided expectations without consequences.
  • tried to create consequences “on-the-spot” that were not documented in the syllabus.
  • listed consequences, but failed to hold students accountable until the situation became unmanageable.
  • listed consequences, but were selective and inconsistent in the implementation.

Tell students what you want them to do. Let them know how they are going to be held accountable, and then do it!  I meet so many faculty who are afraid of holding students accountable. The faculty are afraid of confrontation, afraid of not being popular and receiving poor student evaluations, afraid of not getting tenure, afraid of not being asked to come back and teach (in the case of adjunct faculty). If you’re always afraid, and fear dictates how you operate, perhaps you ought to be thinking of another career because students, your colleagues, and your superiors will walk all over you.  Being a professor is a highly respected and noble vocation, treat it with the respect and dignity (not fear) that it deserves.

“If you don’t stand for something, you fall for anything.” —Malcolm X

Holding people accountable isn’t about being mean and punishing students if they do not follow your instructions. Instead, it’s about teaching students to be responsible adults and equipping some of them with the soft-skills that so many of them are missing today and employers are demanding of them. We, college faculty, are preparing students for the professional world and unfortunately, while our curriculum isn’t designed to integrate soft-skills, your syllabus can.

3. Walk The Talk

Lead by example. There’s nothing worse than a professor who preaches and expects one thing from students and does the opposite.  I was at a conference, and we were asked to form small work-groups to discuss some of the challenges that faculty experience.  One of the faculty at my table was a Registered Dietician who held workshops for parents to teach them how to make healthier meal choices for their children to address the issue of child obesity. This faculty stated that it was very difficult to get parents to listen to her advice and have them buy and feed their kids healthier meals.  This Registered Dietician was regrettably obese herself and just happened to be eating a glazed bear claw while she was sharing this story with us.  The scene was awkward and sad.

Of course, no parent wanted to listen to her and take her advice. Why would they? She obviously wasn’t practicing what she preached, and if she was, it evidently wasn’t working.  She had no credibility because she didn’t walk the talk.

If you expect students to be punctual, then you better arrive to class early and start on time!  If you expect them to be respectful and not use profanity, then you need to lead by example both in and out of class.

Since I run a Hospitality Management program, I expect students to practice hospitality-industry standards and work ethics in my classroom. That means being punctual, arriving prepared, observing industry grooming standards, and demonstrating respect and courtesy.  Now, I can only expect that from my students if I am able to demonstrate those behaviors all the time.  It can’t be an occasional or random act on my part.  It needs to be consistent and deliberate!

Arrive super early to school, get your class ready (if necessary), and make sure that you’ve already prepped for your class(es) before you even get to school. You should never feel rushed to get to school or anxious about not being prepared. If you plan your day properly and in advance, things just fall into place. It also makes it much easier for you to focus on what is important rather than tying up loose ends and putting out fires.

Here’s my prepping routine:

  • Course Materials: I typically have course materials and handouts ready a day or two before I need them. I also make sure that I have a backup plan in case things go wrong. In the event that my printed materials aren’t ready the day I need it from the print-shop, I’ll usually have an alternative emergency location to print materials or have an alternative activity for students to do in class. In other words, I have a plan and a backup plan.
  • Clothes: Have your clothes or uniform (if applicable) ready and laid out the night before at the very latest.  Automate this process so that you are not scrambling to find clean clothes, looking for that missing sock, or trying to figure out what you should wear the next day.  I have all of my clothes for the following day ready and pressed before I go to bed.  I usually iron my shirt at 8 PM while listening to a podcast or audiobook. It makes ironing fun.
  • Getting to School: I’ve taught at different times of the day, so I know that your commute time and parking situation will vary based on your schedule.  Some schedules will allow you to take your time when getting to work and others will require you to head out very early.  I’ve made it my habit to always leave home early, and plan to be on campus at least one full hour before my first class begins. In the event there’s some traffic or accident on the road, I still won’t be late. Sometimes I am on campus a couple of hours before class, either way, I never arrive just a few minutes before class begins.  That is a recipe for disaster!  Give yourself ample time. Remember that Murphy lives on campus and hangs-out with unprepared people.
  • Class Readiness: Arriving early gives me the opportunity to review my plan for the day and check to make sure that my class and the technology in my classroom are ready for me.  Arriving early also allows me to have a pot of hot coffee and hot water for tea ready for my students. Yes, I make my students a fresh pot of coffee every morning. When you’re teaching an accounting class at 8 AM, sometimes the students need all the help they can get to stay alert and engaged.  A free boost of caffeine goes a long way, and my students certainly appreciate it.  Besides, I’m a Hospitality Professor. 🙂

When you practice what you preach, you automatically establish a reputation for professional integrity.  Your students and your colleagues will respect you for it and come to appreciate it.

So, to recap, the three things that you can do to mitigate student problems are:

  1. Set Expectations
  2. Implement Accountability Measures
  3. Walk the Talk

Well, I hope you found this post useful. If you did, I’d be grateful if you’d help spread the word by sharing this with friends or colleagues on LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, or any other social media platform you use. Thank you!

Dr. Fawaz Al-Malood

Dr. Fawaz Al-Malood is a college administrator, author, blogger, YouTuber, and podcaster. He holds a doctorate in education management from the University of South Africa, a MBA from Western Governors University, a MS in Management and Leadership from Western Governors University, a bachelors in Hotel, Restaurant, and Tourism Administration, and a Swiss Diploma in Hotel Management from the Hotel Institute Montreux. He is the Founder of a blog dedicated to sharing successful strategies on: teaching, productivity, and professional development for college educators.