Difficult conversations are inevitable when you are teaching a course. It might be an in-class critique, or a student that isn’t doing well. As an instructor, I always want my students to succeed. Conversations that address weaknesses in work or participation can be tricky to have. The issues must be addressed, but in a way that can create a positive transformation in the student. There will be some students that are open to discussion and change. Others won’t be. You’ll need to have different approaches with how to deliver the message, but here are some strategies for having difficult conversations:
- Failing grades: Sometimes, students do not review their grades. This happens a lot with online platforms like Blackboard and Moodle. If your school doesn’t record grades online, the student may not have kept records of their own. Regardless, it is best to address failing grades as soon as possible. I like to email the student so that it is in writing, as well as pull them aside after class. Being brief, yet in formative is key. For example: “I wanted to make you aware that you are currently failing. You may want to consider withdrawing before it affects your GPA.” Keeping this conversation brief sets the tone that the grade is not up for negotiation. They should take action on withdrawing or improving their performance.
- Participation and attendance: This tends to be a difficult category for me! Every school I’ve taught at has had extremely different policies regarding attendance and participation. Some schools require attendance and participation to be calculated into their final grade. Others don’t. No matter what the policy, late arrivals are disruptive to the class. I try to pull the student aside after class and ask them what is going on. If they are coming right from work or another class, I ask them to be mindful while entering. If it is another issue, I stress the importance of arriving on time. It disrupts the other students as well as adversely affecting their own performance.
- Language barriers: Exchange students are always some of my best performing students. They put in a lot of extra effort, and bring a new perspective to the classroom. However, sometimes their written assignments are less than satisfactory. I always make myself available to these students to correct and explain spelling and grammar. If these students really need extra help, I suggest that they take advantage of the writing center and tutoring.
- “Negotiators”: It is best to be as clear as possible with this type of student. Grade are earned, and not given arbitrarily. A student might ask for a higher grade by saying “I will lose my scholarship if I don’t get an A” or “I can’t fail this class, can I just have the lowest passing grade?”. Be firm with them. Explain that you will calculate the grade based on the work that they have given you.
It is also helpful to observe consult with other instructors’ and observe their classes if possible.