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Tips And Tricks For “Problem Students”

I popped into the friendly forums at eslHQ and found some useful hints, tips and tricks for dealing with “problem students” of all kinds. Here are my top four problematic student situations and how I have dealt with them. Can you add anything?

First I should say that I believe classroom “problems” don’t happen in a vacuum. It’s not as if there is only one possible solution for each for each problem that comes from exactly one source (you, the teacher). A class of adult learners is much like any group of people, and while as the teacher I am in a position to set the tone for the class, the six, eight, or twelve others in the room bear some responsibility for the dynamic too. Beyond that, students do in fact exist outside my classroom (at least I think they do), and have several years of education prior to it. I think it’s important to realize that plenty of these problems are not going to be solved by, say, better concept-check questions or a different seating arrangement. Still, you do what you can, and with that in mind:

The student who talks too much

This is the student who jumps in when you call on others, or just takes more than a reasonable share of the speaking time.

Why?

It may happen because you “let it” – by not “controlling” the class enough – but it can be hard to reconcile this with the goal of being student-centered. I think some people just like to talk a lot, or are just enthusiastic about speaking English, and are not inclined to put themselves in the shoes of others who may also need practice speaking.

What to do?

When I notice this happening, I ask myself whether I’m incorporating enough pairwork, and alternating partners often enough. I might speak directly to the student to commend his or her enthusiasm and enlist their help to get other students speaking…but sometimes it’s better just to make a joke of it. “Bob, I didn’t recognize you with your new haircut!” I might say to talkative Admira, if I call on Bob and Admira answers. If Admira is interrupting Bob mid-sentence, it may be effective to just keep your attention on Bob’s answer. This will only work, however, if Bob keeps talking, and not if he stops and defers to Admira.

The weak student

A student who frequently lags behind or just doesn’t get it can be a problem, first for him- or herself. This person often feels bad when they notice they are behind, and this affects their confidence even more. Other learners can be affected if you alter the pace of the course to adapt to one student who is not up to the level.

Once you are sure that the problem is not just shyness or a certain grammar point which they go blank on, my opinion is that the first step is to try to get the student in the right level. If you’re in a setting where the student has been placed in your class because they paid for and attended the previous level, even though they aren’t ready for the current level, this can be hard to address. Or there may not be an appropriate class this term. An ELT Notebook had some detailed advice on adapting tasks to mixed-ability learners. Also see my take on the larger picture of mixed-ability groups.

A few short and sweet tips of my own would be: make an effort to pay attention to that student – who they work well with in pairs, for example. On a common sense, personal level, I think that it’s important not to single out that student as the weak one too much. Adapt as you can, try not to put him or her on the spot if s/he is totally lost, but also keep in mind that a wrong answer is just that and not something to be ashamed of. Especially in a for-profit school, I think it’s fair to raise the issue with the student privately, though it also depends on if something can be done about it. In ideal situations, the person would want to be in the correct level, or if that’s not possible, to work a little more at home to catch up as much as they can, but in practice there are many reasons why this doesn’t work out.

To be continued…(but feel free to add on any of your own tips)