College Quarterly
Fall 1996 - Volume 4 Number 1

Dealing With Challenging Instructional Situations.

by Clayton R. Wright

Every instructor encounters people and situations which test his or her patience, ingenuity, and self control. Argumentative students may interrupt you in class and others may show no response to your best efforts. When you face challenging situations, it is best to deal with them directly and quickly. Learners will be looking to you to resolve the situation. If you handle the situation with confidence and refrain from embarrassing anyone, your students will gain a greater respect for you. If you fail, there is always tomorrow. You can learn from a difficult situation and be better prepared if it occurs again.

The following table suggests ways to respond to some difficult instructional situations that involve adult learners. Remember, it is your tone of voice and body stance that will make the statement in the right column effective and credible.

Situation Possible Questions and Responses
Requesting input
  • Use open-ended questions. To start a discussion, ask what happened; then ask, "What should have occurred? What appears to be the real problem?"
  • It is not necessary for you to respond verbally to every input, but you should acknowledge a student's response by eye contact, head nodding, or other acceptable gestures. Of course, you should comment from time to time in order to encourage further input. You could say: "Good/Great/Super/ Excellent/That's a wonderful idea/Thanks." You may also say "That's interesting. I've never thought of that." Or "What a creative solution. Let's apply it to our problem."
Clarifying input
  • "Could you be more specific?"
  • "Can you provide an example?"
  • "What do you mean by ... ?"
Overly detailed answers
  • "You provided a lot of information in your answer. Could you summarize your answer/provide a one sentence summary?" Or, you could summarize the answer yourself.
One-word answers
  • "Could you explain your answer further?"
  • "Can you provide an example?"
Puzzled students
  • Perhaps the students have glazed eyes or bewildered looks. You may have not provided adequate background material, they may lack understanding of the prerequisites, or the material is not relevant to them.
  • You should try to remember when students started to look puzzled and review the information or ask the students to summarize what has been accomplished to date. Reviewing will not be a problem if you broke your instruction into 10 to 20 minute segments. Find examples that are meaningful to your students.
Silent students
  • Check that you have provided a warm and supportive training environment that encourages students to participate. Did you use a variety of instructional techniques that are appropriate for different learning styles?
  • Ask silent participants questions that you know they can answer. Build up their self-esteem. For example, you could say:
  • "Jos?, you seem rather thoughtful. What do you think about what has been said today?"
  • "Susan, we know you have experience in.... What can you contribute from this experience?"
  • "Mohammad, could you summarize the comments just made by Elana?"
  • "I haven't heard opinions from the left/centre/right/ back/front of the room lately. What would you like to contribute?"
  • "I perceive that you don't agree with the proceedings. If I am right, can you tell us what's troubling you?"
Polite group of students
  • Students may not want to contribute because of their cultural upbringing. Do not confuse silence with the lack of knowledge or skill capability. They may not want to take a risk by speaking up. Ask students to form small groups to discuss a topic of their choosing or one you selected. Ask the groups to report their findings.
  • Students could be asked to write their ideas on cards. The cards could be collected and reviewed by the instructor.
Dominating students
  • "Dave, let me summarize your important ideas. Then I would like others such as Diane and Tim to add to your suggestions."
  • Consider limiting the time each student can speak at one time. Perhaps two minutes would be sufficient. A different student could be assigned to monitor speaking time for each presentation.
  • "Thanks for your contribution, Allen. Now, can I hear from others?"
  • Record all ideas presented on a chalkboard, or flipchart. Consequently, everyone's contribution will be seen as important.
Negative students
  • Ignore the negativism. There is almost always something positive in their responses. Highlight the positive.
Inarticulate students
  • "Let me repeat what you said.... Did I summarize your ideas correctly?"
  • If a student has difficulty in completing a sentence, be patient; do not complete the sentence for him or her.
Students who resist or challenge an idea or concept
  • Get your students to voice their real concerns; otherwise, they may sabotage your entire instructional session. Once their concerns are out in the open, you can deal with them. Don't loose your temper. In a neutral non-threatening manner you could say:
  • "I feel that you are resisting me because ... Am I correct in my thinking?"
  • "Something appears to be disturbing you. Could you tell me what it is or write it down?"
  • "I am not sure that I understand what you are trying to say. Perhaps if you address your concern to your colleagues, they will be able to respond to your concerns."
  • If the above questions are ineffective, ask to meet with the student during a break or after class. You may find that they are being difficult because they would have preferred to take another course or perhaps their employer told them to attend.
Conflicting students
  • Discourage one-on-one confrontations. Ask conflicting students to address all students. Do not allow students to make personal attacks.
  • "Both of you have good ideas. Now I would like others to express their opinions on the same topic."
  • "Can we agree that we have at least two opposing points of view? Let's move on to the next topic."
Students who present inaccurate information
  • "That's one way of looking at it. Are there any other points of view?"
  • "Can you support that statement with facts or examples?"
  • "What information do others have about this situation?"
Drifting away from the teaching/learning agenda
  • "I feel that we are not discussing what we came here to discuss. Do you feel the same way?"
  • "We've aired a lot of feelings. Now let's discuss some facts."
  • "That's a good question/comment. Can we address it later after we have completed this topic?"
  • "I would like to test this idea with you." (State an idea you have thought of or an idea mentioned previously).
  • "Is it time to take a break?" When we return, we will need to address...."
  • "Would everyone take a few minutes to consider.... Write down your thoughts, and then we will share our ideas."
Encouraging different points of view
  • "We have only discussed one or two points of view. Are there any other viewpoints that should be considered?"
  • "What about the view that...?"
  • "Remember what Tom said earlier? Is his suggestion applicable here?"
Summarizing and bridging
  • Before moving on to a new topic, summarize what has been accomplished to date, then link the old material to the new material.
  • "Can someone summarize what we have done?"
  • "Let's check our progress."
  • "Is there anything we haven't covered before we move on?"
  • "Before we discuss the next topic, can we list the pros and cons of what has been covered up to this point?"
  • "How do you think we are doing? Are we making progress?"
Comparison with previous instructors
  • Students constantly compare your style to others. Grin and bear it. When they get to know you and you demonstrate your competence, the comparison will cease. Remember that you cannot be all things to all people.
Students who grumble about the training session in the hallway
  • Without embarrassing anyone, ask the entire class if they would like to alter portions of the instructional program. If you ask them to write their suggestions on a piece of paper, students can respond anonymously. Note, however, that in many certification type courses, you may not be able to change the content but you should be able to change the delivery. If you ask students for their feedback, do act upon the feedback. Do acknowledge their concerns.
Evening classes
  • Evening classes are always a challenge. Following a full day of work, for many learners, it can be a challenge for them to keep focussed. It is important to be enthusiastic and present practical information in a variety of ways. Many learners may have more experience than you do; what they may lack is the paper credential. Give them the opportunity to use their experience in class and to address questions raised by others.
Students who show high test anxiety
  • Did you prepare your students for the test? Did you review the format and types of questions on the test? Were students given the opportunity to practice their skills? There will always be some level of test anxiety. However, you can prepare the students for the test and demonstrate that you have confidence in their abilities to succeed. Indicate that you will give marks for effort.

You may find yourself in a situation in which a simple response will not be sufficient. A conflict has developed and you must intervene. The following suggestions may be helpful.

Intervention: At times, it may become necessary for an instructor to intervene in a group discussion or activity. Before you do, consider the following questions:

  • Will your intervention make the activity more effective or efficient?
  • Will your intervention be a help or a hindrance?
  • If you have intervened recently, will this next intervention be considered an interruption?
  • How will students react if you intervene? Are you prepared for their reaction?
  • Are the students displaying any verbal or nonverbal behaviours that indicate they want you to intervene?
  • Is your intervention necessary? Will the conflict be short-lived?

Resolving conflict: Conflict is a normal part of life. However, it does not have to be destructive. When it exposes new ideas and/or creates understanding, conflict can have positive results. To resolve conflicts effectively, you should:

  • acknowledge the right of individuals to have strong feelings and opinions about certain topics;
  • identify the real issue; be specific;
  • maintain a positive and constructive tone and manner;
  • seek points of agreement;
  • avoid laying blame;
  • accept responsibility for allowing this situation to occur;
  • set a time to resolve the conflict;
  • focus on the present and future; minimize the time spent on the past.

Following the resolution of highly emotional conflicts, it may be necessary for everyone to take a break or for you to make a radical change in instructional activities. Consider assigning a small-group activity that requires students to focus on a less controversial topic.

The above suggestions may help you be a more effective instructor. If you have other suggestions, just add them to the list and share them with your colleagues.

Clayton R. Wright is the Coordinator of Instructional Media and Design at Grant MacEwan Community College in Edmonton, Alberta. He would like to add your suggestions to the above list, so please contact him via e-mail at


• The views expressed by the authors are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of The College Quarterly or of Seneca College.
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1996 - The College Quarterly, Seneca College of Applied Arts and Technology