Dealing with Entitled Students

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If you’ve taught in higher education, it’s happened to you. “You can’t give me a C in this class! I need to maintain a B average to stay on the team/keep my scholarship/lame excuse.” Often this student has done the minimum during the semester, and it may be the first time he or she has shown any interest in communicating with you.

Several of my clients or respondents on my website were upset about this very issue at the end of last semester. I sent a letter about the issue of entitled demanding students to a listserv for faculty development experts, and received many excellent (and often emotional) replies. I have incorporated their replies into this article.

Please be aware that some recommendations may not be appropriate for your department or your discipline – if you are going to do something that may be unusual, it’s best to check it out with your chair first.

Grad Students

Read the following section for professors. Most of it can be used by TA’s, except for the comments on course design and tenure. Even if you are not a TA, you may well find yourself teaching some day, so read on!

You are not alone in finding this kind of interaction upsetting, annoying or enraging. If your administration is not supportive, or if you have cause to believe that tenure and review depends too much on student evals of your teaching, you may feel some anxiety.

** Prevention

What can you do about this situation? The best answer is prevention, to the extent that this is possible. Prepare your students at the beginning of the semester.

Let them know that you are going to challenge them, in order to help them develop critical thinking and other higher order skills. At the beginning of the semester, supply the students with a grading scale that makes it explicit what they will have to do to earn A’s, B’s and so on.

Some professors have their students sign an agreement that says they have read and understood the grading scale. Furthermore, have a rubric for each assignment. It helps to have examples, without names, of the best work from previous semesters.

The more opportunities for feedback to the student about his or her performance during the semester, the less opportunity there will be for surprise. One professor gave interim cumulative grades after a few tests. Of course, more tests, quizzes or assignments mean more work for you.

Consider rewarding students for their improvement throughout the semester; i.e. putting less weight on their earlier efforts. This encourages students, as opposed to making them feel demoralized (and then taking their frustrations out on you in their evaluations.)

**Handling the Entitled Student

How to handle these entitled students when they appear complaining at the end of the semester? If you can, prepare yourself. If they set up an appointment, ask them what the purpose is. As one professor suggested, you are less likely to overreact if you are not caught by surprise.

One way to defuse the situation is to use active listening. Sympathizing with the student’s plight can decrease both your anger and the student’s. This does not mean, however, that you change your position.

First, check that there was no error in entering the grade. If you have a grading scale, this is a great time to take it out and ask where the student felt that their grade exceeded your grade. If they persist despite the evidence that the grade they received was deserved, you can point out that they are in fact asking you to lie.

Of course, some students have been trained by their parents and/or earlier teachers to expect that you don’t need to earn grades. They have become “professional complainers,” and try this technique out whenever they can. When you realize that these types of students exist, you won’t take it personally.

I hope that your administration is supportive, and doesn’t place undue emphasis on student evaluations in tenure and review, without considering other sources of information about your teaching. There should be general agreement in your department about the expectations for certain classes. An unsupportive department is only shooting itself in the foot, as it will have demoralized and dissatisfied professors.

The next time you are approached by an entitled underachiever, I hope that you will feel better able to cope with the situation without taking it personally. Best of luck – you’re not alone!

© Gina Hiatt, PhD
Gina is a dissertation and tenure coach. She helps academics, from grad students wondering about their dissertation topic to faculty members who want to maintain a high level of research and writing, to reach their goals more quickly and less painfully.

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