Adult educators have a unique challenge in working with their students. In some cases they have forgotten how to learn and in other scenarios they have forgotten how to behave! But one rotten apple doesn’t need to ruin the whole bunch.

Image via Flickr by Michael Bentley

In my class, How to Teach It, one of the most common questions I get is how to deal with difficult students. For most of us, difficult students are not common, but their rarity makes them much more challenging as we are often caught unprepared, without a plan of action. In this 3-part series we will look at categories of challenging students, “defensive” techniques to minimize occurrences and suggestions for managing them when they inevitably do show up in class.

Let me begin with a disclaimer that I have no formal education in cognitive learning or behavioral sciences. What I do have is over 10 years of hands-on experience in the classroom working with adult learners. Among my peers I have become known as the “problem-student answer-woman,” because my observations and techniques work to the point that I rarely have a problem student in my classes. My hope is that sharing my insights will help you find peace in your classroom, too.

For Part 1 of this series I want to focus on categories or types of students. If you are providing adult instruction in any sort of a public venue, you will most likely have students with widely different backgrounds, learning styles and possibly skill/knowledge levels. This means that as the instructor you have to be able to analyze individual personality types to determine motivations and provide feedback to help the students learn.¬† This is challenging enough when everyone is behaving well, but add a difficult student and it is possible to quickly lose control of the classroom. Understanding and defining the difficult student’s motivation and behavioral drivers is the first step toward managing the situation. These types of difficult students may not be all-inclusive, but chances are most of the difficult students you encounter will fit into one of these categories.

Image via Flickr by Photo Monkey

Image via Flickr by Photo Monkey

The Slow, Unprepared or Under-prepared student. This student is rarely a problem in an overt way, but can greatly undermine the flow of the class. Without careful monitoring, it is easy to spend an unreasonable amount of time trying to get students in this group caught up with the main group. Although students rarely work at the same pace, the slow student’s pace is significantly different than most of the class. The unprepared and under-prepared description covers a range of students, but primarily focuses on students that arrive ill-equipped for the task at hand. Easily identifiable signs include needing to borrow basic supplies from fellow students and/or not completing homework assignments. This category also includes the students that do not meet the minimum knowledge or skill level requirements for the class being taught.

Image via Flickr by JayD Photography

Image via Flickr by JayD Photography

The Needy, Attention-Seeking or Interrupting student. This category of student sometimes subtly and often quietly steals time away from the class. Occasionally the time is stolen from the group, but most often it happens as these students “require” 2 – 3 times more individual attention than the other students in the class. The needy student can take many forms, but generally wants lots of individual attention including approval or confirmation of each step of the learning process. Students who seek attention use a wide variety of methods including arriving late, asking more questions than appropriate or “demanding” special attention. The Interrupter is fairly obvious but can be guilty of interrupting the instructor in front of the whole class, interrupting their fellow students by asking them questions about information just covered or interrupting when the instructor is working 1-on-1 with an adjacent student.


The Know-It-All or Take-Over student. Unlike the lovable character of Hermione Granger of the Harry Potter series, these students are completely disruptive to the learning environment. Although not always obvious, their goal is to be perceived as the leader of the class. The know-it-all student is the first to answer every question, even when they are not called upon. They also try to demonstrate their expertise by trying to stump the instructor, explaining their “better” methods or correcting other students (not helping). True take- over students, luckily, are fairly rare. Like know-it-alls they want to show off their knowledge, but every action specifically is an effort to undermine the instructor’s knowledge of the subject and authority in the classroom.

In Part 2 of the series I will cover what I call “an ounce of prevention.” I will be explaining methods and techniques that prevent these types of difficult students from getting a foothold in the classroom.¬†Although there are many variants and in some cases blends, most difficult students can be placed into one of these three categories. What types of difficult students have you encountered in your classes? Share your stories with the rest of us in the comments below.