Are Students Blaming Their Problems on You?

You should be aware that some of them will.

Try as you may, you will never figure out all of your students. In particular, you won’t know what some of your students are saying behind your back. My advice? Consider some of the most common complaints students make. Assume that sooner or later a student or two will lodge these complaints against you. Then develop proactive strategies for dealing with this.

Before I go further, let me emphasize that I love our students, at least the vast majority of them. I am not a cynic, nor have I become a student basher. However, the reality is that a small percentage of college students blame their academic shortcomings on their instructors. It is fair to say that I receive one or two complaints in the average week. Over a semester, I hear complaints from less than one percent of the students in my division. And, fortunately, and only a small percentage of them are legitimate.

Parker Palmer (see References page) defends the worst students, even the one he labeled the “Student from Hell,” as victims of their upbringing. I love the comment he adds, however.  Says Palmer, “Yes, one or two of them may have been sent here directly by Satan to destroy Western civilization as we know and love it” (1998, pp. 44-45).

Some of the more common complaints I receive allege that an instructor is not explaining the material well. “I don’t understand what he is saying.” “She never answers students’ questions.” “He goes over the material too fast.” Sure, sometimes there are things that the instructor could have done better. I will discuss those situations in a future post. For now, let me concentrate on the students of yours who may someday accuse you of not teaching them anything.

Some (many?) students don’t put in the time they need to be successful. Make sure that your students know why 15 semester hours is considered a full-time load. The commonly accepted rule of thumb states that students should study two to three times the number of hours they spend in class. A 15 semester hour full-time load is roughly 15 class hours per week, which means that the average student should spend 30 to 45 hours studying. Wait! Did I say full-time load. With classroom time, that is 45 to 60 hours each week. That is a full-time job with quite a bit of overtime!

Realistically, I know that many students do well studying less than 45 hours in a week. However, I find that many of students who complain about their instructors are putting in far less time. For example, at our school, college algebra is a four credit-hour course. That would mean a student should spend eight to 12 hours each week studying. I have heard students admit to as little as three or four hours a week fo study time. Considering the human tendency to exaggerate, I always assume the true number is smaller.

So, how can you deal pro-actively with this class of potential complainer? I have four recommendations. First, make your expectations clear to your students. I wouldn’t necessarily tell them that they must study a specific number of hours each week, but I would share that old rule of thumb. By all means, clear that they are responsible of doing the learning. You might want to point out how thick their textbook is. Now, is it humanly possible for you to cover all that material during normal class time? Of course not, at least not in great detail. You make conscious decisions about how much class time you are going to spend on each topic. Make it totally clear what you are holding your students accountable for. Point out the importance of coming to class prepared to ask questions about material they don’t understand. Explain that you are there to help them, but if they don’t let you know where they need help you are somewhat limited.

The second thing is to encourage them to seek out-of-class assistance. You may not have office hours, but you can encourage them to come to class early to meet with you. Or, you can offer to stay after class. Make them aware of tutoring services at your college. Encourage them to have study partners. Of course, you may need to explain the difference between studying together and copying a classmate’s work.

Another thing I do it to point out the difference between reading an assignment and studying the material. In math and science courses, point out the difference between understanding the material and learning it. Those homework problems are fairly easy to do when you can flip back and forth and virtually copy the example problems.

There is one more thing you can do. Give them study tips. A biology instructor at my previous college told her students to take notes in tabular fashion. For example, if they were studying the cell, she would have them list the major components of a cell across the top of a piece of paper. Okay, it has been a long time since I took biology, but I think these included things like the nucleus and cilia. That is about all I can remember. Then, down the left side, she would have them write characteristics such as location, description, and function. By organizing information this way, she knew her students would not only remember definitions but also understand the physiology of the cell. (Note: If my biology instructor gave me that study tip, I bet I would remember at least one more component of a cell. 🙂 )

There are numerous other strategies you can use to help your students learn. Many of these are mnemonic techniques. Not familiar with that term? Good. Then you won’t want to miss my next posting. 🙂

© 2010 Paul A. Hummel, Ed.D.


About Dr. Paul A. Hummel, Ed.D.

My name is Paul Hummel, and I often introduce myself to others as a recovering engineer. If you are familiar with the Dilbert cartoons, let me simply say that I lived all of that. I started my college saga at Illinois Institute of Technology. Eventually, I earned a Bachelor’s Degree in Mechanical Engineering and a Master’s Degree in Engineering Management. I worked for many years in industry, and during this time I did some college adjunct teaching. During my career I held several managerial positions in industry, the last as Director of Technology of a division of a Fortune 500 corporation. Then, in 1996, with minimal planning or forethought, I found myself working as a manufacturing consultant on behalf of Elgin Community College (ECC).

My career in higher education began to take shape. I fell in love with ECC and with the mission of community colleges in general. I worked fulltime and occasionally taught college courses for my institution and two other colleges. After a couple years I set a goal to move over to the “credit side of the college” and eventually become a college administrator. In 2006, having earned my doctorate in education, I achieved that goal. I was hired by Waubonsee Community College as Dean for Technology, Mathematics and Physical Sciences.

I have had the great fortune of working at two excellent colleges. The insights I want to share are drawn from the various college positions I have held. At ECC, in addition to my consulting role, I coordinated non-credit professional development training programs for three years and spent four years advising students in the TRiO Student Support Services program. That position helped me understand college education from the perspective of today’s college students.

After seven years at Waubonsee, I retired April 30, 2013. I now devote my knowledge and skills to upgrading and expanding the websites I created beginning with Adjunct Assistance. I have three other websites: College Teaching Tips, Keys for College Success and Lighthouse for Learning. A lot of work lies ahead for me in terms of upgrading and expanding each of these websites, but I could not be more excited about fulfilling the vision I have for helping college instructors and their students succeed.


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