Handling Student Frustration

If you have been teaching for any length of time, you have certainly had a student say to you, “Just tell me what you want” in relation to your expectations on an assignment.  Often we think of this phrase as an example of student laziness.  (It’s one of those “will this be on the test?” kind of phrases.)  We also take this phrase to mean that the student doesn’t want to find her own answers, but instead, wants us to provide the shortcut or the systematic solution to the assignment.  Maybe students do sometimes want to take the short cut or want the easy answer.  However, this utterance could mean something else.  When a student says, “Just tell me what you want,” the student could be speaking from a place of great frustration.

We often want students to think for themselves, to try new avenues, to create their own knowledge.  We want them to learn something.  We sometimes like to provide students latitude in assignments that will allow them to be innovative in their treatment of a subject.  This pedagogical strategy encourages student growth and responsibility.  However, the problem with these types of assignments—even though they are forward thinking and student-learning-focused—is that students can be afraid of them … because they are afraid of us and how we’ll evaluate their efforts.  They know they have to do work, but if we are unclear about the expectations for that work, students can assume that we are equally unclear about evaluation.

In other words, if students know what we want them to do and they understand how we will evaluate their efforts, they are more apt to do the work we assign.  They’ll take chances, and they’ll do so without much complaint.

If we want students to take chances, they must be able to trust us.  If we have proven ourselves untrustworthy in prior classes, with previous assignments, in other encounters, frustrated students begin to say, “just tell me what you want.”

What follows are a few questions that can help us determine (1) if students can trust us, and (2) if we are setting ourselves up for the “just tell me what you want” whine.  Some of the questions are not related to specific assignments, but they can be indicators if students can trust what we tell them.

  • Have I met my office hours?  (If not, have I left a note or alerted students to the change?)
  • Is my syllabus online or otherwise available other than on the first day of the semester?
  • Do I return student work in a reasonable amount of time?
  • Do I require a textbook, and am I using that book?
  • Do I respect my students and the knowledge they bring to the classroom?
  • Have I set clear guidelines about assignments, even if the assignment is broad?
  • If I have strict syllabus policies, do I enforce them equally and fairly?
  • Am I creative or innovative in my approach to the subject?  (Am I modeling the kind of behavior/actions I wish to see in my students?)
  • Have I been clear about how interpretive or creative takes on assignments will be evaluated?  (Am I sure I’m not evaluating harshly, for example, if I disagree with the student’s interpretation of the assignment?)

Of course, these questions are not exhaustive, and there are many ways we can display our (un)trustworthiness.  It’s important to recognize that when students are frustrated, we are often to blame.

How about you?  How do you keep students from asking you, “just tell me what you want” when you assign them work? Please offer solutions to this problem in comments below.

[Image by Flick user {dpade1337} and used under the Creative Commons license.]

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