Problems and Pitfalls: Student Conflicts

Simple Misunderstandings

As you probably have experienced first hand, text-based communications like e-mail and discussion forum postings can be easy to misinterpret. Sarcasm and joking often don't come across as such, langauge can be misread as terse, etc. In an online course that relies on such communications, conflicts can easily arise. Even in "live" communications that take place at a distance over the telephone, Skype, web conferencing, or other technologies that allow us to hear or even see one another, we can lose a lot by not being able to read body language as easily as we could if we were interacting face-to-face.

One way to address this proactively is to set up clear "Netiquette" guidelines at the beginning of your course. Such guidelines establish rules for communication that can help make discussions run more smoothly. There are many examples already available online that you can point your students to or use as a base for creating your own guidelines. For example, see Albion's Netiquette Home Page. Establishing your own course Netiquette guidelines up front and communicating those to your students in places like your syllabus can go a long way to avoiding misunderstandings later on. Having your guidelines "published" in your course will also give you a place to refer students who may not adhere to them!

Differing Opinions

Two men arguingAlmost every subject we teach includes topics that arouse strong reactions from our students. Some of the best class discussions happen when those topics come up! But discussing emotion-raising topics should be done carefully so students feel safe in the communications. No where is this more important than in online discussions, which often take place asychronously. Students often feel more "anonymous" when posting to online discussions and might say things that they wouldn't say if the same discussion took place face-to-face. This can be both good and bad. On the positive side, students who might be shy in a face-to-face classroom can be more likely to speak up online when they have more time to craft their thoughts. On the negative side, some individuals can become more confrontational in the online environment, feeling more free to share what they really think about the issue due since they don't have to physically face the individuals with whom they are communicating.

There are a few simple suggestions that can help things run more smoothly when introducing emotion-provoking discussions:

  1. Don't avoid controversy—sharing different viewpoints and having opportunities to learn from one another is an important part of the educational process.
  2. Set up discussion ground rules ahead of time. We just discussed the importance of Netiquette guidelines, which should form the foundation of your discussion rules. But you should consider any additional ground rules that students should be cognizant of before engaging in a class discussion. These can be as simple as
    • Treat everyone with respect, and assume that everyone has something to contribute.
    • Disagree with ideas, not individuals.
    • Debate, don't argue.
    • Respect the rights of others to disagree—you may need to agree to disagree at times!
  3. Model good discussion behavior.
  4. Periodically engage in the discussion just as you would in a physical classroom. Avoid joining in too frequently or you may see student participation wane in deference to you, but do help keep the discussion on track and respectful.
  5. Address problematic behavior privately at first. Calling someone out publicly may make others less likely to speak up in the future. A phone or Skype call may be better than an e-mail in order to make sure the tone of your feedback to the student comes across appropriately and not too harsh.
  6. Point out positive interactions publicly. It is a good idea to summarize discussions for the class as they draw to a close. In your summary, share your specific positive observations with the class to encourage that same behavior in future discussions.

Share Your Strategies

Have other ideas or experiences in this realm to share? Post them to this week's "Problems and Pitfalls Discussion Forum"!

A Helpful Resource from Student Affairs!

Counseling and Psychological Services at Penn State (part of Student Affairs) has put together a great online workshop called "Students in Distress" that might interest you. While the workshop assumes campus-based students and faculty, many of the topics and strategies have relevance for online interactions, too. The workshop is free and available any time - no registration needed. It includes great video clips of role plays! See

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