Handling Student Grievances and Classroom Conflict

Author: Dr. Heather Smith (International Studies) and Heidi Lawson (Assistant Registrar)

The following document does not seek to be ―authoritative. It is drawn from our experience and reflects some of the issues that we have addressed given our respective positions. Classroom conflict and student grievances are something that we all have to deal with, for better or worse. Having strategies to address conflict and grievances in advance is an important element of effective teaching.

Classroom Conflict 

Classroom Conflict: for the purposes here, we have conceived of classroom conflict as tensions that exist in the classroom itself, between the professors and the students and between the students themselves. From the faculty perspective, this may be translated into inappropriate classroom behavior and thus begs the question: how do we manage that behaviour.

Behaviours may include the following:

  • Student tardiness or lack of attendance
  • Students talking during your lecture
  • Inappropriate comments in classroom discussion (creation of an unsafe classroom environment)
  • Student hostility toward the professor
  • Students leaving the classroom
  • Students sleeping

Student Grievances 

  • Student grievances may include the following:
  • Public/institutional complaints – These are gripes about the institution that may arise in the classroom. For example: ―I have problems getting reserve readings.
  • Complaints or grievances about other students – These are concerns students raise about other students, for example in a group work context. What are you, as the professor, going to do about students who under perform in group work or if they get sick?
  • Student complaints about course work or issues about timeliness of return of assignments
  • Student complaints about other faculty members – ie. Unfairness in another class or harassment
  • Student misconduct that results in a student grievance.

Some Grievance and Conflict Management Techniques: 

  • One of the best ways to avoid student grievances is to clearly articulate your expectations in your course outlines. Remember that the outline is a contract between you and the student.
  • Try to be a ―critically reflective teacher – monitor your own behavior. Remember that our style and behaviour may be the source of some unexpected conflict. For example, a more personalized style, while encouraged from some pedagogical perspectives, can result in students assuming a flexibility on the professor‘s part. If we seek to empower students in the classroom some students may seek to take advantage of the dispersed authority. Similarly, students may well take grades more personally if they feel more personally connected to you. Each of us has our own teaching style and if we are self- aware we realize that our teaching style and attitudes towards the classroom have implications. We need to consider how our students are experiencing the classroom – that will help us address those unexpected conflicts or problems inside and outside the classroom.
  • Talk to a colleague about classrooms strategies/talk to your chair – it is important to use care when discussing these issues especially given confidentiality rules at the university regarding student files, but you can always talk to your chair or talk to a trusted colleague who may has experience dealing with similar issues.
  • Be consistent in the application of rules – special deals with students can cause you problems. See the UNBC Graduate and Undergraduate Calendars (available online at www.unbc.ca/calendars) for Regulations and Policies regarding student conduct and academic conduct. Please review the Faculty Handbook for processes on Academic Misconducts, Deferrals and Academic Appeals. Please contact the Office of the Registrar of you require assistance with policies, regulations or processes.
  • If you believe that the student deserves a break and/or it is a legitimate medical or compassionate reason, put it all in writing. Students may also be required to provide documentation to support their case.
  • If you have a claim of academic misconduct with a student – talk to the student in person to clarify the situation and determine if an academic misconduct has occurred.
  • Students do have a right to appeal and you have a right to disagree with their grievance. To support your case, ensure you have appropriate documentation. If a student files a grievance as a result of your claim of misconduct (such as plagiarism or cheating) you should ensure that you have the necessary evidence to support your claim. How have you proven the cheating or plagiarism? All legitimate claims should be documented by obtaining an Academic Misconduct form from the Office of the Registrar. The Office of the Registrar will review the student’s file to see if there are any previous misconduct has occurred with this student.  The Academic Misconduct form located at the Office of the Registrar’s sets out the process clearly when you need to proceed.  Having a discussion in plagiarism and cheating in your class helps avoid this kind of conflict and having a section in your class outline supports your case if it goes to appeal.
  • If the grievance relates to harassment, this must be taken very seriously. Documentation is paramount as is discretion. The campus harassment officer can provide you with strategies for dealing with this issue. As well, the staff in the office of the Vice Provost Student Engagement and the Registrar’s Office have a clear understanding of the various processes related to a range of concerns. When the classroom issues are significant, do contact them and seek their advice.