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How to Respond to Public Student Complaints

posted: 8.30.11 by Traci Gardner

6054483552_948a71fcc0_mAs a teacher, I realize that students are probably not going to like everything that I do. I try to design activities that are fun but challenging, and I work to make sure everyone satisfied with the way the course is running. Still, it’s unrealistic to think I will never hear grumbling and sighing on occasion.

The problems begin when students post those complaints online in a class forum or other social networking space. Naturally, I have to respond, but it’s an awkward situation. Instead of addressing a student’s complaints privately after class or in my office, I have to reply in public and in full view of the rest of the class.

My first impulse may be to delete the complaint, but removing the message won’t make it go away. Businesses using social networking have learned that censoring the complaints inflame customers rather than resolve the situation. Instead, I’ve learned that it’s important to deal with the situation directly, with two basic goals in mind.

First, if possible, I want to resolve the problem or at least explain why I cannot. Often the student is frustrated and just wants to vent. Responding to the complaint can help diffuse the situation. Second, I want to lessen the chance of future complaints. If the rest of the class can see I’m reasonable and fair, they are more likely to come to me in private than to vent in public in the future.

So what do I do? If the comments are threatening, violent or inappropriately rude, I follow the school’s and/or department’s guidelines for reporting and dealing with the message.

After that, I consider what kind of complaint is being made. I’ve adapted the breakdown of complaints from American Express’s OPEN Forum post How to Deal With Negative Feedback to fit classroom situations:

  • Straight Problems: These are basic problems that a student has that can be remedied simply.
  • Constructive Criticism: This complaint takes the basic problem to the next level by suggesting some solutions. Be thankful for the suggestions, and talk about how to resolve the situation.
  • Merited Attack: There’s a real problem that needs to be addressed in this complaint, but the message has been derailed by anger. Address the problem, and avoid the attack.
  • Trolling/Spam: These complaints are usually pure anger, sometimes personal attacks. They may have no connection to anything specific related to the class, and they may include rude, hateful, and/or inappropriate comments.

Trolls and spam can be deleted. I set up boundaries for appropriate behavior from the first day of class. Trolling messages violate those guidelines. The other three kinds of comments will need some kind of response.

If possible, I do not respond immediately. Other students may chime in, neutralizing the situation or at least making it less divisive. I usually wait a few hours, perhaps overnight. I do endeavor to address the issue before the next face-to-face class meeting so that it doesn’t upset the goals of the session.

When I do reply, I focus on resolving the problem. I work to keep my emotions in check. I may be upset, but an emotional response may escalate the situation and isn’t likely to improve things. I try to address the complaint directly, setting the person’s tone aside. If I’ve made a mistake, I admit it and set things right. If the complaint regards something that I can change or address, I do so and post a clear, straightforward explanation.

If I cannot give the student what he wants, I try to explain why clearly, pointing to the established policies for the class when possible. Let’s say I’m addressing a public complaint about the late policy for class projects, for instance. I’d point to the established policy on the class website.

Finally, I encourage the student to talk to me or email me if we need to discuss the issue further. I want the whole class to see that I’m working to resolve the issue, but there’s no reason that all the details need to be handled in public. Indeed, in some circumstances, student’s privacy may mean that the specifics must be handled somewhere other than the public forum.

You can find additional suggestions at these sites:

That’s my strategy for dealing with student complaints. What do you do? I’d love to hear suggestions in the comments.

[Photo: Complaints button by FindYourSearch, on Flickr]

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Categories: Teaching Advice
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