By Helen Beth Driver
Faculty Member, School of Arts and Humanities, American Public University
As an online educator, I have received my fair share of angry, aggressive emails and inappropriate forum posts from students. These experiences can quite frustrating and upsetting, not just to myself as the instructor, but also to my students.
Because student aggression distracts everyone within the online classroom environment, it is important as an instructor to manage such student aggression quickly and professionally. It can be tempting to respond to these aggressive students in kind, but this reactive emotion only aggravates the issue.
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Instead, create a firm classroom management policy and make decisions about how you plan to deal with these issues before these sorts of hostile situations occur. That way, you can use these policies to quell student aggression online before it becomes out of control.
There are four other strategies you can use to curb online aggression as well.
#1: Clearly Post a Netiquette Policy in Multiple Locations
As soon as the course begins, make sure to clearly identify your university’s netiquette policy in your course syllabus, the introductory forum and an email to your students. Better yet, have your students post that they understand the university’s netiquette policy in the first week’s forum.
If your university does not have an official netiquette policy in place, add one to your classroom. Most netiquette policies include defining inflammatory comments, keeping the discussion professional and refraining from name-calling.
Remember that the more detailed and specific you make your policy and the clearer you make this policy known to your students, the easier it will be for you to manage these issues later on in the course.
#2: Put an Immediate Stop to Forum Aggression and Classroom Cyberbullying
An important role of an online instructor is to keep track of the online discussions. But to save time, it can also be tempting to just read a post here and there.
Doing this, though, might cause you to overlook a dispute that has grown out of control. Instead, scan through all the posts in the assigned weekly forum every workday to check for aggression, bullying and/or inappropriate behavior.
If you do discover a post that is potentially inflammatory, copy the post into a file and save it. That way, you have a record of what occurred, should you need send this information forward to someone else.
Then, decide whether you should delete the inappropriate post(s). This deletion should especially be done if the post illustrates clear prejudice, anger or aggression towards a particular student.
Post a response to the student(s) involved with the heated post(s), letting them know to check their messages. This strategy allows you to stay within Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) requirements, but it also lets the rest of the class know that you are handling the situation.
You should never discipline an offending student within the forum/discussion space. Any corrections you make to a particular student should be through a private message such as an email.
In that message, include the netiquette policy. Finally, make sure to post your netiquette policy as a reminder to the entire class as a new thread.
#3: Patiently and Politely Respond to Hostile Messages
As many of us online teachers have experienced, sometimes students send angry, emotional emails. Although it is quite tempting to write a sarcastic or heated response back to the student, it is imperative to keep your response professional and polite.
First, when you receive the email, make a record of it but do not respond right away. Wait a few minutes, so you aren’t responding in an emotional manner. Then, create a response that is clear, straight to the point and unemotional.
If you need details to back up this response (for example, replies to grading complaints), add specific proof, but try not to overstate the response. Keep your message simple, clear, specific and professional. Remember — what you write is permanent.
If the student continues to respond to you in an aggressive manner, do not engage with that student. A simple response like “Message received” to that student will let the student know you have read the response, but you have nothing left to discuss about the matter.
If you continue to receive harassing messages from a student, you will need to copy your department head in your email responses to that student. That way, you have further record of the student’s behavior and how you handled the situation.
In a separate email, include all the examples of inappropriate behavior in a separate file. Better yet, if you have a university conduct center, email a representative about the issue so the appropriate action can be taken (which may mean the student’s removal from the course, depending on the egregiousness of that student’s behavior).
#4: Try Not to Let the Student’s Behavior Affect Your Grading
Do not allow a student’s behavior affect how you grade that student’s work. You need to maintain your professional behavior within the online classroom.
Obviously, following this rule can be difficult to do, but you cannot let biases affect your grading. If you do, this bias may affect your job performance and could cause the student to raise an official complaint about your teaching practices.
Remain Professional, Even If You’re Provoked
There are multiple ways to protect yourself from student aggression. But even with these protections, students may continue to react in an emotional manner online and you need to remain professional.
The benefit of online teaching is that you have the luxury of taking your time to respond to the issue, so use that time. Try to stay calm, and do not allow aggressive students affect how you teach.
About the Author
Helen Beth Driver is a faculty member and English instructor of the School of Arts and Humanities at APU. She teaches courses in writing and literature, ranging from English Composition to Mythology and World Literature. Prior to joining APU, Helen taught at various colleges in New York State, including Saint Thomas Aquinas, Mount Saint Mary and Cayuga Community College. She also has experience working as an English Writing Lab Instructor for developmental and advanced students.