Documentation:Teaching Challenges: Online/Managing Difficult Learners

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Managing Difficult Learners

The material that follows is substantively taken from a 2003 article by Kate Butler (2003), and made available through the website of the Australian Flexible Learning Network. It has been modified for the UBC context, and to reflect more common issues with adult learners. There are a variety of definitions of what makes a ‘difficult’ online learner, and there are no infallible ways of avoiding or dealing with incidents of bad or disruptive behaviour. In the context of online learning, the following are examples of learners who could be considered ‘difficult’. A learner who:

  • Doesn’t keep in contact regularly
  • Consistently doesn’t do what they say they will
  • Doesn’t achieve set goals or maintain their commitment to study
  • Doesn’t respond to specific requests and questions
  • Ignores advice
  • Contributes inappropriately to group tasks
  • Doesn’t work as an active and supportive group member
  • Disrupts other learners through their behaviour
  • Makes offensive remarks
  • Challenges the facilitator’s/instructor’s authority, either publicly or privately
  • Submits work that is plagiarized or not their own

Instructor/Facilitator's Role

There are no foolproof ways of preventing difficult behaviour online and, as with other delivery methods, the key is that you need to:

  • Be aware of what might happen
  • Make sure you are as aware and informed as possible
  • Make sure learners are as aware and informed as possible
  • Know what procedure is expected of you
  • React objectively and supportively
  • Seek support from colleagues when necessary

It is also possible that some challenging experiences might prove to be a positive learning experience for you and the learner alike. Some challenging behaviour is deemed so simply because it makes the job of the facilitator/instructor harder. In other cases, behaviour is more consciously disruptive and detrimental to the learning experience of other learners. These definitions could apply to learners in any delivery medium but it can help the online facilitator/instructor to look more specifically at ways to prevent them and respond to them in the online environment.


Make sure the learner knows what to expect when embarking on online study. Irregular contact, failure to achieve goals or respond to requests may be caused by the learner’s ignorance of what is expected. Make sure that your expectations are stated very clearly at the beginning of the course, to ensure learners know what they are getting themselves in to. This should include guidelines on appropriate behaviour and detail as to the expected time commitment and technological requirements.

Model the behaviour you expect

The way you relate to learners will have an impact on their understanding of how to behave in an online environment and can be the best way to demonstrate what is expected. Establish a good relationship with learners where you stay open to ideas and problems, respond promptly and always communicate in a considered and considerate way.

Know when to intervene and refer on

Sometimes it becomes clear that a learners' challenges require additional support. UBC's Counselling Services offer these Guidelines for Faculty and Staff for referring at risk learners.