Coping with Difficult Situations in a Course

Lea Pelosi, November 2019

Translated into English by Alison O'Neill, December 2023


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1. Introduction

All teachers occasionally encounter difficult situations when teaching, which is expressed in student behaviour either as direct criticism in class or through coolnes or hostility. This extremly wide range of phenomena is termed resistance here, and can be directed either at the teaching or the teacher. 

Related issues: conflicts - discrimination - threats

Other forms of disruptions and conflicts, such as conflicts or discrimination between students, are not dealt with here. The following materials may provide you with ideas on how to deal with these issues:

If you feel that the behaviour of certain students is not just a challenge but in fact a threat (to yourself or to other students), the Teaching Manual may help:


First of all, it is important to state that resistance is a behaviour by individuals, not a personal trait. Behaviour arises from an interaction of the individual and the situation; so associating it with someone’s personality is often not only wrong but counterproductive.

Moreover, resistance should not simply be regarded as a negative – e.g. as a lack of interest, ability, or social competence. In fact, resistance can be the result of active engagement with teaching content or the general teaching environment. Although it can be hard to accept resistance as a form of feedback on your teaching, you may want to consider using it as a productive resource in your teaching choices.

For example, teachers who deal with ethical questions or aim to develop self-reflection in their classes can take resistance as a sign that a critical point has been reached in the discussion. In this case, resistance becomes a valuable learning opportunity to be addressed.

This article aims to support teachers in such difficult situations and encourage them to engage reflectively. Taking such a sensitive approach requires a nuanced understanding, therefore we will first of all consider how to evaluate the situation. Then we will present a range of ways in which teachers can intervene, and illustrate them with specific case studies.

2. Situation analysis

Effective intervention in the event of resistance in class requires a nuanced analysis of the situation. In practice however you often have little time; in many teaching situations you have to act without having prepared in advance for a specific scenario. However, if signs of resistance arise over several weeks, you can undertake a situation analysis to develop effective interventions. You can also use the analytical tools we suggest to reflect on your intervention afterwards. They may at least partially help to explain why a specific approach worked well or not so well.

There are several aspects to a situation analysis:

2.1 Perception: How are participants behaving?

Manifestations of resistance are often complex. As a teacher you focus almost automatically on aspects that are especially irritating or noticeable. However, in class a ‘disturbance’ usually involves the entire group. Thus, it is important also to take note of how other students react and incorporate this in your overall view. 

The following questions can help you to structure your perception of the situation:

  • What behaviour can I observe (primary and secondary scenarios)?
  • Prescisely whose behaviour is involved (primary and secondary participants)?
  • How does the group respond to the behavior of individuals?
  • What are the conditions when this behaviour occurs?
  • How has this behaviour changed since I noticed it?

The more detailed your situation analysis the better. The more accurately you can describe the situation, the more precisely and sparingly you can intervene. Also, try to limit immediate responses to resistance to exceptional cases only. Take your time, instead of automatically jumping in to counter the resistance. If circumstances allow, try to gain an understanding of as many aspects of the situation as possible. 

2.2 Understanding your own position: Where do I stand in the situation?

Resistance disrupts the flow you have planned for a class, and you can therefore perceive it as unwelcome, irritating, disconcerting, annoying or even hurtful. Hence, typical reactions include a variety of thoughts and feelings, which may interfere and are often disordered

In contrast, effective intervention demands a clear position. This depends on among other things clarity about how you personally are affected, possibly hurt, and the appropriate choice of an intervention in this case. You should try therefore to be clear about the range and the importance of your thoughts and feelings.

(a) Gather information: Try to take control of your thoughts and feelings as much as possible.
(b) Set priorities: Consider which thoughts and feelings are especially 'loud' or recur in different ways and are therefore especially important to your perception of the situation.

Often, it is not easy to admit that you are unsure or vulnerable. However, credibility is usually more convincing than a strained self-confidence.

2.3 Effect: What do I want to achieve by my intervention?

You may have a variety of goals for your intervention, such as:

  • stopping a disturbance
  • defining a vague problem
  • restoring a positive working environment
  • maintainung your own image

Interventions often fail because either their objectives or the extent to which they should achieve different things at the same time are not well enough defined.

As a rule of thumb: choose one primary objective. This will generally make it easier for you to direct your intervention towards this goal. The clearer your goal, the more precisely and effectively you can intervene.

3. Reasons for resistance in class

The reasons for resistance in class are rarely obvious. The following categorisation is heuristic, since the reasons are usually complex and diverse. This list merely indicates the range of potential factors.

  • Teaching approach: unclear or unsuitable time management, too great/too small challenge for students, teacher not transparent enough about the process/the objectives;
  • Teacher's leadership: teacher is evidently insecure, instructions or expectations of students are unclear, students are not clearly or not sufficiently involved;
  • Requirements of students: students or teacher insufficiently experienced with certain types of class, unclear motivation for the studies/subject, lack of interest in specific content, some students feel they cannot articulate reservations about content adequately, lack of preparation by students;
  • Social factors: self-image of some students in the group, anxiety in the group because of dominant individuals, wanting to ‘test’ the teacher;
  • Situation-related factors: poor air quality, unsuitable room conditions, time of day, poor acoustics;
  • Attribution, prejudice, discrimination: with regard to students or the teacher (gender, nationality, age, language, appearance, etc.). More information on the Infopool page (Diversity (3): Reflection & sense of responsibility)


Even though thinking about potential reasons is important, you can still counter resistance effectively without being absolutely certain about the reasons. Perceiving resistance as justified at all is in itself a significant step, if you are looking for ways to deal with it productively.[2]

When you are seeking reasons for resistance, please bear the following in mind:

  • Students who display 'resistant' behaviour are not necessarily themselves aware of the reasons.[.[3] Resistant behaviour is often a way of expressing a vague unease or general lack of clarity. 
  • Conspicuous behaviour is not always resistance.[4] Unusual behaviour often arises from group dynamics, defining a role, self-image or group-related power relationships. It may however also simply be a mannerism or habit of that person. So you are often faced with the difficulty of determining potential reasons for the resistance and at the same time not exceeding your abilities..
  • Therefore you should avoid leaping to conclusions. At least question your first interpretation.
  • Ask Questions, when faced with conspicuous or disruptive behaviour, instead of speculating.
  • Sometimes teachers are themselves the cause of the resistance. At times, a specific class fails to gel because of (unsuitable) teaching methodology choices, and not the resistance of students. If you exhibit annoyance or disappointment in these situations, it can make the students feel unjustifiably accused and then really respond with resistance. Such mistaken choices can result in a lack of clarity uncomfortable for the students or them being overwhelmed or underchallenged.

4. Coping with resistance

A three-dimensional model, the intervention cube, is often used to differentiate types of intervention.[5] This distinguishes the following dimensions:

4.1 Focus of the intervention

The intervention that is chosen can address different people:

  • An individual
  • Several people
  • The whole group

Tip: Consider whether you want to speak to one person or several outside class, or whether your intervention should deliberately be directed at the whole group during face-to-face teaching.

4.2 Intensity of the intervention

The intensity of the intervention can vary. The three basic forms are:

  • Tangential: The teacher does not speak about the resistance as they perceive it, does not relate their intervention explicitly to an aspect of resistance and often does not even express it transparently. Examples: small changes in lesson plans or time plans for a unit, changing position within the room (standing more/less, behind/in front of the desk), etc.
  • Direct: The teacher addresses the form of resistance directly – as they see it..
  • Confrontational: Addressing the resistance is accompanied by an interpretation of the behaviour, with the threat of sanctions, a demand for an explanation for the behaviour, etc.

Principle: Don't use a sledgehammer to test out what is just effective enough.crack a nut! Use the least intense approach for your intervention and test out what is just effective enough

4.3 Type of Intervention[6] - practical options in class

4.3.1 Change the situation

You can make changes in various ways:

  • Varying your position within the room (standin/sitting, distance to students)
  • Control the formation of work groups
  • Choiche of teaching methodology (adjustin lesson plan)
  • A surprise response to resistance (appreciation of an objection, unterstanding students' strong reservations, etc.)
  • Clarifying basic conditions or rules (contracting, negotiating responsibilities, clarifying basic conditions and leeway for co-determination, etc.) (see also "First Class Meeting", v.a. 5. Clarifying Organisational Matters and Work Modes')
4.3.2 Describe the situation

Discuss your own perceptions:

  • Behaviour when communicating (who speaks how much/with whom/when...): "[Student name X], you haven't said a word today." "[Student name Y], you've answered four of the five questions already." "[Student name Z], you contradict [Student name N] while looking at me."
  • Perceived resistance (verbal and nonverbal): "[Student name B], you've said you don't like something five times already now." "[Student name F], you've been lokking out of the window for 3 minutes instead of reading the text.." "[Student name M], you're frowning."
  • Behaviour (who does what when): "[Student name A], I've interrupted my explanation three times now because you are chatting with your neighbour." "[Student name C], this is the third day in a row when you've turned up 20-30 minutes late."
  • Perceiving and following standards: "I've noticed that some of you always put your hand up when you want to say something, while others just speak. Some of you have reacted by frowning or grumbling when someone speaks without waiting for permission."
4.3.3 Explain - give reasons - request behaviour

Describe a situation in relation to a theory, a principle, a rule or standard. In other words, give reasons for judging a type of behaviour ("I don't think it is a good thing i only two of you respond regularly, beacuse...") or you give a reasoned suggestion for how the situation could change ("In future I'd like to take a brief break after 45 minutes because...").

  • Explain and give reasons for your behaviour transparently (e.g. change of lesson plan)
  • Explain and give reasons for your ("I don't comment on each of your contributions straight away because I want each of you to learn to analyse them critically for yourselves. However, to do this you have to pay more attention to each other than you seem to have been doing.")
  • Discuss the students' responsibilities and give reasons for requesting this behaviour
4.3.4 Reflect (discuss emotions - ask for student opinions)

State a perceived emotional reaction (of an individual or the group). In this case, unlike the description of the situation, it is more about an interpretation. In order to avoid a quasitherapeutic situation arising that is inappropriate to a class, you should bear the following points in mind:

  • Only use this kind of intervention with care. Stick as much as possible to description and as little as possible to interpretation.
  • Combine addressing your own perception with an invitation to the students to express themselves (e.g. as part of a class evaluation). Concrete options for implementation:'
  • Flashlight': students respond briefly to a given question (e.g. in turn)
  • Mood curve: students draw a mood/attention curve of the session and comment on it
  • Specific enquiries
  • Imitate or parody the body language or expressions of students (keep it as friendly and humorous as possible, aggression is inappropriate and counterproductive)
4.3.5 Interpretation - Discuss and interpret behaviour that you perceive as resistance. This is usually a high-intensity intervention, so it should only be used in exceptional cas
  • Example: "You've vigorously objected to my reading of the text three times now, but without giving clear reasons. Are you wanting to test how a young woman like me reacts to this?"

5. Case studies


  • Example 1: Student makes derogatory comments about the teacher’s statements

    During an exercise, a student makes derogatory comments out loud and challenges what the teacher is saying several times. As they do this they look at the others in class triumphantly. Some of the other students nod in agreement, others look away, one person mutters an objection softly.

    Situation analysis - some relevant issues:

    • What type of statements are the derogatory comments about?
    • How does that student (and other students in general) react to the class contents, i.e. to the texts, studies, presentation slides/contributions of other students that are not directly presented by the teacher?
    • Who is the individual who is making these objections addressing; who are those who are nodding in agreement addressing?

    Potential approach - depending on result of situation analysis:[7]

    The teacher reflects on the issue and concludes that the student's derogatory comments relate to the teacher's stance on the course content, and the students are not fundamentally uninterested. In this case, potential criticism of the teacher's attitude or specialist viewpoint could be discussed either immediately or at the start of the next class (3.3.5).

    If it is unclear how much the student who is commenting also speaks for others and/or the extent to which any objections interfere with the teacher's control, the teacher might ask the students for (anonymous)[8] written feedback on course content, lesson planning or the dynamics/interaction in class either right away or at the end of the class. In this case the teacher might clearly state that they rely on the cooperation of students to help interpret their comments and reactions, so that they are able to respond if the students are dissatisfied. Another option is for the students to decide for themselves whether they give their feedback orally in the group or in writing (3.3.1/3.3.4).

    The teacher plans the next course unit in the form of a flipped classroom and allows the students to develop the content largely themselves. During this lesson, the teacher does not comment and simply observes the behaviour of the student in question and the interaction of the group (3.3.1).

  • Example 2: Student dominates with lengthy contributions

    One student dominates a course with many lengthy contributions of varying quality. Initially the teacher allowed them to do this because the general silence in response to a question was unnerving. But now it increasingly seems that the other students are not only not speaking but no longer listening. Some are using telephones below the desk and some are even doing so obviously, some are gazing vacantly, more and more of them are turning up late.

    Situation analysis - relevant issues:

    • What are the motives or triggers for the student's contributions: is it every question or statement from the teacher? Specific types of questions? Are there also contributions which arise without a question?

    • What signs of (non-)involvement can be seen in the class? Does this differ depending on the teaching methodology used? What are things like right at the start of a session? What is participation/quality of contributions like in written tasks?
    • What signs are there of that student's social position in the class group? Who do they speak to? Who do they work with? How do they behave outside class?

    Potential approach - depending on result of situation analysis:

    If the teacher becomes aware or sure that many students do not feel involved, they might raise this issue and ask the students to describe how they see the situation and say what they want from the class (3.3.2/3.3.4).

    If standards of written and oral participation in the class differ, the teacher might need to consider changing the structure of the class, the basic conditions, or their own performance, e.g.:

    • Deliberately targeting questions at individual students or work groups, or asking students on the principle that those who speak in class for the first time have preference over those who have already spoken several times;
    • Less group discussion, instead various forms of cooperative learning;
    • Students developing individual class sequences;
    • Enable work on questions/content outside the classroom, etc. (3.3.1).

    If the situation appears to have more to do with social relationships/hierarchies in the class group, the teacher might describe how they see the situation and give their interpretation of it ("I sense an unspoken unease here"), explain why they are unhappy about this ("I believe a productive lesson calls for an open interaction between us all") and ask for opinions ("How do you see the situation and what do you think about it?") (3.3.2/3.3.3/3.3.4/3.3.5).

6. Sources of support and further information

If you would like to learn more about coping with difficult situations in class, try the courses offered by the Center for Teaching and Learning (CTL). Through role playing, you can experiment with and experience various approaches to solve such difficult situations in a workshop. This is important, as the effectiveness of interventions depends massively on very specific formulations, timing, manner of address, body language and other details.

You can also obtain individualised advice on customised course development.


[1] The concept of resistance has not received much attention in educational research. A few publications which indicate the heterogeneity of how this issue is handled are given as examples here: Arnold, Rolf. 'Identität und Emotion als Faktoren: Erkenntnisse aus der Lernwiderstandsforschung'. In DIE Zeitschrift für Erwachsenenbildung, published by Ekkehard Nuissl, No. 2 (2000), Bielefeld, 23-25; Faulstich, Peter, und Petra Grell. 'Widerständig ist nicht unbegründet - Lernwiderstände in der forschenden Lernwerkstatt'. In Lernwiderstand, Lernumgebung, Lernberatung: Empirische Fundierungen zum selbstgesteuerten Lernen, published by Peter Faulstich et al. Bielefeld: Bertelsmann, 2005, 18-92; Franz, Melanie. Widerstand in kooperativen Bildungsarrangements. Wiesbaden: VS Verlag für Sozialwissenschaften, 2004; Giroux, Henry A. Theory and Resistance in Education. Towards a Pedagogy for the Opposition. Revised and Expanded Edition. Westport and London: Bergin & Garvey, 1983/2001; Grotlüschen, Anke. Widerständiges Lernen im Web - virtuell selbstbestimmt? Eine qualitative Studie über E-Learning in der beruflichen Erwachsenenbildung. Münster: Waxmann, 2003; Holzer, Daniela. Weiterbildungswiderstand: Eine kritische Theorie der Verweigerung. Bielefeld: Transcript, 2017; Holzkamp, Klaus. Schriften I: Normierung, Ausgrenzung, Widerstand, Hamburg and Berlin: Argument, 1987/1997, 159-195; Moore, Helen A. Student Resistance in Sociology Classrooms: Tools for Learning and Teaching. University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Sociology Department, Faculty Publications, 88 (2007); Rybnikova, Irma. 'Auffassungen des Widerstandes von Lernenden in Bildungsinstitutionen: Der Fall Hochschule'. Organisation und Theorie. Beiträge der Kommission Organisationspädagogik, published by Schöer, Andreas, Michael Göhlich, Susanne Maria Weber and Henning Petzold. Wiesbaden: Springer, 2016, 127-136; Schumacher, Eva-Maria. Schwierige Situationen in der Lehre. Methoden der Kommunikation und Didaktik für die Lehrpraxis. Opladen/Farmington Hills: Barbara Budrich/UTB, 2011; Seidel, Shannon B., and Kimberly D. Tanner. 'What if students revolt? - Considering Student Resistance: Origins, Options, and Opportunities for Investigation'. In CEB - Life Sciences Education 12, No. 4 (Winter 2013), 586-595.

[2] See Faulstich and Grell. 'Widerständig ist nicht unbegründet' [1]; Franz. Widerstand in kooperativen Bildungsarrangements [1]; Giroux. Theory and Resistance in Education [1]; Grotlüschen. Widerständiges Lernen im Web [1]; Holzkamp. Schriften I [1]. Here too: what is seen as the point of resistance is judged very differently.

[3] For an early position presenting this thesis, see Giroux. Theory and Resistance in Education [1].

[4] See again Giroux. Theory and Resistance in Education [1] for an early relevant assumption.

[5] This was developed by Cohen, Arthur Martin, and Robert Douglas Smith. The Critical Incident in Growth Groups. San Diego, 1976; further developed and adapted to process consulting of groups by Reddy, B. W. Intervention Skills: Process Consultation for Small Groups and Teams. San Francisco: Pfeiffer and Co, 1994..

[6] The basic distinction corresponds to the model, the terms are in some cases adapted.

[7] The suggestions are not valid in every circumstance. The effectiveness of an intervention depends on many situation-related factors and personal characteristics. The numbers in brackets relate to the relevant points in the previous section.

[8] The advantage of anonymity is for example that students do not think that they will be 'found guilty' for their critical position and receive poorer marks, and this can increase the likelihood of honest statements. The disadvantage is that you cannot respond individually to needs, and that it does not in general promote a working environment where controversial discussions and productive criticism are possible. 

Recommended citation

Pelosi, Lea: Coping with Difficult Situations in a Course. Infopool besser lehren. Center for Teaching and Learning, Universität Wien, November 2019. []

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