When Students Cry

October 27th, 2010

I’ve managed to teach four semesters of orgo and avoid something I thought unavoidable: the crying student.  I’m not talking about the whining, point-groveling student; I’ve had plenty of those.  The person I’m talking about is the one who comes to see you—typically after bombing an exam—and promptly breaks down in tears.

While I’ve never been directly in the line of fire, I’ve personally witnessed a handful of chemical cry sessions and heard stories of many more.  These events are pretty easy to explain:  being a student is stressful, and you can easily feel like your career is on the line in every class.  A poor result on an exam can be a pretty hard blow.  The question is, how do you deal with the crying student?

Here’s ChemBark’s guide to dealing with tears of failure:

1.  Try to exit.  These situations are uncomfortable.  If you’re not that student’s teacher, you need not get involved.  In cases where I was present when someone’s tear ducts opened like faucets, I retreated completely, or at least to an area when I could observe without being observed.  Crying is undignified, and an audience can make the situation worse.  Of course, if you’re the student’s professor, you don’t have this option.

2.  Be prepared.  Keep a box of tissues on your desk within arm’s reach of your guest chairs.  You’ve got to have something to let these kids mop up.

3.  Don’t close your office door.   A natural instinct when you encounter someone having a personal moment is to give them some privacy.  While closing your door may seem like a good idea, it could easily become a big mistake.  When you’re behind closed doors, there are no witnesses.  If the student makes something up, it’s your word against his or hers.  Ideally, I think you want to set up your office furniture such that your guests are afforded some degree of privacy (e.g., their backs are positioned to the hallway traffic) without your having to shut the door to your office.

4.  Don’t give in.  You can’t make exceptions for students just because they come to you in tears.  If the person was having a problem, he should have come to you before taking the exam, not after.  What’s done is done, and as a teacher, it is your responsibility to ensure that everyone is graded on a level playing field.  Also, making concessions to students in tears only encourages the behavior.

5.  Consider using a grading scheme that forgives poor single performances.  This one is debatable, but I prefer designing courses such that students can overcome one poor performance.  I like letting students drop an exam.  It can either be a straight drop, or replacement of an exam score with the student’s score on the final.

One benefit of such an approach is that it gives you some ammunition to deal with criers that walk into your office.  That is, it lets you give them something to ameliorate their pain without your having to sacrifice fairness in grading (since this option is available to everyone).  When a crier breaks down because she thinks her life is over, you can remind her that there is plenty to look forward to and that she will be rewarded by improving.  Of course, if the student mucks up again, she’s screwed (and probably deserves it).

6.  Ride it out.  At the end of the day, you’re going to have to face the situation head on.  I think the only thing that can be done is to sympathize, but to focus your time (and your student’s time) on what can be done to improve the situation.  Move past the poor performance and go through some tips on how to study.  If the person lingers, refer him to campus tutoring programs, or in cases of personal problems, to campus counseling services (especially if you think the person might hurt himself).

And, of course, try not to laugh.  That’s usually the hardest part for me.

Other opinions:  Chronicle Forums  (any others?)

39 Responses to “When Students Cry”

  1. Corey_Student Says:

    I’m sure that you’re a nicer guy than this post makes you out to be, particularly with respect to the last line. I’ve taught organic a number of times, and there’s always one or two students who are confronting failure for the very first time in their lives, with very dire consequences (no medical school, for example). While I don’t like the grade-grubbing attitude of many pre-health students, organic is a very difficult course and the crying students you describe deserve more sympathy than you seem to be willing to offer (or perhaps capable of offering- your choice). Would you rather have a failing student who doesn’t care that they’re failing?

  2. John Spevacek Says:

    Dropping the lowest exam grade is a double-edged sword – I know from personal experience as that was how my general chem class was run. The ones that it really hurts are the consistent performers. If someone scores the average on every test, they will be below average at the end of the semester since they don’t get to drop any test while everyone else did thereby raising the average for each test.

    So are we looking for consistent performers or flakey ones? We get what we reward.

  3. Paul Says:

    @Corey_student: I certainly understand how someone can be driven to tears in these situations (see paragraph 2), and point #6 specifically says to sympathize with the student. And I’m not saying it’s wrong to cry. Crying is a physiological response to an emotion, and there’s no such thing as a “wrong” emotion.

    The point is not that this situation is avoidable, it is how to modify your behavior to deal with it when it arises. Sympathy can only go so far…basically, you’re stating (and restating) that you understand how the student could feel so upset. But that’s it. The poor result is in the past and it is permanent. There is nothing you should do to change that, you can only get the student to focus on improving so it doesn’t happen again.

  4. Paul Says:

    @John: Yeah, I agree. That’s exactly what I had in mind when I said that dropping an exam was debatable. When in the operating room, doctors don’t get mulligans, so maybe we shouldn’t give them any in orgo, either.

    But I’ve never heard someone get upset that a class allowed students to drop an exam. Also, dropping exams means that you don’t have to give make-up midterms. You just make sure students know from the outset that if they miss a exam–for any reason–that it’s the one that gets dropped. This is a fairness issue as well; it would be impossible to ensure that the make-up exams would be of equal difficulty as the originals.

  5. Non-sympathizer Says:

    I don’t agree that students should be shown more sympathy. I always made it clear that I worked very hard to get through o. chem as did all the other TA’s in o. chem and that I expected my students to do so. No exceptions. Some of them probably thought I was a jerk, but guess what? No crying in 3 years of teaching (at least not to me, if they did it was to someone else). Only calm and reasonable discussions about where points were taken and why, and what a student could do to raise their score.

  6. Paul Says:

    I get what you’re saying, but I think we’re using different definitions of sympathy. You seem to be using it to mean that I stand with these students and might give them favor, whereas I mean sympathy to mean that you simply understand the emotions of these students.

    Everyone screws up sometime, and it’s not hard (for me) to understand that someone might feel especially crappy after doing so. Telling a student in tears to “Stop crying! It is unproductive. Let’s have a calm and reasonable discussion” will probably not stop that student from crying.

    But, at the end of the day, I agree with the sentiment of your post. The final action of the discussion can be nothing more than to go over mistakes (both, specific mistakes on the exam and behavioral mistakes in studying) in hopes of correcting them.

  7. Non-sympathizer Says:

    Paul my comment wasn’t aimed at you, more at Corey_Student. Like I said, I never had a student cry to me so I don’t know what it’s like, but I made it clear from the get-go that I wouldn’t feel too much sympathy and they responded by coming to me with reasonable conversations (could be coincidence). Other TAs were more kind to their students and let’s just say I didn’t envy them after midterms.

    Nobody worry though, I have no intention of ever being faculty so future generations will be safe from my cold-bloodedness. Maybe that’s why I don’t see the need to sympathize with students so much (although to be fair, nobody ever said I was horribly unsympathetic or monstrous on my teaching evaluations).

  8. Chem Prof Here Says:

    I used to allow my students to drop an exam and then I realized that this basically gave students a free pass to not even show up for an exam. They wouldn’t study that exam material since many knew they had a “Get out of jail” pass. Then it would bite them in the ass on the final.

    I decided that students have to take responsibility for their responsibilities and taking exams is one such responsibility. So I devised a new grading scheme that required students to take all the exams but if they had an off day, it would not kill them. I typically give four exams in my gen chem class. The sum of the four exams counts 65% of the final grade. Thus, the top three exam scores counts 20% each and the low exam score counts 5%. So if a student has a crappy day on an exam, they will not fail the class based on one bad score; they will have plenty of other exam opportunities to fail… There has to be a consequence of a bad exam so 5% is a small one to pay. That bad exam might cost them a + or – on the final letter grade but that’s the consequence of screwing up. I find this to work pretty well and haven’t had any student complaints…at least complaints to my face…yet.

  9. Hap Says:

    In my quantum class, a woman started crying during an exam – it’s possible that it was because she was completely unprepared for the exam, but I didn’t think that at the time. I think the professor tried to calm her, but I don’t really know what she could have done. It was kind of awkward, because she had an audience whether or not she wanted one – we couldn’t leave after all.

  10. Stephen Bahl Says:

    “When a crier breaks down because she thinks her life is over, you can remind her that there is plenty to look forward to and that she will be rewarded by improving. Of course, if the student mucks up again, she’s screwed (and probably deserves it).”

    Are the students who do this invariably female?

  11. Ron Says:

    I once had a student approach me telling me he was contemplating suicide after failing an exam. What would you have done?

  12. excimer Says:

    @Ron: Send them straight to the Counseling Center. Or at least contact them, because there should be policies in place already for students at risk of suicide..

  13. Ron Says:

    @excimer: That’s exactly what I did – I take suicide very seriously. I was wondering, though, if other people here would. Everything worked out for the student at the end, so at least that’s one happy ending.

  14. Wavefunction Says:

    That’s funny, because in my sophomore orgo class where I was the TA, it was the students who made me cry. Especially the time when two of them substituted a COOH group with a NaOH when benzoic acid was treated with the base.

    On a more serious note though, I never had students cry since I was a very lenient grader. Only once did a girl cry, probably because she was bogged down by some other personal issues. I told her that orgo is not the end of the world and that many smart people don’t do great in orgo.

  15. Hap Says:

    Even if I had a personal tendency to treat threats of suicide as attempts at manipulation rather than as real statements of emotional content, I pretty sure that whatever school I worked for would mandate that it be treated otherwise. I don’t think a school could take the risk that one of its employees had ignored a suicide threat and that the parents would find out about it – it would be bad publicity and costly for them. Even ignoring the personal feelings that would result if something were to happen, it would therefore be costly for me as well. The possibility that a threat is real factored with its severity makes it unignorable.

  16. Paul Says:

    @Stephen: You’re being a bit of an ass. I purposely shuffled my use of male and female subjects and objects. Men ended up taking more shrapnel than women in this post. Of course, you failed to quote those examples in your comment.

  17. Corey_Student Says:

    OK- I get what folks are saying about my comments, but I still don’t know what to do with “1. Try to Exit” and “Try not to laugh.” Both statements sound pretty heartless to me. It’s one thing to ignore a stranger who is crying on the street, but another when it’s a student at a university where you work. Of course you shouldn’t be more lenient with the affected student’s grade, but there’s no reason you can’t be a nice person and try to help them work through what is obviously a difficult situation. Chemists already have a bad rap for being cold and unemotional (look who I worked for, for Christ’s sake), let’s not propagate the myth for generations to come.

  18. Steve Says:

    I have two boxes of tissues in my office, each one labeled with one of the courses I am teaching (organic lecture and lab). This is an idea I got from “The Last Lecture” Professor Randy Pauch. They often get positive comments from students and passersby.

    I’m rather firm with my course requirements, don’t let students drop exams, and don’t give make-up exams. If they miss an exam for an extremely good reason (death of an immediate family member, boyfriend, etc., auto accident, hospitalization, etc.), they can redistribute those points over the other exam and final exam. Otherwise, they get a zero. I recently had a guy say he was going to miss an exam because of a court date. I told him that you can actually avoid court and that he shouldn’t have gotten himself in trouble. This attitude is mine and there’s room for improvement. One inspiring comment from a student evaluation was this: “One can have rules and standards, give challenging exams, and can teach a rigorous course, but one must also have compassion.” I have that hanging on my wall.

  19. Aspirin Says:

    I was with Paul and thought he was actually sympathetic until I saw “Try not to laugh”.

  20. Paul Says:

    Some of you people are humorless.

  21. Warped Says:

    There’s a humor opportunity in a blog post about crying students?

  22. Paul Says:

    @Ron: I would have done the same thing…maybe even walked the kid (instead of sending him off by himself) to counseling services.

  23. Chemjobber Says:

    “Don’t close your office door.”

    You know, I’m glad I’m not the only one who followed this principle, esp. when dealing with students of the opposite sex.

  24. agiantamongmolecules Says:

    I bombed a polymer mechanics class as an undergrad, like lowest grade in the class bombed, despite studying a great deal for it. I went to speak to the professor about what I was doing wrong, with no intention of complaining or groveling, and ended up weeping all over him. My professor was very nice, but had no idea how to deal with me. It seems to me that many successful academics are particularly unsuited to commiserate with failing students, because they themselves never really struggled with the material they are teaching. They think that it is exceptionally elementary, otherwise why would you teach it to undergraduate student, and can’t seem to understand how anyone couldn’t get it. Needless to say I am no long an engineer. Oh and I am a man.

  25. Liberal Chemist Says:

    This thread is probably run its course but the theme that the physical sciences are heartless has been used for comedic effect in “Big Bang Theory” such as when Sheldon tries to teach Physics to Penny …

    Sheldon “have you suffered a recent blow to the head?”
    Penny “No, you just really suck at teaching”
    Sheldon”Really? Of those two explanations which do you think is most likely?”

    Sheldon “Why are you crying?”
    Penny “Because I’m stupid”
    Sheldon “That’s no reason to cry … one cries because one is sad …for example I cry because other’s are stupid and that makes me sad.”

    So what have we done to merit this as our stereotype? The other question is why are abusive characters like House and Sheldon loved when if we tried anything like this we would be brought before the Dean?

  26. instigator Says:

    why are abusive characters like House and Sheldon loved?

    Because women love jerks. Yes, if you watch House you’re a woman.

  27. wolfie Says:

    Look, Paul, you look so unhappy on that picture


    that I am only telling my true emotions. If you’re not made for this – delete me.

    Oh, whiz

  28. Paul Says:

    Whereas you, Wolfie, are always happy:

  29. wolfie Says:

    mostly, yes. This is a very selective picture, hardly depicting my inner and outer reality of life.

  30. wolfie Says:

    “And then the crying school-boy, with his satchel
    And shining morning face, creeping like snail
    Unwillingly to school.”

    Who wrote this ?

  31. wolfie Says:

    Look, Paul, you know “The Truman Show”. There is always some superficial observer who is looking at and controlling your actions.

  32. Jose Says:

    And then there was the smokin’ hot woman/girl who stayed after lab, leans over the bench top (!) in a very low cut shirt, and asks, “Is there *anything* I can do for extra credit?” “Yes, you can actually study next time. Now get out.” She scowled at me, turned on her heel, and stomped out. Priceless!

  33. Ron Says:

    When I was a recitation section TA, I had a woman who always dressed up in a too-short, too-tight dress when she attended my sections. I noticed that she did not dress this way when she attended lecture, so I figured that she was trying to somehow gain my favor in this way. Unfortunately for her, I’m not attracted to women …

  34. Paul Says:

    In my advanced organic course (206) at Harvard, the head TF’s girlfriend was in the class. When I was at NYU, one of the TAs “dated” several of his female students in sophomore orgo. In the former case, it was an overt relationship, while the latter case consisted of covert operations (although disguised very, very poorly).

  35. a Says:

    Try not to laugh? Cruel! I’d be heartbroken if my teachers were like this. But they’re not.

  36. Paul Bracher Says:

    @a: …and I’m not. Sheesh. It was a throw-away line. No one cares more about students than I do.

  37. Rob Says:

    Earlier this week, a very well-adjusted (so I thought) college-age, Middle Eastern, male student of mine had an unexpected breakdown in my office. This is the second male to do so since May. So I started visiting websites to see how others handle this. In every website I’ve been to this afternoon addressing students crying for various reasons, very few articles or posts suggested asking the student, “What is really wrong?” I have found in 22 years of instructing middle & high school, comm college and university students on 4 continents that there is ALWAYS a good reason for emotional breakdowns, and it rarely has to do only with grades. My syllabi state I am not just their professor, but someone they can also come to for help when issues outside of class are affecting their performance inside of my class. I give my students time & place to open up to me and very often take them to the counselors (which thankfully, someone above mentioned!). I can listen and offer advice and alternatives and rationalization, but the counselors are far-better equipped to help the students with the real issues. I find all the impatience, condescension, and mockery that I have read on all of the websites to be very disheartening.

  38. Paul Bracher Says:

    @Rob: It’s a good point that there are sometimes underlying issues greater than the bad grade in these cases, but I think a good deal of it does have to do directly with the bad grade (and the students’ expectation of what harm a bad grade will do to their aspirations).

    I think it would be really weird to ask a crying student “What is really wrong?”, implying that they are being disingenuous. Perhaps a better approach would be to ask “How are things going outside of this class?” (with follow up questions about their other classes, and possibly, “everything else” to encompass personal issues.)

  39. XxXxAvalonXxXxArcher Says:

    Really?!!!!!? Such typical & terrible advise, you’re edging on the impersonal world we live in. My goal is to have an establishment and maybe even the world put back they’re barriers and live personally with strangers you see every day until they’re no longer strangers. Paycheck or not…we have to come to terms that another becomes less strangers if we get out of the roles we think we have to play. That crying student could grow up and be the president, age dosn’t define us, and I don’t take authority kindly. Everyone should be given the same respect. Saying something is a lot harder than doing it, but when I do ill make sure to put up signs ‘never ignore one when crying.’ Why? Because doing nothing dosn’t solve the problem. And no I’m not saying you should baby the crying student. But if you ignore it the student won’t stop or anything, your not helping anything. No don’t baby either. What I think should be done is to let the student be grounded, go up to them & ask if they’re all right and that they can stay after class if they’d like. And than sense I don’t do the whole ‘special privlege’ thing either I’d give a 5 minute ‘fresh up’ to the whole class and than console the student. Now this is not to be mistaken as this student is waiting the classes time. Maybe the students crying triggered that EVERYONE needed a break as well, and so forth they’re should be, and a lot of the students could be feeling the same way and are simply not showing it. Ignoring something dosn’t make it go away. If we all put away our little roles and systematic approaches to how we’re exposed to act, as teacher or not, than we’ll all see that we’re human. Professional or not, if we don’t accept this we won’t get anywhere. If we as humans don’t help a fellow human out we won’t in return have anyone to help ourselves out. It becomes a dry world, of living zombie strangers simply interacting with another. As is most of the school systems built up like to this day. Which is pretty messed up if you ask me. Just because you have authority dosn’t mean we should think ‘Oh, it’s really none of my business and I shouldn’t get involved, It will be over in a few anyways’. Why? Truthfully that moment WON’T be over. Just because you don’t show how you feel doesn’t mean your not feeling it. When the student is done crying, just because it’s not advisable to us dosnt make the problem disappear. The student will still feel the same. And so we can all pretend to go about as if we’re emotionless and as if we shouldn’t but out way into situations. But in the end we’re just coming up with petty solutions to not fixing an actual problem. The student is LITERALLY crying out for help, and you do nothing? Wow. Nothing wrong with you though, most of society thinks this way. Which is why I think we need desperate change to shop this nonsensical impersonal world from growing. We’re only hurting ourselves. And so no, as a student I do not want to be apart of an superficial, follow the leader, blank docile robot, remembering questions for a big fail or not test, just live everybody else, while inside feeling empty and broken down… just like how they want you to feel. Hey, dropouts still paid good money before dropping out.. Or do I want to be apart of the systematic y’all business, follow the routine day to day to day to day… and golly gee if something comes outside of the routine? Like crying? Don’t know how to respond and do nothing because I wasn’t told to do anything.. stupid system as a teacher! Following the pretty textbooks from 50 years ago. Sitting at a desk & mindlessly grading papers with a big fat red ink pen while deeply wishing to be anywhere else. It’s all a stupid trap. Hah! This is not how we should be able to or exposed to function as human beings!! Where’s life in any of this? Where’s the personal connections? Gosh dang it, seeing the same teacher everyday for a year and yet you know nothing about them. Seeing a whole new batch of kids every year and it’s so far along you just make sure you pronounce they’re names right on the attendance. Maybe we should have th same set of kids for all years and smaller classrooms. We need change gosh dang it, and ill be sure to see it.

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