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There are no bad students (except there are)

April 14, 2013

[I first wrote this post in April 2013, more than 3 years ago now.  A lot of people seem to arrive here when they perform a search like “bad students” or suchlike. Teaching can be a frustrating activity, and students often become the source of our frustration, especially when they don’t behave in the way we want, expect, or hope they will. But, as teachers, our role is to help our students to become more effective learners. If we have students who are not learning effectively, it’s up to us to do something about it.

I realise that it’s possible to read this post as a criticism of different types of student, labelling and categorizing them, lumping them into groups. This is wrong. Our students are all individuals and must be treated as such. We may get frustrated, but the responsibility for turning bad students into good students lies with us, their teachers. This is a very important part of our job and we shouldn’t forget that.]

SB, May 2016


The idea that there are no bad students, only bad teachers, is one of those truisms that has become a bit of a cliché. Maybe it’s because Mr Miyagi (a good teacher if ever there was one) said it in The Karate Kid, but I have always found the idea very plausible.

If students are finding it difficult to learn what is being taught, then a good teacher should be able to identify where the difficulties are and show the learner how to overcome them. The teaching context may make this difficult (if, for example, the class is large and the learners diverse) but the responsibility lies with the teacher to make bad students into good students.

However, even if it is true that good teachers can make good students, they wouldn’t have to do this if there weren’t bad students in the first place. In this post, I would like to identify some examples of bad English students, not because I want to moan about them or ridicule them (relax, Scott Thornbury!), but because I think the exploration of reasons why students are struggling to progress is something that many teachers neglect. We are often preoccupied with how we are going to deliver our lessons – what are our aims, how can we introduce the language in a student-centred way, is the context relevant etc. – but we spend a lot less time reflecting on how effective each lesson was, in terms of how the students responded and what could have helped them learn more effectively. Below then, are seven types of “bad student” – students who have problems learning languages effectively – that I have identified from my own experience, along with some suggestions for how to take action as a teacher to try and turn them into more effective learners.

Perhaps you will recognise these students from your own classrooms. Or maybe you would like to suggest some other types of students that you have identified yourself, in which case I look forward to reading your ideas.

1.      The panicker 

This is the type of student who is unable to just go with things in a lesson. As soon as they are slightly out of their comfort zone they panic and become incapable of learning. Common symptoms include turning to students and asking for clarification in L1, reaching for a dictionary every time they encounter a new word, or talking while the CD is playing about the answer to number 2, so that everybody misses the answer to number 3. Such behaviour can be disruptive and panickers tend not to be popular with more effective fellow-students or with teachers, and this only serves to heighten their insecurity and exacerbate their problems.

Ways to deal with them?

Panickers need to be treated very sensitively. A lot of work on reading and listening that focuses only on understanding gist, followed by post-task reflection on how much they could understand (as opposed to how much they couldn’t) is a good way of building confidence. Panickers tend to respond well to very controlled practice activities such as dialogue-builds or any kind of speaking/writing tasks that have a lot of scaffolding around them. The move from restricted use to freer practice is one that needs to be carefully managed though, to ensure they don’t feel they are being thrown in at the deep end.

2.      The deflector

Deflectors are students who feel that any problems that exist with their learning are actually someone else’s fault. If they can’t understand another student, it is because that student has bad pronunciation. If they can’t understand a text it’s because it contains words that they couldn’t possibly be expected to know. If they fail a test it’s because the teacher didn’t prepare them well enough. Or the CD was too quiet. Or the window was open and they were distracted by outside noise. Deflectors are quick to complain, and are therefore usually seen by teachers as “ones to watch out for”.

Ways to deal with them?

One way is to constantly hold a mirror up every time they try to deflect, and force them to consider that the problem might lie with them. Make it clear that you have no problem understanding their speaking partner. Point out that the aim of the reading is not to understand the difficult words, but to understand the text as a whole. Remind them of the preparation that was done for the test. State matter-of-factly that everyone else could hear the CD (maybe they have a hearing impairment?), say the window was deliberately open to create the effects of background noise, etc. This approach can be successful, but there is a risk that the student could turn into a denier (see 3 below).

3.      The denier

These students are in denial about their own learning. They think that they are doing fine when, in reality, they are making little or no progress and are often very far from achieving their goals. Deniers are often very passive in class, believing that simply turning up will entail progress, and they are often unable to see the benefits of active learning. It would be in keeping for a denier to refuse to do a grammar practice activity, claiming that they have studied it before and therefore it’s a waste of time, despite the fact that they have yet to demonstrate an ability to actually use this language item accurately.

Ways to deal with them?

Unfortunately, deniers often need to fail at something before they are able to accept their own shortcomings. A test result that provides objective evidence of where the student is in terms of their English, and how far removed this is from their learning goals, is often enough to shock a denier onto a more effective path. Providing a mock test, and then following it up with a tutorial to discuss ways to address the problem, is a way of creating the conditions to instigate change without the student actually failing when other things are also at stake. Of course, this will not work if the student is also a deflector, in which case go back to 2 above.

4.      The strength-player

Strength-players often flatter to deceive. They are very good at one area of English, and use this to hide their weaknesses. Strength-players who are good at speaking will dominate pair and group activities, and when these activities require writing they will try to get their partner to do the writing, claiming that they are providing all the ideas. Those who are good at grammar will be keen to participate during language clarification stages, allowing them to slip under the radar during communicative activities. Whatever the student is good at they will do lots of, making it less obvious that they are not doing, or are incapable of doing, other things.

Ways to deal with them?

Left to their own devices, strength-players will continue to neglect their weak areas and their profiles will become increasingly jagged. They need to be forced to address the areas of language or skills that they are avoiding. Give strong speakers the role of secretary during group activities. Get the strong writers to present findings orally at the end of a speaking task. Ensure slow readers have the time to complete a task before letting them “compare” (i.e. copy) answers from a stronger partner.

5.      The attention-seeker

These students are often liked by teachers, because they know they can rely on them for a contribution in an otherwise boring class full of cardboard cut-outs (see 6 below). However, they are less popular with their classmates as their main trait is to dominate lessons and command a disproportionate amount of teacher attention. All the attention doesn’t lead to good progress though, as they are more preoccupied with getting a response from the teacher than they are with actually learning anything. They prefer a whole-class focus to student-centred activity, and they often don’t value (or even listen to) other students’ contributions.

Ways to deal with them?

Very often, attention-seekers are also not very good team players. They therefore need to be made aware of how much they can learn from groupwork and peer learning. As they also place value on teacher reactions, praising students who are very obviously not attention-seekers but are effective learners (e.g. those who show an ability to peer-teach) can make them reflect on their own behaviour, and re-evaluate what they should be doing in class in order to get a positive response from the teacher.

6. The cardboard cut-out

These are the students who just sit there, who only speak when they absolutely have to, who only write when they are given a clear task and time limit, and who are rarely missed when they are absent. These students show no interest in learning, and do nothing to help themselves make progress. They may be aware that they should be more active in the class, yet they remain unwilling. Reasons for this behaviour could be a lack of confidence, self-consciousness when using English in front of their peers, or just plain laziness. However it could equally be due to a fundamental failure to understand language learning as the acquisition of a skill. Cardboard cut-outs often seem to regard English as the same as the other subjects they learned in school. They used to sit quietly in the maths class and got away with that, so why is this English teacher getting so frustrated that they’re sitting quietly in his class? They may not be disruptive, but for a language teacher they are really infuriating.

Ways to deal with them?

As the problems with cardboard cut-outs often lie in a lack of awareness of what language learning is all about, the logical way to start addressing their issues is to focus them on what they actually hope to be able to achieve on their course. So, lots of needs analysis and goal-setting, followed up with lots of reflection on progress and identifying barriers. If the barriers are related to confidence issues, then the first step to overcoming them is identifying and acknowledging them.

7.      The absentee

It’s impossible to teach a student who isn’t there. And yet, some students expect to be able to successfully complete a course even if they don’t attend it. In my time I have heard a wide range of excuses to explain or justify absence, but in terms of learning the reason for the absence is irrelevant. If the student didn’t come to the class, they missed whatever learning went on during that lesson. If their attendance is erratic, students will be unable to benefit from whatever cohesion or continuity that the course contains, and the lessons that they do attend, which inevitably contain teacher comments such as “remember we looked at this last week”, or student questions like “does this mean the same as that other word we did yesterday?” will become increasingly difficult to follow.

Ways to deal with them?

If your students have genuine problems coming to class, one way to address the problem is to change the format of the course to make it more achievable. There is so much scope these days for blended learning that in some ways it seems wrong to insist on students coming to class for every lesson, when they could be doing at least some of it by distance. Of course, they may also be absent from an online course, in which case you at least know that the student, for one reason or another, just isn’t prepared to invest the time required. The only way to address this is to look for ways to motivate the student to learn.

Of course, some bad students fit with more than one of the profiles above, and there must be plenty of other types of bad student that I haven’t described. I’m also sure there are lots of other ways to deal with bad language learners that I have not mentioned. So, what have I missed out?


From → Classroom ideas

  1. Daljit Kaur permalink

    I think all the student types you’ve mentioned could all be categorised in one: the inexperienced student. Inexperienced could be, for example, a student who is new to learning and doesn’t know how to behave in the classroom or towards others in a learning environment. Perhaps, they’re unfamiliar with the teaching methods and approaches, so they adopt some form of ‘bad’ student behaviour to compensate for their uncertainty and insecurity. Maybe, they haven’t yet learned how to work with others and what respect to peers entails. Or perhaps they’re just not mature enough to understand the teacher who forces them to think and behave in ways that they’ve never had to before.
    I’m a firm believer that most ‘bad’ students realise later in life what it was all about. They look back at their troubled times and see what the teacher was trying to get at. This is when they transform into the experienced learner. We, as teachers, want to see this transition while the individual is with us. However, lifelong learning is what we should focus on. The teacher features in one stage of the learner’s journey, and we can only hope that the panicker, the deflector, the denier etc becomes the responsible team player and active participant that we wanted them to be. We can’t all be like Mr Miyagi, just like learners can’t all be the Karate Kid. However, we can certainly give it our best shot.

    • Thanks very much for this comment, Daljit. It is really important to maintain this perspective; a teacher only sees a snapshot of where each learner is at that particular point in their development. Bad students are definitely capable of becoming good students and, as you point out, all they need is the right kind of input from teachers to set them off in the right direction. This point highlights the importance of learner training though, doesn’t it?

      • Daljit Kaur permalink

        Yes, and that’s where we learn from Mr Miyagi. We recognise the individual’s potential and channel it. If a learner chooses not to follow their mentor, you always leave the door open for another teacher to try.

  2. I’m really late here.. but what if you have several students who are 1, 2, 3, 5 AND 7 all at the same time rolled into one student??

    Seriously.. I have several students in an adult learning setting who are angry. They are insisting that their lack of planning and participation, along with their sudden sense of urgency is now the school’s emergency..

    Does anyone have any insight for that?

    • Hi, and sorry for the delay in replying. I’m not sure if I can offer a solution, but yes I do understand that you do get students who create a lot of barriers for themselves by refusing to take responsibility for their learning, or refusing to acknowledge the active process of learning.
      Maybe one way to start positively engaging such students would be to try setting tasks that encourage them to consider what learning (if any) is taking place, what they can do at the end of a class that they couldn’t do at the beginning, what words they have learnt in the past week and how they plan to use them in the future, that sort of thing. Actually articulating the processes of learning might help them to become more aware of the action that is required by them. I don’t know if that helps..?

  3. Frankie permalink

    Students learn best when they are ready. Readiness cannot be forced. ‘When you are ready the teacher will appear.’ Could be understood as ‘When you are ready you will recognise the teachers all around you and select the teacher/teachers of value to your readiness to learn.’ This cannot be forced in ANY student. We do not select our students they select us or dismiss us as relevant or irrelevant to their state of readiness. Generalising on ‘types’ of unreadiness does not overcome the nature of it. Students are individuals, individuals have specific experience and will project that into every learning opportunity and choice that they are presented with. Our lot is to offer, not to fix what is not broken, just vulnerable or fledgling, or tired, or floating, or at seed. Forced plants bloom fast and die off shortly after. Holistic teaching respects process as vital to perennial rather than annual productivity. Readiness comes with time and experiential context. Education is not a system unto itself, it is an institution created by those who are engaged in the ‘business’ of learning and pedagogy. No child is raised identically to another, no plant grows identically to another, no student conforms to a type identical to another. Life learning finds it’s avenues and it’s moments of readiness, ask any Grandmother or Grandfather when they learned and how they learned and why they learned and you will not read what is above . As teachers we might be considered able ‘Catchers in the Rye.’ Not all knowing threshers and graders of the rye. Humility was Myagis strong point. We could learn from that as teachers who understand readiness in all it’s shades.

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