Bad news may be defined as “any information which adversely and seriously affects an individual's view of his or her future.” Bad news is always, however, in the “eye of the beholder,” such that one cannot estimate the impact of the bad news until one has first determined the recipient's expectations or understanding. Your understanding of “the bigger picture” may be much different than the student’s perception. I often have students approach me about failing my lab quizzes. They are often upset, because they either haven’t failed anything before, or they feel the quizzes must somehow be unfair. I know my quizzes are hard. I know Biology is hard for a lot of students. But I also know that I have set up my course in a way that a few failed quizzes will not affect their final grades. I drop the lowest two quizzes, and quizzes are worth 10 points apiece, out of 1000 points for the whole course. The student who approaches me may not understand how failing one quiz affects their grades (short answer – it doesn’t).
Before you even approach the student, get your own emotions in check. Being angry at the student, yelling at them, dashing off an email in rage, or dismissing them invariably sets up a showdown, and a possible retaliation by the student. Many students, when hearing bad news, immediately begin thinking about how to go over your head, how the bad news is not their fault, or how the bad news isn’t fair. You might be sad yourself that the student failed your course. You may be disappointed in the amount of effort they put into the assignment. You are allowed to feel bad about giving bad news – but you must be professional when dealing with the student.
I believe that students want, and deserve to hear, the truth. Trying to lessen the bad news by diminishing its meaning isn’t fair to the student. We should tell them the truth, be sensitive to how the disclosure is done, and in supporting the students, assist them in decision making. Don’t lie to them, and don’t be a jerk. Even though it may not feel this way, I believe most students are really good people, who are just trying to get through something major. They don’t know how to do this “college thing.” They may lie. They may cheat. That doesn’t make them evil people – it makes them students. We see this every day; they may only be in this situation once in their lives. And they may make bad decisions that lead to their troubles. Just as telling a lung cancer patient who smoked 20 years that they are dying is hard, and smoking may have led to the cancer, a doctor does not drop the death bomb on them, and walk away (or shouldn’t). Don’t drop bombs on your students without helping them make the next, proper, steps.
Because if you drop bombs on students without helping them to make the next steps, where will they go to find comfort? They may approach their peers. While peers may provide comfort, they may not provide the best advice. The blind, leading the blind. Peers may suggest poor strategies such as cheating, drinking, blowing off steam, quitting, or hacking. None of those will lead to a productive resolution. They may approach family members, who may have no clue how to support them, except get angry for them. They may go to bashing you on ratemyprofessor.com or other internet sites. This may set them up to slander you, or hurt their college careers (or yours!).
Step 1 – Setting up the interview
Bad news should really be given in person. And, in private. One of the challenges that professors face is giving bad news in privacy, but not in isolation. I would NEVER suggest closing yourself in an office or lab with any student. If a student becomes emotional, it can be expected. Students can also become violent, or make claims about the event that aren’t true. I would always suggest conference rooms or the main office, in a room that is not isolated. Make a connection with the student, maintaining eye contact, but not in a position of power. Standing over a student, or making them stand, puts you on unequal footing with the student. With both parties sitting, there is an opportunity and time for for a dialogue to take place.
Step 2 – Assess the student’s perception
Before hopping right to the bad news, assess the student’s overall situation first. This may involve gathering information about their grades in your class, their grades in general, their program requirements, or the school regulations. Asking “what do you understand about your grades so far?” or “what is your understanding of how you are doing in the program?” Be ready for “the sugarcoat,” however. Students often do not realize how bad they are doing. Knowing “the bigger picture” helps you to correct a student’s misperceptions or misinformation along the way. “Student denial” is very real – wishful thinking (about passing), omission of essential details, or unrealistic expectations of passing just because they paid for the course.
I was discussing a student’s potential failure of my course, because of his lack of understanding of English. He told me he was doing well in all his other courses, and mine was the only one he was failing. After further investigation, it turns out he had failed multiple courses, and had been warned by his academic advisor multiple times about lagging behind in his program. As frustrating as it was for me, I had to let him fail. I gave him every opportunity to pass – but not all students pass. It was heartbreaking for me, because I tried so hard to help him. I just could not take it personally, and I couldn’t walk him through school in general. I had 39 other students to attend to in class, and I just could not do the work for him. It’s hard when nice students don’t pass.
Step 3 – Obtaining the student’s invitation
While a majority of students want to discuss how to move on, after bad news, some may not be ready to talk about it. Students sometimes shun information in an attempt to psychologically cope with the information. While I believe the bad information must be delivered appropriately, and in a timely fashion, discussing next steps may need to happen at a further point. It may involve two meetings. But the second meeting must be predicated by your desire to help – if the semester or program is about to end, you need to make this clear to the student. They may have to move on in a timely fashion.
I read an email with the dialogue about a student’s doctoral process where the advisor essentially ATTACKED the student. He stuck a knife in her, and then twisted it. The email was one long rant from an obviously frustrated advisor, and it was cruel. It appeared to be an angry professor hiding behind his keyboard, instead of having a heart to heart with his doc student. It warned the student that if the student didn’t do exactly as he detailed (and then he didn’t detail) the student would never graduate. It was awful
Step 4 – Giving knowledge and information to the student
Warning the student that bad news is coming may lessen the shock and facilitate information processing. Examples of phrases that can be used include, “Unfortunately I've got some bad news to tell you” or “I'm sorry to tell you that…”. As educators, we may skip this step because we feel that student “have done this to themselves.” “I’m sorry to tell you that I detected plagiarism in your term paper.” may seem awkward. But it’s a necessary step. You should also use language that students understand. “Plagiarize” may not be fully understood by the student. “I detected that your term paper was copied and pasted from so-and-so site.” gives a clearer picture of the problem. I’d also avoid unnecessary bluntness. “You plagiarized your term paper, and as a result, I gave you a zero and you fail.” is likely to leave the student angry, and blaming the messenger (you) rather than the action (the plagiarism). We try so hard in education to be succinct in our writing, but this is one case where being brief can be misinterpreted as being terse.
Step 5 – Address the student’s emotions with empathetic responses.
Responding to the student’s emotions is one of the most difficult challenges of breaking bad news. Students’ emotional reactions may vary from silence to disbelief, crying, denial, or anger. I had a student, who upon failing a major test, was sitting in my office, crying his eyes out. He explained that he COULDN’T take this failing grade, or he’d be kicked out of his teacher program. I suddenly saw a flash of anger in his eyes. He accused me of being unclear, not giving him a study guide, and demanded a retake. I pointed him to the syllabus, where the expectations for the class were clearly spelled out. This is another reason to have SUCH a clear, and detailed, syllabus. As new teachers, or teaching assistants, we may not have thought through all the scenarios, and what the consequences can be. Look for good direction about compiling syllabi online, like here, or this superb guide. Having clear policies about how cheating, failing, or retakes are handled is crucial. And students can argue like little lawyers. Talk to members of your department about things they feel are vital at your school.
Step 6 – Strategy and Summary
Students who are provided with a clear plan for the future are less likely to be anxious or uncertain. While they may be upset or angry about bad news, it’s crucial to provide them with their options. Sometimes, the options may not be ones they like – retaking a course, delaying graduation, having a note in their school record – but none of these things mean life is over. It may feel like it is for the student – they may have to face a different career choice, an angry parent, or admitting wrongdoing. You can always steer students towards your campus counseling services, or advise them to meet with their academic advisor. If you are worried about the student harming themselves, you can report to the crisis team on campus.
Many students see an appeal to the department chair as an option. They want to argue, and for you to be wrong. Don’t be surprised – and don’t take it personally. I think it’s important to follow school rules for all students, and give all students an equal opportunity to give your course or program their best effort. When bad news means they have to chart a new course in life, that’s ok. I can’t tell you how many times I have looked honestly at what I was doing, and made a new, improved plan. By being kind, offering options, and understanding the person standing before you, delivering bad news and respecting the needs of the student become easier.