Teaching Tips

Assumptions, Expectations and Exasperation: Students Can't Know What We Don't Tell Them

How faculty can help students understand expectations in the classroom and professional life.

By Julie Blaskewicz Boron, PhD

As a faculty member, there are different times when we can become frustrated with various student behaviors. It may happen in classes, when working with advisees and with both graduate and undergraduate students on our research teams. Many times our frustration can stem from unstated assumptions held regarding expectations for student behaviors. Although we strive to avoid passing judgment on or making unfair assumptions about student conduct, even the best of us can become frustrated and angry about perceived slights. More often than not, the behavior (or lack of desired behavior) is not intentional but simply a lack of knowledge. Although it can be easy to assume that students know appropriate behavior for interacting with others in and outside the classroom or lab and engaging in professional exchanges with professors, this is not necessarily the case. Taking an educational approach and erring on the side of reviewing already known information is helpful to both students and professors to reduce the experience of frustration. This approach will not only help instruct students on professional interactions, but it will also help prepare them for the real world and realize that their professors are simply treating them as adults.

There are a broad array of common sources of problematic behavior: how students address us, emails (e.g., addressing, content, casual/unprofessional style, lack of sign-off, delayed response), appropriate etiquette at appointments, classroom behaviors (e.g., cell phone use, texting, questions, discussions), late/incomplete assignments, papers, exams, etc. In the classroom, much of this can be addressed by adding detailed contingencies to the syllabus. After all, the syllabus is a contract between professor and student, and it serves both parties' interests as far as expected classroom behavior. Sulik and Keys (2014) published an article detailing the importance of the syllabus for various problematic behaviors. A somewhat common concern faculty members share is regarding the type of emails received from students. Many have resorted to discussing appropriate email etiquette or even including guidelines in their syllabi.

Various websites provide syllabus suggestions. (Examples are referenced below.) Cell phone use and in particular, text messaging, are additional pet peeves of many faculty members. Beyond sharing the evidence that text messaging decreases comprehension of material covered during class time (e.g., Gingerich & Lineweaver, 2014), using the syllabus to address expectations regarding cell phone use during class time makes the desired behavior clear. Indeed, including guidelines within course policies on a syllabus may fare well in terms of meeting student expectations for fairness (Bailey, Jenkins, & Barber, 2016) and reducing the potential for frustration throughout the semester for faculty members and students alike.

As most faculty probably realize, there is just as much opportunity for education outside the classroom as there is in the classroom. In regard to advising and mentoring graduate students, Claire Kamp Dush recently wrote an article for Chronicle Vitae detailing her advice based upon her experience as a director of graduate studies. In addition to emphasizing how important it is to express expectations as the student's advisor and possible research mentor, she also provided very specific recommendations regarding how to independently problem solve, effectively use meeting time, find a mentor, respect deadlines and the importance of mutual communication. Again, making sure that expectations are conveyed and understood by the student will not only decrease potential sources of frustration for the faculty member, but will also be beneficial to the student. Satisfaction with one's academic advisor has been found to be an important component of graduate students' overall educational experience (Hardré & Hakett, 2015).

In closing, although some behaviors that faculty members find frustrating or annoying seem like things students should already know to avoid, taking the time to clearly communicate expectations is an important part of our responsibility as educators and mentors. The benefits of taking more of a facilitative-coaching approach to student behaviors are many. By making our expectations clear and helping the students to meet them, we will be more positively received by the students and experience less stress as educators in a rapidly changing world.

Email tips:

Julie Blaskewicz Boron, PhD, is an associate professor of gerontology and doctoral program chair at the University of Nebraska, Omaha.


Bailey, S.F., Jenkins, J.S., & Barber, L.K. (2016). Students' reactions to curse policy decisions: An empirical investigation. Teaching of Psychology, 43, 22-31. doi:10.1177/0098628315620065

Hardré, P.L., & Hakett, S.M. (2015). Understanding the graduate college experience: Perceptual differences by degree type, point-in-program, and disciplinary subgroups. Learning Environments Research, 18(3), 453-468. doi:10.1007/s10984-015-9194-1

Sulik, G., & Keys, J. (2014). “Many students really do not yet know how to behave!”: The syllabus as a tool for socialization. Teaching Sociology, 42(2), 151-160. doi:10.1177/0092055X13513243

Article by Dr. Kamp Dush: https://chroniclevitae.com/news/1637-advice-on-being-advised?cid=pm&utm_source=pm&utm_medium=en&elqTrackId=f0ca766f0b1a4f60891dabc975ae46af&elq=22709f39ad534789ab8fdb46079f4e9e&elqaid=11766&elqat=1&elqCampaignId=4693