But It is Clear: Dealing with the Defensive Student

But It is Clear: Dealing with the Defensive Student

Almost every time I hand back student essays, there is at least one student who is stunned by her grade—most often, that it was a “B” or a “C” rather than the “A” that she felt she deserved.

Often she’ll come up to me after class—or more recently, confront me during class—about how she felt she deserved the “A.” When I point out her need for transitions, the problems with verb tense and point of view switches, and so forth, she’ll usually dismiss that with an “uh-huh” and go on reiterating the claim that it is good work, perhaps the best she has ever produced, and that she’s always received “A’s” on her previous work. I can’t really argue these points, usually not knowing about her past record, so I’ll pull out the grading rubric and show her how her essay measures against the rubric. The student may here change the subject and give her opinion that her writing is certainly as good as the textbook model by essayist Joan Didion. I’ll then drag out the textbook and attempt to show her the difference between her own work and Didion’s: Didion’s precise word choice, the purposeful organization, etc. This usually only gets a blank look from the student and then the repeated claim she really deserved the “A” grade.


It’s probably somewhat clear to the reader what might be going on with this student. One of the problems we often face with students and teaching them a skill, such as writing, is that their very status as beginners can often impede their ability to distinguish between good and poor work. This shouldn’t be a surprise: it takes a certain skill level in a field to recognize what is good work and mediocre work within that field. As a non-tennis player, for example, I really wouldn’t be able to recognize the elements of a good serve and a poor one. And this problem is also evident in the student mentioned above: she lacked the insight into good writing even to tell me why she felt she deserved an “A” (her development, word choice, etc.) but simply that she wanted it. There are several concerns with defensive students, but fortunately, also methods to deal with them. These methods are designed to get the student beyond her defensiveness and protection of her work and, by extension, her ego (“But it is excellent work!”) to recognizing there is room for improvement—in the work itself, not necessarily in herself as an individual-- and to move forward in revising and improving her work.

Concerns with Defensive Students and How to Address Them

  1. 1

    Lack of Understanding of What is Good Work

    Again, a major concern with defensive students is lack of even understanding the difference between good and mediocre efforts in a field they themselves are new to. One of the contributing factors to this problem is the tradition of teaching by unrealistically strong professional models: an essay by Joan Didion or Richard Rodriguez, for example, is so removed from most students’ abilities they are unable to even relate to it or aspire to write like that. More helpful, I’ve found, is to keep a bank of past student work, with names removed, of course, of both strong and weaker essays. I find that after a semester of analyzing these, students have a well-developed sense of what is good and poor writing. Students can then apply this understanding of what is good work to their own performance.

  2. 2

    Past Positive Feedback (Imagined or Real)

    Another major problem that students face in the United States in particular is that they may have in the past received nothing but positive feedback for their work, so they have no sense that there is any room for improvement. Teachers tend to be a kind and encouraging group of people, so they may have focused solely on what was strong in their students’ work; in addition, there is a big gap, in the United States at least, in the expectations of college and students’ prior education. Therefore, students are often shocked when they find themselves getting “C’s” on papers when they have only earned “A’s” in the past. Methods of dealing with this are again discussing the expectations of the field of study: college composition, this case. I find that opening this discussion with what students’ own opinions of what makes good writing is particularly valuable: their answers, drawn from reading, of vivid word choice, good description and examples, a strong main idea and examples, “flows well” (i.e., well-organized with clear transitions) are the very qualities on the rubric by which they will be judged. Students therefore often have an existing sense of what good work is in the field that just needs to be made explicit by discussion, referring to the grading rubric, and showing examples of stronger and weaker work.

  3. 3

    Insecurity and Tendency to Personalize Constructive Feedback

    A final large problem of dealing with the defensive student is their underlying insecurity and hence tendency to personalize criticism: e.g. the student may hear “Your essay needs some revision” as “You’re a poor writer and not very intelligent either.” This problem can in part be addressed by recognizing first the writing’s strong points and the student’s potential as a writer and that revising the essay will continue to improve both the writing and the student as a writer—therefore taking the focus of the discussion away from the student’s personhood and focusing on the writing itself and ways to improve it.

Dealing with defensive students can be difficult because of the very nature of defensiveness as a series of barriers to protect the student’s ego, which can be difficult to penetrate in order to focus on the work, not the student as an individual. However, by using several strategies in teaching the difference between strong and mediocre work, keeping the focus on the work itself rather than the student as a person, and addressing both the strengths of the student work as well as its areas for improvement, get past the defensiveness and allows focus to move to the work itself and how to improve it.


What are some of the methods you have developed for addressing defensive student behavior?

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