Center for Teaching and Learning

What If? Preparing for Challenging Moments

Students haven’t done the reading. A student is angry about the grade they received. A couple of students cheated on the exam. Now what? This session helps TAs prepare for the unexpected. Participants emerge from the session with strategies for responding constructively to common TA scenarios.


  • Text from all linked material in google docs is also available at the bottom of this page–scroll down to access.

Workshop goals & corresponding materials

1. Identify goals for responding to a challenging moment.

  • Read through the “What if scenarios”
  • With a colleague, discuss the following questions related to 3-5 of these scenarios:
    • What issues are raised in this situation?
    • What would you do? Do you have any concerns about this decision?
    • How might you prevent this situation?
  • Record your responses using the “What if?” response grid.”

2. Develop strategies for meeting those goals.

Read through the following:

With your colleague, reflect on key principles from the “strategies” list that correspond with the scenarios that you & your colleague selected. Consider especially how you will address micro / macroaggressions in your classroom: when a student creates one, and when you create one.

3. Discuss ways to prevent these challenging moments from happening, such as data on why students cheat, and working with your supervising faculty member to establish class norms.

Consider the research on why students cheat.

  • Brainstorm ways to work with supervising faculty members to establish classroom norms for discussions of grades, classroom interactions, and academic integrity.



Additional materials (from google docs linked above):

What if?  You Can’t Anticipate Everything Classroom Situations: Scenarios for Discussion


1.  You are trying to lead a class discussion, but everyone is just sitting there in silence.  No one is participating. You tried calling on a student, but he said he hadn’t done the reading.





2.  You are in the middle of a lecture, and most of the students are paying attention.  However, there are two students in the back of the room who keep talking to each other and won’t be quiet.





3.  It is the beginning of class, and you have just handed back the first exam.  One student raises his hand and argues that the test questions were not like what they did in class.  Now the rest of the students are joining in and complaining that the test wasn’t fair, and that you didn’t prepare them well enough.





4.  You are meeting with a student who has missed several classes. You can tell she is very depressed.  She explains that she is having problems at home.  Furthermore, she says that she is having difficulty adjusting to the university and feels she doesn’t belong here.





5.  It’s a few minutes before class starts and you’re writing on the board, setting up for the first activity. The discussion of a small group of students is loud enough for everyone in the room to hear (other students are waiting quietly for class to start). In their discussion, one student turns to her Asian American peer and says “Wow, your English is so good, you don’t even talk with an accent. Where are you from?” The Asian-American student, looking upset and frustrated, simply says “Maryland” and physically turns away from the group. The other students either don’t understand that she’s upset and disengaged, or look as if they don’t know what to do and pretend it didn’t happen.



6.  During discussion, there is one student who jumps in frequently, talks at length, and ends up dominating the class discussion. While the student does make some valuable points, you have noticed there is little room left for contributions from the rest of the students during discussion.



7. As you’re grading student participation points for their posts in the course online discussion board, you come across a post from a student ridiculing another student’s answer to the prompt. Since the original post, several students have posted replies – some students have written that the comment was cruel and inappropriate while a few others have written additional insults seemingly intending as jokes.




8.  You are giving an exam. One student whispers to the person next to him, then borrows his calculator.  They pass the calculator back and forth.  A little later, the student turns around borrows the eraser of the girl behind him.  You think he is trying to look at her paper, but you’re not sure.




9.  One of your students tells you that she doesn’t think it’s fair that she has to be in your class.  She is paying a lot of money to get an education from a real professor—not a graduate student who has never taught before and doesn’t have a Ph.D.! Moreover, she makes indirect comments about your credibility based on how she perceives your gender, race, religion, nationality, sexuality, or other aspect of your identity.



10.  Write your own difficult situation!







What if?  You Can’t Anticipate Everything Classroom Situations: Response grid

Situation Issues to Consider Strategies



Strategies for Unexpected and Challenging Situations

Situation #1 Issues to Consider
Students don’t participate in class.




  • Are the questions you’re asking part of the problem? Are they too narrowly focused or too obvious? Too difficult?
  • Have students done the reading? Or have they done the reading but forgotten what they read?
  • Are students too confused by the material to talk about it?
  • Are students intimidated by other class members or by you?
  • Have you responded in ways that make it clear that it’s safe to be wrong? Have you encouraged students to take risks and make mistakes in your class?
  • Is it midterm time and everyone is exhausted?
  • Are students bored with the topics being covered?

  • Make participation expectations clear on the first day of class.
  • Diagnose the problem. Think through the possibilities and try making adjustments according to your assessment of the situation. If participation is an ongoing problem you might also want to ask students to take a few minutes to write about what helps and hinders participation for them.
  • Think about the kinds of prompts you’re asking.
  • Asking “yes/no” questions are less productive than questions that ask students to think more in depth, such as questions that require information, synthesis, application, and solving problems.  Also, are questions so broad students don’t know where to begin?
  • Make time for reflection by allowing students to talk in pairs or write for a few minutes before engaging in full class discussion.
  • Ensure students have the background they need to discuss.
  • Give students time at the beginning of class to review reading or other material in pairs or groups.
  • Give them specific questions to review with. Send out reading or discussion questions ahead of time over email; ask students to come prepared to be called on in discussions of these questions.
  • Have periodic pops quizzes on the readings.
  • Make opportunities for students to mingle with other class members to increase comfort and familiarity.
  • Create low-stakes exercises that require everyone to participate (e.g. small group discussions, & jigsaws).
  • Encourage students to engage by acknowledging their contributions and efforts – even if they are incorrect; their willingness to speak up helps they and their classmates learn.
Situation #2 Issues to Consider
Disruptive behavior:

Students talking in class, cell phones going off, students watching movies on their laptops, students coming in late.

  • How disruptive is the behavior? Is it bothering you? Is it bothering students? How prolonged is the behavior? How frequent?
  • What might be the underlying causes?
  • How have you communicated your expectations for student behavior in the classroom?

  • Make policies on cell phone use etc. clear at beginning of quarter.
  • Analyze underlying causes. Are students talking because they have questions you’re not making time to answer? Is there enough challenge and variety in your course to keep students interested?  Are students late their previous classes are across campus?
  • Encourage class participation and develop activities that will keep students engaged.
  • Provide an anonymous survey asking students about their experience in the course – what is working well for them? What might be improved?
  • If students are talking, pause and stay silent until they stop.
  • Ask talking students if they have a question.
  • If students talk habitually in class, talk to them individually about it.
  • Talk to frequently late students individually about their lateness.
  • Give out important information or start quizzes at the very beginning of class and let students know you will do this.
Situation #3 Issues to Consider
Students complain that the test or grading practices are unfair.
  • How have you communicated your classroom protocols regarding graded discussions?
  • Could the students have a point?
  • How will you maintain your authority and credibility and at the same time communicate respect for and interest in student opinion?
  • Where is the right place and when is the right time to discuss this?
  • If the test was constructed by someone else, is it appropriate for you to discuss the issue with the students?
Strategies: (Source: Colorado State University Institute for Learning and Teaching)

  • Pre-establish your classroom protocols about grade discussions in writing in your syllabus, and discuss them on the first day of class.
  • Establish a policy that absolutely no grade discussions will be allowed for the 24 hours following all class sessions in which exams, papers and projects are returned
  • In the 24 hours after receiving their grades, suggest that students who are disappointed reexamine their exams and your comments.
  • If the reason for the grade they received remains unclear, or they feel that points were unreasonable deducted, then they may make an appointment with you during your regular office hours.
  • Remind your students to come to the appointment prepared.  For instance, ask that they highlight specific sections of the exam so that you can focus on their main areas of concern.
  • If you are the TA and the grading issue remains unresolved, students may request a meeting with the professor (if this policy is in place).
  • If students bring up the unfairness issue in class after the 24-hour buffer period, remind them of the grading protocols, that you will not continue this conversation during class time, and encourage them to schedule an appointment with you.
  • In your syllabus, state a policy that all grade complaints must be made in writing within a week.
Situation #4 Issues to Consider
Student is missing class, potentially has personal issues affecting her ability to succeed
  • What is my role? What am I prepared to handle and when do I refer this person to more appropriate resources?
  • Has the student done enough work (or attended enough classes) to continue to do well in the course?
  • Is the student suicidal?

If you’re the TA, talk with the professor of the course, informing the student you need to do this.

Dealing with the student’s emotional needs:

  • Talk to the student in private.
  • Be supportive and let them know you would like to help.
  • Listen carefully, reach out more than halfway, and validate the student’s feelings and experiences.
  • Avoid minimizing the student’s feelings (e.g., avoid saying “cheer up,” “snap out of it,” “everything will be better tomorrow.”)
  • Ask the student if they have thoughts of suicide.
  • Discuss clearly and concisely an action plan, such has having the student immediately call for a counseling appointment.
  • Encourage the student to seek help, suggesting the Counseling Center or Hall Health Mental Health Center.  Offer to accompany them.

Supporting the student academically:

  • Consult with an academic counselor in your department.
  • Discuss specific actions that would support them academically during the remainder of the quarter, such as offering to meet weekly during office hours.
  • Be willing to consider or offer accommodations (e.g., extension on a paper or exam), if appropriate, as a way to alleviate stress and instill hope.
  • Include information on campus health and mental health resources in your syllabus.
Situations #5 & #7 Issues to Consider
Student makes provocative or insulting remarks during discussion.  (Or class discussion gets heated and unpleasant.)
  • Do you have ground rules for the course that this behavior is violating?
  • How might this affect how comfortable students feel in attending and/or engaging in class?
  • What are your own reactions to these comments? (e.g. Fearing a loss of control of the class? Personally offended?)

  • As a preventive measure, strive to make your classroom an inclusive learning environment. See Inclusive teaching strategies.
  • If you teach a course that has potential for the discussion of strongly held opinions, discuss this potential in the first week of class and what stance you want to take on it. (E.g. “The question of the validity of evolution as a theory is outside the scope of our discussion in this course. The course is based on the premise that evolution is true and you will need to explain course content accordingly whether you personally believe in evolution or not.”)
  • Establish ground rules about how discussions are to be conducted. You may want to construct them together with students.  In online learning environments, it may be useful to note behaviors that are inappropriate such as posting anonymously, critiquing someone’s writing (such as grammar and spelling) unless it’s required for an assignment, etc.
  • If a student makes an overly provocative comment, try looking for a way to pull back from the emotion of the comment.  (E.g. “This is a very emotional issue for many people. But let’s try to phrase things as objectively as possible.  Are you wanting to make the point that…?”  Or “It’s true some people feel this way, but many others don’t.   Let’s step back and look at the history and the reasons why there is disagreement.”). See also the resources for managing “hot moments” and difficult discussions in the resource list in this packet.
  • Microaggressions (such as situation #5): See “Addressing Microaggressions in the Classroom
  • If the student seems truly out of control, ask them to leave the classroom. If you feel threatened or that an unstable environment has been created dismiss the class and have everyone leave. Your safety and the safety of your students always come first. Please see “Policies & Professionalism” on the Center for Teaching & Learning website at and Safe Campus
Situation #6 Issues to Consider
One student dominates the discussion.
  • How can you encourage this student to modify his/her behavior without discouraging other students?
  • How can you invite participation from other students?

  • Establish ground rules for participation, active listening, and respectful behavior during discussions.
  • In the moment, say to the student: “You have contributed good points to the discussion thus far, so thank you.  At this time I would like to hear from other students.”
  • Take the student aside privately and thank them for their contributions to the class. Tell them you would like others to also contribute so you would like this student to step back a little.  Validate them and assure them that they aren’t in trouble: “I know that you are on top of things, so try not to answer unless I call on you. Otherwise, everyone in the class will let you do all the work.” Possible suggestions for this student might be to: Wait until you call on them; limit their contributions to 3 times per class; after speaking once, wait until at least two or three other people have spoken before speaking again.
  • Have a system where you give out participation chips to students, say, three for each student. Each time a student speaks in class, they sign one of their chips. After all three chips are used up, they can’t speak anymore for that class period.  They then turn in signed chips for participation points.
  • Ask questions to certain areas of the class, e.g., “Can someone from the back row tell me…”
Situation #8 Issues to Consider
Suspected cheating.
  • How do you know cheating has taken place?
  • What policies about cheating have been communicated to students?
  • As an instructor, are you familiar with the Student Conduct Code and addressing student academic misconduct?
Strategies for prevention

·  Include a “statement of ethos” valuing academic honor and scientific integrity in your syllabus (see

·  Include a handout on cheating and the consequences in your syllabus or course packet.

·  Discuss academic integrity and the consequences of cheating on the first day of class.

·  Remind students of your policy on cheating before distributing exams.

·  If possible, prepare at least two versions of the exam.  You can use the same questions, but alter the order.

·  Walk around the room throughout the exam.

Strategies for responding (during class)

·    Do not assume right away that the student is cheating.  Some students may demonstrate nervous behavior during exams.

·    The student must be allowed to stay and complete the exam.  You might continue to observe their behavior; you may also relocate them or the students around them to different areas of the classroom.

·    Remind all students to keep their eyes on their own paper and refrain from talking.  Visit with the student(s) you suspect and quietly remind them individually.

Following up

·    If you are a TA, make sure to talk to your supervising professor.

·    If you suspect cheating occurred, you may inform the student they are suspected of cheating and provide them with multiple options.

·    For more guidance, consult:


Situation #9 Issues to Consider
A student challenges your expertise because you’re a grad student; and/or because of your perceived gender, race, ability, sexuality or other social difference.


  • If you feel offended, how will you handle your own response to this without escalating the situation?
  • How can you address the situation without devaluing yourself or getting defensive while also promoting respectful behavior?
  • What might be going on for the student? Does it have to do with you? What else might the student be responding to (e.g. the class topic or other students?)
  • Do you have ground rules for the course that this behavior is violating?
Strategies for challenges to your authority as gradate student:

·  Try depersonalizing the issue: Explains that it’s normal and very common for graduate students to teach courses here at the UW which is similar to other universities in the U.S. in this regard. Explain why the university considers grad students qualified to teach and what the university believes grad students bring to teaching. You can also briefly share your specific qualifications for teaching the course but you don’t need to justify or explain your ability to teach the course. You’ve been assigned to teach this course based on your qualifications.

·  Listen to the student and ask probing questions – try to find out if there are underlying issues (upset about grades? Or?) and try to redirect the conversation to that issue (e.g. “Well it seems like your major concern is grading practices, is that right?  Well let me explain how I’ve arrived at this grade. If you still have questions about it, you’re welcome to talk to the professor/ my supervisor…”

·  Share with your students your qualifications to do the teaching you’re doing—the experiences, both academic and life—which contribute to your expertise in the area.

Strategies for challenges to your authority based on your perceived identity:


·   Know your own biases and what pushes your buttons.  Being self-aware can mitigate the “element of surprise” when challenges occur and might help in the development of constructive strategies in responding.

·  Be true to yourself and find ways of meeting challenges that reflect your own personal and cultural styles and priorities.  For some, that may mean facing challenges directly and pointing out to students the assumptions underlying their responses.  For others, this might mean avoiding direct engagement and focusing on other ways (pedagogies) to transform this into a “teachable moment.” (Source:

·  If this happens during class, remind people about the ground rules for classroom interaction.

Systemic Change Strategies:  Attention must be paid to the expectations that students and instructors bring into the diverse classroom.

·  Advocate for departmental programs for students that help prepare students to anticipate, recognize, and deal with their own and their peers’ often implicit perceptions and biases of instructors of diverse backgrounds.

·  Advocate for orientation for faculty and TAs that addresses the unique ways in which the social identities of instructors (and students) may play out in the classroom.

Additional Strategies for situations not included in the handout (if they arise):

Situation Issues to Consider
You realize you’ve given wrong information in class.
  • How will you maintain credibility and at the same time address the mistake?
  • Do the students need correct information immediately?

  • First of all relax – almost all TAs do this (and many professors) – and more than once!
  • Apologize briefly to students and explain the mistake. If it’s important information, you might want to repeat your correction – both on the website, in email and in class, for example.


Situation Issues to Consider
You can’t get equipment to work properly in class.
  • How much class time do you want to take to try to make it work?
  • How crucial is the equipment to making your points for the day?
  • How can you maintain credibility?

  • Double and triple check that you know how to use equipment and that the equipment you are using works ahead of time.
  • Have a plan B in case the equipment doesn’t work. E.g. be prepared to use the board if Power Point fails.
  • Sometimes students can help.
  • Avoid getting flustered. Make a joke if you’re able to. Otherwise, do your best. If you can’t get it to work, apologize and move on to Plan B.


Situation Issues to Consider
A student is upset about his grade and comes to talk to you.  You explain that a 2.8 is not a bad grade, but he is convinced that his project deserves at least a 3.5.  As you talk, he becomes increasingly agitated and aggressive.
  • Could the student have a point about his grade?
  • How will you maintain your authority and credibility and at the same time communicate respect for and interest in student opinion?
  • How have you communicated your grading policies to your students?

  • Arrange yourself so that you are sitting by the door.
  • Listen and ask clarifying questions even if the student seems unreasonable.
  • Go through the grading rubric with the student.
  • Avoid getting into an argument or defending your choices. Instead, clarify what the policies are and what students may do about complaints. It can be very helpful to explain to students why you have chosen these policies.
  • If, after clarifying what the problem is, it is not completely clear to you how to resolve it, tell the student you need time to think.
  • If another instructor is responsible for the grading or the test and there is not a completely clear and obvious answer to a student’s complaint, suggest that he or she talk to the other instructor.
  • Tell the student you will also mention it to the instructor.  Avoid agreeing with students or defending the instructor or other TAs.
  • In your syllabus, state a policy that all grade complaints must be made in writing within a week.
  • If the student seems truly out of control, ask them to leave your office. Please see “Policies & Professionalism” on the Center for Teaching & Learning website at and Safe Campus


Before, During, and After Difficult Classroom Situations

  1. Make your own expectations clear from the start and lead by example (your syllabus can help with this). It is easier to prevent rather than attempt to correct many potential problems.
  2. Explain your decision-making processes to the class so they can understand where you are taking them and why.
  3. Get to know your students (their learning preferences, what they want from your class) and let them help you establish acceptable and unacceptable behaviors in the classroom.
  4. Don’t lose your cool. Defuse the situation and try to find common ground if you can and lead things back to calmer waters.
  5. Learn from these situations and try to create/refine appropriate, meaningful responses.
  6. Ask clarifying questions to have a better understanding of the situation at hand.

What else might you add to this list?

Why Students Cheat—And Why the Reasons Matter

Some instructors assume that students cheat because

  1. They are bad seeds of low moral character: individual characteristics predict whether students cheat.
  2. They are fraternity or sorority members, from high-income families, from low-income families, student athletes, or grew up in China: demographics  predict whether students cheat.

Yet the research of Donald McCabe & co-authors suggests that contextual factors have a bigger influence on whether students cheat than personal characteristics or demographic information.

Why Students Cheat

Students self-report more cheating …

  • In large classes.
    1. They feel unseen, unknown. The instructor for a 300-person class doesn’t know their name & can’t pick them out, so they can cheat anonymously.
    2. They think other students are cheating, & they don’t want to be at a disadvantage. People follow norms, not rules.
  • When the stakes are high
    1. A test worth 50% of the final grade has a huge impact on the student’s success in the course. The student might not cheat for an assignment worth only 10%.
    2. The student needs a GPA of 4.0 to—keep her financial aid, get into med school…
  • If they think the T.A. isn’t meeting the T.A.’s part of the implied teacher/student contract:
    1. When students believe the T.A. is regularly unprepared for class, they may think: why should I do everything right, when he doesn’t bother?
    2. When the T.A. promises to return papers on Tuesday & doesn’t–& that happens more than once–students may think: she doesn’t meet expectations, I have no obligation to meet mine.
  • When they feel they don’t have enough time to do their academic work so have to cut corners.
    • Example:: Engineering majors have a lot of requirements and don’t want to cheat in Engineering, but decide that their English or History course matters less.
  • When they don’t understand what the big deal is
    1. No instructor has ever explained why cheating is an unethical practice.
    2. What students do on college assignments seems unconnected to their real lives &  future professional lives
  • Due to situational ethics
    • Example:: “I’d never lie or cheat in my personal life, but school & work are different”
  • Because of U.S.A. public norms
    1. Students see politicians, CEOs, CFOS, & celebrities cheat without consequence & conclude: “that’s the way the world works.”

Why the Reasons Students Cheat Matters

  1. We can’t prevent or address cheating effectively if we don’t know the context.
  2. We’re a university: we teach students how and why to practice ethical scholarly practices, rather than reading aloud “that paragraph” from the Student Conduct Code, then threatening reprisals for students who cheat.

What To Do if You Suspect Academic Misconduct

Sources & Resources

  • UW Community Standards & Student Conduct
  • McCabe, D.J.  2005. Cheating among college and university students: A North American perspective. International Journal for Educational Integrity. V. 1. N. 1. 1-11.