Aarhus University Seal

Responding to struggling students    

As a lecturer and supervisor, it’s important to focus on your students’ well-being. Both because there is a strong correlation between well-being and learning, and because it reduces drop-out risk. For this reason, it’s important that degree programmes integrate the social and intellectual elements of student life.

What is my role as a lecturer and supervisor?

It’s not possible to set out clear-cut guidelines for what your role as lecturer and supervisor includes and does not include. You may be in doubt as to whether and how you should help students who confide their problems to you. Problems may range from practical challenges related to structure and study habits in their everyday lives to personal issues related to romantic troubles, illness or death in their immediate family.

It’s up to you as a lecturer or supervisor to reflect on and respond to the specific situation to the best of your ability.

Availability and boundaries

In order to respond most appropriately, it’s a good idea to set some boundaries: both in relation to when you as a lecturer and supervisor are available to students and to how much you are willing and able to help them with practical or personal problems. This will make it easier for you to decide when to refer students to other sources of support.

Some lecturers and supervisors feel that they are unable to help even when they would like to help. This may be the case if a student is dealing with grief, depression or stress. In these situations, you can refer the student to the appropriate sources of support, either internally at the university or outside AU.

What have other lecturers experienced?

The examples below are from lecturers and supervisors who have found that situations involving struggling students called them to take on different roles and a different kind of responsibility:

  • Occasionally, I encounter students who are looking for a mom who can fix all the practical stuff for them.  

  • I’ve had students’ family members or caseworkers contact me about the student’s situation.

  • Once one of my students broke down in the parking lot and told me about his diagnoses, which were making life difficult for him.

What can you do yourself?

  • Clarify your boundaries.
    Consider where your boundaries lie. What roles are you able and willing to assume? What do you think it’s reasonable for you as a lecturer and supervisor to talk with your students about? You may wish to discuss this with your colleagues – what boundaries have they set?

  • Define your availability
    When are you available to students? Tell your students when and how you are available. For example, whether they can call you during office hours, whether you answer mails once a week or whether your door is always open.

  • Seek guidance
    Where can you turn if you are in doubt about how to respond to students who are struggling? Can you get help from your colleagues and your management?

  • Share your own experiences
    How can you be a good role model for your students? Consider ways in which you can share your own work processes and experiences with your students. Sharing your experiences with your students may make you less of a feared authority figure in their eyes and increase a sense of mutual trust, which will improve your relationship.

What are some of the signs that a student is struggling?

Distress can be expressed in a variety of ways and experienced in a variety of ways, and there is no single universally appropriate response. Distress has both a personal and a contextual dimension. And distress is a natural feeling that can strike all of us, for example in response to illness, death, upheaval and betrayal. How we experience and respond to distress when it strikes us is individual. Some people are strongly affected for a longer period, while others quickly recover.

Visible and hidden signs of distress

Distress has many faces, and it can be easy or difficult to tell whether a student is struggling. This means that there are both obvious and subtle signs that you should look for that will indicate whether your students are thriving.

  • Obvious signs: Some examples include not coming to class, not turning in assignments on time, not participating in class. There may also be students who explicitly demonstrate that they are in distress, for example by crying, getting angry and acting out or telling you that they are stressed out, grieving, anxious, etc.

  • Subtle signs: These signs are harder to spot, and include gradual changes in behaviour, maintaining a facade, ‘hiding’ during class or looking sad.

  • Ambiguous signs: If you spot a student who exhibits any of these signs, you may still be in doubt as to whether they are in distress; a student may be distant/skip classes because they have fallen in love. But you can also have doubts as to whether and how to respond to the signs you see.


What have other lecturers experienced?

Here are some examples of signs of distress that other lecturers and supervisors at AU have encountered. Perhaps you might recognise them...?

  • Sometimes I’ve had students who don’t come to class.

  • I’ve had otherwise good students fail to turn in their assignments.

  • I’ve seen different kinds of emotional outbursts among my students: some have gotten angry and aggressive, others have gotten very upset and started to cry.

  • I’ve had a number of students tell me that they’re stressed out.

  • I have a student who always keeps to himself and sits alone. The other day, he told me that he’s very lonely.

When it comes to signs of distress in students in a classroom context, there is a lot of variation, and students can behave in ways that surprise both lecturers and students – particularly if the student in question acts out. Examples of situations lecturers have experienced:

  • Students who were under the influence, who disrupted class, who left class in protest or who were emotionally affected by the teaching materials.

  • Students who feel pressurised in class, for example because they are perfectionists and don’t feel that they are performing well enough, are ‘slow’ or come to class and turn in assignments late.

  • Students who don’t participate in class, for example because they’re in treatment.

What can you do yourself?

  • Pay attention to your students
    How do your students seem to you? What do you see? What signs that your students are thriving do you see? Do they participate actively? Do they turn in assignments on time? Is there a good atmosphere among students in the class/in the classroom? Why/why not?

  • Have a talk with the student
    If you think a student might be in distress, you can always ask them how things are going. This will make the student feel seen and heard, and you as a lecturer and supervisor will be able to determine whether the student is thriving or not and whether they need help. Perhaps you as a lecturer and supervisor will decide it’s important to have a conversation about their well-being with the student or refer them to a support resource which will be better able to help them.


Advice on how to respond to struggling students

Students who aren’t thriving react very differently in different situations, because both individual and context-related factors contribute to the specific form of distress they experience. Below, we outline some examples of how you as a lecturer and supervisor might perceive and respond to students who are struggling in class, supervision, exam and group work contexts. The examples come from group interviews with lecturers and supervisors across AU in which they shared their experiences with struggling students.

You won’t get an exact recipe you can follow that will guarantee you success. There’s no ‘one size fits all’ when it comes to helping students who aren’t thriving. But hopefully you will be able to relate to these examples as a lecturer and supervisor and get inspiration on how to respond when your students are struggling.

Respond to struggling students in the classroom

When it comes to signs of distress in students in a classroom context, there is a lot of variation, and students can behave in ways that surprise both lecturers and students – particularly if the student in question acts out. Examples of situations lecturers have experienced:

  • Students who were under the influence, who disrupted class, who left class in protest or who were emotionally affected by the teaching materials.

  • Students who feel pressurised in class, for example because they are perfectionists and don’t feel that they are performing well enough, are ‘slow’ or come to class and turn in assignments late.

  • Students who don’t participate in class, for example because they’re in treatment.

What can you do yourself?

  • Provide a clear framework
    Providing a clear framework and making your expectations clear helps students thrive in learning processes. Be as explicit as possible about the framework for your class and make your expectations of your students clear. We recommend that you metacommunicate about these issues at the beginning and end of class and that you present the content that will be covered, as well as explaining the reason for learning it and how they can work with it. This will make it easier for students to grasp what is expected of them.
    For example, you might ask yourself:

    • How can I provide students with a clear framework for class participation, and how can I make my expectations of them clear?

    • Do my students know what is expected of them?

  • Prepare strategies

    It can be a good idea to consider different possible strategies for responding to a student in distress. For example, you might ask yourself:

    • How can I show concern for a student who is not thriving in connection with my classes?

    • Have a conversation with the student right after class? Or agree on time for later on? Get more advice how to handle conversation about well-being.

    • If a student starts acting out in class, how will I deal with it? For example, you can:

      • Ask the student to leave the room if they don’t settle down.

      • Ask the student to leave the room if they don’t settle down.

  • Show interest and concern
    As a lecturer, you can create an appropriate framework for your students if you are aware of the challenges they are facing. If you know that some of your students are having difficulty participating in class, ask how you can help. Maybe you can:
    • Offer them a seat close to you, the lecturer, to make it easier for them to stay focused on class.

    • Offer them a seat close to the door so that they can take an extra break without feeling conspicuous. This seating arrangement also allows students to leave the classroom before the end of class, for example if they suffer from social anxiety.

    • Take steps to encourage social cohesion in the class by asking the group to find a new seatmate at each class or introducing a rota for group work.

    • Place conference tables in a square, which encourages discussion across tables. This is an inclusive setup that encourages everyone to participate in discussion.

Respond to struggling students in supervision

Supervision often involves a closer relationship between supervisor and student; communication can easily shift from the purely academic to a more personal plane. This can encourage some students to confide in their supervisor, while others may feel uncomfortable with the closeness of the student-supervisor relationship. Here are some examples of supervisors’ experiences:

  • That students encounter hurdles in relation to study technique. For example, that they develop a bad case of writer’s block, that they are not ready to begin their Master’s thesis, can’t meet deadlines and honour agreements or have trouble prioritising and structuring their own work process. Some supervisors have also suspected that some students have the kinds of difficulties with reading and/or writing that SPS can help with

  • That students have personal issues. For example, that they confide about their personal problems or diagnoses, or that they develop symptoms during the writing process, for example of depression or loneliness.

  • That students are under so much pressure that their supervisor is unsure whether they will be able to complete their project, or that students fail to show up for appointments and stop answering mails.

What can you do yourself?

  • Refer the students elsewhere
    If you have students who need additional help in addition to the guidance you can provide, there are many support resources at AU you can refer them to. As a supervisor, you may encounter students whom you suspect may have dyslexia or dyscalculia. In such cases, you can refer the student to SPS, who can assist in clarifying the nature of their learning challenge and help them overcome their reading and/or writing difficulties.

  • Use yourself as a role model
    As a supervisor, you can be a good role model students can identify with. For example, it might be relevant to share:
    • How you dealt with a similar challenge yourself.

    • How you approach your own writing or reading.

    • How you plan your writing process.

  • Provide a clear framework
    It might be a good idea to consider how and to what extent you want to be available to students as a supervisor. For example, you might ask yourself:
    • What framework and terms do you want to set for the supervision relationship?
    • Is it possible for you to spend extra time with students who need it?
    • Have you clarified what you can and will help with in the context of supervision, and what you cannot and will not help with?
    • How closely will you engage with the student’s text and writing process, for example editing specific passages?
    • How do you deal with students who don’t come to appointments and who don’t respond to your mails? Do you investigate the reasons for their absence? Why/why not?

Respond to struggling students at exams

For some students, the pressure they feel in an exam situation is so extreme that they experience an abnormal degree of nerves and anxiety. Examples of situations lecturers have experienced:

  • That students become physically and/or psychologically ill in connection with an exam. Some lecturers have had students who were so nervous that they fainted during an exam.

  • That students suffer from exam anxiety so extreme that it can incapacitate them and affect their exam, and the reading period preceding it, very negatively

  • That students have cheated at an exam, which made a very difficult conversation necessary afterwards.

  • That students repeatedly fail an exam or fail to show up for an exam.


What can you do yourself?

  • Before the exam
    Prepare your students for the exam. Here are some examples of steps you can take:

    • Help them deal with any exam anxiety they might be experiencing or refer them to a support resource that can help. List of support resources at AU 

    • Discuss why the exam is important with your students – and what it’s important in relation to. Future career, next semester, academic development...?

    • ‘Take the temperature’ of your students’ level of exam anxiety before the exam to help ensure that everyone gets through it with as little distress as possible. For example, you can:

      • Create a questionnaire.

      • Have your students interview each other in order to identify any students who might have extra challenges in relation to the exam.

      • Set aside time for an informal chat about the exam during which students can ask any questions they might have.

    • Clarify rules and guidelines for exams and re-exams on your degree programme. Including rules in relation to cheating and plagiarism.

  • During the exam
    For oral exams, it’s often particularly important to create a calm space where students feel safe. For example, you might:
    • Offer the student a glass of water before the exam and ask if they’re ready to start before the exam begins.
    • Give the students plenty of time to answer questions – let them know that if they get stuck, it’s ok to pause, take a deep breath and find your train of thought.
    • Smile and express your acknowledgement by nodding encouragingly when the student makes good points.
    • Give the student constructive feedback when informing them of their grade.
  • After the exam
    If an exam was particularly challenging for a student, it can be a good idea to:
    • Contact the student and discuss their grade, performance or provide other forms of feedback after the exam.
    • Give the student good advice that they can draw on the next time they sit an exam.

Respond to struggling students in a group work context

Group work can be challenging on several levels and can intensify distress among students who are struggling. Not all students enjoy or are good at the kind of collaboration required by group work. Examples of situations lecturers have experienced:

  • That students lack collaboration skills.

  • That they lack a desire to collaborate.

  • That students have used their diagnosis as a justification for not participating in group work.

  • That students with different ethnic backgrounds were unwilling to be in the same group together.

  • That the behaviour of individual students can be destructive of the cohesion of the group, for example domineering or disgruntled students.


What can you do yourself?

  • Before starting group work
    • Put some thought into how the groups are to be formed:
      • Should they be formed with or without your assistance?
      • Is being part of a group mandatory or voluntary? And is it possible for a student who prefers to work on their own to be exempted from group work?
      • Should there be requirements as to the number of students in each group?
    • It can be a good idea to formulate criteria and rules for forming groups together with your students. This can contribute to a shared understanding of how groups are to be formed, which often makes it easier for students to accept the framework for and composition of their groups.
  • During group work
    • Ask the students to begin their group work with an initial discussion to balance expectations. For example, you might ask the students in each group to discuss their expectations regarding:
      • Scheduling meetings and workload
      • Preparing for group work
      • Academic work in relation to socialising
      • Will the group’s members divide work among themselves or will they collaborate on everything?
      • Does the group need a moderator?
    • Monitor the progress of the groups.
      • Are you as a lecturer available to help if a group doesn’t function – Why/why not?
      • Is it possible for you to regularly check on any groups that are having difficulty and keep an eye on how their collaboration develops? If you as a lecturer don’t have the time and opportunity to do this, perhaps the groups could agree to partner up, so that the groups have a source of mutual support.
  • After group work
    Consider how the group work experience will be evaluated:
    • What went well, and what lessons have you learned that you can draw on next time?
    • Will you keep the same groups or form new ones next time?


Talking about well-being

The first important step in dealing with a student’s distress is often to talk about it. A student might initiate a conversation with you, as their lecturer and supervisor, because they need someone to talk to. You might initiate a conversation yourself because you suspect that the student might be struggling. It may be difficult to decide whether you are able and willing to broach the subject – and when and how to do so.

What ressources can I refer struggling students to?

As a lecturer and supervisor, you may encounter struggling students who need more and different help than you are able to give them. So it’s a good idea to familiarise yourself with the different kinds of support that you can refer students to, which can offer them additional help that is tailored to their specific needs.

Below you’ll find a list of support resources at Aarhus University. We encourage you to refer students you encounter in your role as lecturer or supervisor who need help and support to the appropriate resource:


While you as a lecturer or supervisor may have a desire to help students, either by getting involved yourself or by referring them to support resources, you may not be entirely sure what is and is not appropriate for you to say and do. If you would like to discuss the student’s situation with a colleague, it’s generally a good idea to ask for the student’s consent first. For example, if you want to tell a fellow lecturer that a student is having trouble with group work due to social anxiety, or if you are considering contacting the studies administration office because you are concerned about a student.

the GDPR-rules may also be applicable in relation to personal data in emails. If you are in doubt about the legal rules, contact Educational Law at AU.


Your well-being is important too

As a lecturer and supervisor, your own well-being may be affected when dealing with students who aren’t thriving. So it’s important to remember to prioritise your own well-being and that of your colleagues.

Lecturers' own well-being

What have other lecturers experienced?

Here are some examples of how students’ distress has affected lecturers and supervisors’ own well-being.

  • Sometimes, I feel powerless and lonely as a lecturer. Who can help me when I’m dealing with a difficult situation with a student? And who can help me afterwards?

  • What I sometimes find difficult and frustrating is setting a limit on how much help the individual student can get.

  • It can be frustrating to help a student who lacks self-awareness in relation to their own abilities and the demands and expectations of the degree programme. Especially when I don’t believe that the student belongs at the university.

What can you do yourself?

It’s important that you take your own well-being – and that of your colleagues – seriously.

Help yourself.

  • Don’t neglect yourself.
    Who and what are important for you in the situation you find yourself in right now? Remember that you are always a priority too.
  • Be honest with yourself.
    Are you experiencing any internal obstacles? Consider:
    • Do you have the competencies necessary to help the student?
    • Is helping the student even your job as a lecturer?
    • Are you asking the right questions?
    • Are you feeling any unease – insecurity, impatience and frustration – in relation to the student?
  • Share your feelings and experiences with others
    Consider who you can reach out to for help.
    • Can you talk to your manager?
    • Can you talk to your colleagues?
  • Observe yourself from an outside perspective.
    Imagine you’ve been filmed, and that you’re analysing the footage afterwards. What do you see?
    • Are you moving away from what’s important to you? Are you withdrawing? Are you more irritable? Are you dealing with criticism constructively?
    Reflect on what you can do to move toward what’s important to you. For example, do you need to:
    • Make your boundaries and expectations explicit?
    • Be more (or less) receptive and tolerant?
    • Discuss your situation with your colleagues?

Help your colleagues.

  • Put yourself in your colleague’s place
    The best way to help a colleague is not always obvious. Start by asking yourself:
    • What would I need if I were in the same situation as my colleague?
    • What should my colleagues or my manager do for me? How can they help me?
    • When I do feel that I am receiving compassion and understanding?
  • Listen!
    The most important thing you can do is to listen. Be present as a fellow human being and respond with empathy and compassion. Try to create a space where it’s ok to speak freely, and where it’s ok to be vulnerable. Be curious and ask questions.
  • Express compassion.
    Express your compassion and understanding for your colleague’s situation and experiences.
  • Normalise their experiences.
    It’s a good idea to share similar experiences you might have had. It can be a relief to discover that your situation is recognisable to others.
  • Follow up and be there for them.
    Tell your colleague that you’d like to help. For example, you might suggest getting a cup of coffee together or going for a walk during the lunch break to talk about their situation.
  • Lighten their load
    Try to lighten your colleague’s load and help them prioritise their tasks if possible. For example, you might help your colleague decide when it’s time to go home, take a break or talk with their manager.

Prioritise well-being in the workplace/Create a culture that promotes well-being

Well-being is a shared responsibility. To have a healthy workplace culture, it’s necessary both to work to promote each other’s well-being and to deal with negative impacts on health and happiness when they cannot be prevented. The handout below offers some advice on how you can work to improve your own and your colleagues’ well-being.


The content is written by Hanne Balsby Thingholm at Rådgivnings- og støttecentret in collaboration with Centre for Educational Development and student guidance counsellors (VEST).

Please contact the editors at AU Educate if you have any questions about the content of the platform or if you need consultation on your teaching from one of the many skilled professionals at the Centre for Educational Development