Strategies for Setting Student/Instructor Boundaries

By Sandy Chapman

The following is a brief summary of an article that appeared as a posting on the Tomorrow's Professor (SM) Mailing List. The author, Mary McKinney, Ph.D. suggests some methods for instructors to ease stress by setting boundaries.

Most people would probably concur with the opinion that, in life, a rough estimate of the ratio of people who are problem-solvers as opposed to problem-creators seems to be about 80/20. According to McKinney, that ratio might be a bit less when it plays out in the typical classroom. When instructors are having a bad day, they may be tempted to generalize that all students are a pain in the neck, and that "the class" (as a generality) is responsible for causing them emotional distress. In actuality, per McKinney, that's generally only a small percentage, or about a 90/10 ratio that is the source of the truly troublesome behavior.

McKinney's observation is that "Every semester there are a few needy, or defiant, or obnoxious, or pathetic, or complaining students who cause the vast majority of our problems." She suggests that a strategy of "setting boundaries is a way of protecting yourself from the small percentage of students who will suck up your time and emotional energy."

Her article provides suggestions for advance preparation in setting these boundaries and thus alleviating the typical classroom problems. These include the following:

1. Scope out campus resources and know where to refer students and when to do so. This includes such resources as health services, counseling services, academic tutoring services, and writing centers, etc.

2. Preempt email problems by establishing clear policies up front. Let students know in your syllabus when they should expect replies to their email. Treat your email as you would office hours and set a regular time to check it and respond to students.

3. Limit the time you devote to specific students. Some students are needier than others—perhaps extremely so. With such students, you might suggest, among other things, that they seek the assistance of other helpful campus resources.

4. Establish clear policies concerning late assignments and missed exams. Communicate these to students early on. Be firm in your rules but be prepared to bend appropriately when an individual student faces a true crisis.

5. Learn effective and professional ways to handle "student incivilities." Consult references on teaching and develop a personal repertoire of class management techniques for these occasions.

6. Decide how much time you can devote to your class and don't go beyond that. Don't be a perfectionist—don't over-prepare.

7. Don't try to cover too much material. Pare down your content so that you aren't falling behind or consistently running over class time.

8. Elicit student feedback regularly throughout the semester. Do this through various types of informal student evaluations, such as requesting that students write a one-minute evaluation of the course from time to time.

Planning strategies to handle the above situations, before they occur, will buy you time and save frustration in the long run with the small percentage of students that end up taking the largest amount of time.


McKinney, Mary. (2007, November 6). Article: Setting Boundaries. [Msg. #828] Article posted to Tomorrow's Professor(SMMailing List, archived at