Home > Blog

Do Students Benefit From Hand-Holding or Strict Discipline?

I expect you to listen during my class lectures.

Here, let me help you. I can provide you with the answer.

As an educator, are you someone who is tough on students because you believe strict discipline is essential to their growth and development? Or do you believe in an approach that is kinder, much more easy-going and laidback when it comes to helping students - even to the point of being willing to give students the answers they need?

A disciplinarian is the traditional educator who upholds policies, processes, and procedures without exceptions. Those instructors are usually not counted among the favorites by students; except for those students who are excelling and find that strict discipline is necessary for them to continue to do well.

The educator who is more willing to bend the rules on occasion for students, when there is a reason or justification for the long-term benefit of the students, is the one viewed as easier to get along with and as a result - this educator is usually included on the list of favorite instructors. This instructor will also provide answers and "make it easier" for students to complete the required tasks, believing this helps students in the long term.

This is not to state that teaching students, especially adult students, must be a popularity contest by any means. What this does involve is a matter of perception. Consider how willing a student might be to receive and implement coaching and feedback from a strict instructor in comparison to an instructor who is willing to work with them. In other words, it is not about bending the rules but working with students. It is not about passing students along or giving away grades. It is about providing support and assistance.

This goes against the beliefs of many educators as there is a perception in higher education that maintaining anything other than a strict approach to teaching means you believe in handholding and coddling students. I believe there needs to be an instructional balance between the two methods and in my own practice, I have found an approach that provides this type of balance.

How Do You Focus Your Attention?

I've worked with hundreds of online faculty members over the past ten years in the role of faculty development specialist. I have also been an online educator during this time and understand the lived experience of the faculty members I have observed. What this means is that I can relate to the time it takes to manage a class, especially as an adjunct instructor. I have also worked full time during the day and taught online at night, and I make this point not as an excuse but as a reminder of the reality that many adjunct instructors face. When an instructor is running short on time, not all of the required duties and responsibilities may be met. This can even extend to working with students as they may find it challenging at times to receive assistance when needed.

Whether or not an instructor is working full time and teaching as an adjunct, teaching a class takes time - and the more students there are, the more tasks and responsibilities are vying for the instructor's attention. When there are high achieving students in a class, it almost lessens the amount of instructional work required as those students are usually the ones who do not require a lot of time and attention. The students who are under-performing are the ones who require more effort. These are the students who either benefit from receiving additional assistance, or handholding as some educators view it, or a constant reminder that they must comply with strict requirements as stated by the school and other in documents such as the course syllabus.

Is One Approach More Effective Than Another?

I know that every educator has a distinct view of how students must be addressed or managed, and it is usually based upon personal preferences and past experiences. When instructors are provided with training, it is usually procedural in nature to begin with and then expands into instructional practices. What I have not seen provided in faculty training are direct instructions that state how an instructor must manage students in the classroom. In other words, instructors are not told they must be lenient or strict. They are provided with policies and processes, and methods of instruction. Sometimes they are taught methods of interacting with students, similar to customer service training methods. The general expectation is that instructors must uphold academic policies and create an environment that is conducive to learning.

A question that often comes up is this: Why are there such diverse types of instructors? From my perspective working with faculty, a better question might be: Is one approach more effective than another?

Consider first the instructor who is a strict disciplinarian. This is someone who upholds the policies as defined by the school, such as academic writing standards and policies in place for the degree program level. This instructor makes no exceptions to the rules.

Consider next the instructor who seems very strict but in a different sense. This is the instructor who has established high personal expectations of students and their performance in class. This instructor expects all students will strive for an "A" grade and they will submit high quality papers.

The last instructor to consider is the seemingly easy going instructor who is very popular and has a flexible approach to school policies. This instructor is more willing to listen and adapt when needed, especially if a student needs a "break" or a second chance. This type of instructor is one who is willing to provide extra time and attention for students. I have worked with a few instructors who go so far as to give their students the answers or information they need, rather than help students find it. This is where the idea of handholding has become associated with an easy going instructor.

Finding a Balance Between Discipline and Handholding

Are one of the three methods described above better than the other? I do not put myself in a position to judge others; however, I can speak from my own experience to answer the question. When I began my work as an educator, I was very strict. The most effective method of learning school policies and processes was to follow them as strictly as I could. Over time, I learned what flexibility I had as an instructor and I also gained experience as an educator. From this experience, I learned how to find a balance between these strategies to become effective with upholding disciplinary processes while providing additional care, concern, and assistance.


    • Establishing Discipline: What I have learned is that the manner in which discipline is administered matters for my relationship with students. I can uphold every school policy and procedure just as effectively, and perhaps even more so, as someone who demonstrates empathy when compared to someone who demands complete compliance to everything I state. Students already know that there are school policies in place and their instructors are expected to uphold those policies. As an instructor, my reinforcement of the rules happens whenever there is an occurrence or a request made by a student. That is a time to listen and effectively administer the rules, or implement disciplinary action as required. I should also be familiar with my level of authority or flexibility available, with regards to making any exceptions.

    • Establishing Expectations: There is nothing wrong with having expectations of my students, unless I have established something unrealistic of every student. For example, it would be unrealistic for me to expect that every student will submit a well-researched and written paper that demonstrates critical thinking - even at the graduate level. A more realistic expectation might be for students to the best of their capabilities and ask for assistance when needed. The most important expectations I can establish are those concerning student performance. Students experience a great deal of anxiety about grading, especially written assignments. That is when the use of a rubric is very helpful for establishing uniform expectations with students. It becomes even more effective if I provide a rubric before the assignment due date so that students can utilize it as a guideline when editing and revising their papers. The most important aspect of establishing expectations is that they are realistic and communicated to students.

  • Offer Handholding: When students need assistance or extra attention and you provide it, do you consider that to be handholding? I dislike that word itself as I believe it does a disservice to the work of an educator. I understand the general idea of the concept and over time I have tried to help students without giving them information or answers. For example, when students cannot find a particular answer or resource I will provide instructions on how to find it without actually giving it to them. In other words, I teach them how to be independent and find it on their own so the next time they remember how to do it. I would never be one to tell them to "go and see the course syllabus" as a pat answer. I will find a way to help, even if it involves providing a different set of instructions that offers clarity and better directions. My roles as an educator is to instruct and to teach.
I have seen a number of discussions in the field of higher education over the past few months about working with students and more specifically, addressing the idea of coddling college students. From my experience as an online educator and online student I find there is nothing detrimental about having a lot of contact time between an instructor and the students. However, it seems there is a trend now in higher education that finds courses being delivered without instructor to student interaction. I know that MOOCs have been very popular and those students receive very little direct instructor contact. There is also a competency-based online university that is gaining traction, one without instructors that allows students to study at their own pace - and one of the primary concerns being raised is that these are correspondence-style courses.


My preference is to provide instructor to student interactions. I want to be available and accessible for my students. The following is my approach to teaching adult students that seeks a balance between strict discipline and handholding.

I will be happy to assist you and I will help you find the answers you need.

For courses that have been established in a traditional manner, with instructor to student contact, the nature of that contact is relational. An instructor can uphold academic policies and all appropriate disciplinary procedures, while still maintaining an attitude of care and concern, when an appropriate balance has been found. Students understand that instructors must uphold the rules established by the school. What this means is that a productive working relationship may be more effective than demanding compliance from students at all times. And while it is important to establish a strong working bond with students, that does not mean you need to try to become the most popular instructor either by being willing to bend the rules or give away answers. The most important job you have is to teach and the most effective approach you can embrace is one of knowing your level of authority, understanding your responsibilities, and being willing and available to assist your students.

Dr. J has been working in the field of higher education and distance learning since 2005, with roles that have included Chief Academic Officer, online instructor, college instructor, and online faculty development specialist. Dr. J has also acquired significant experience with instructional design and curriculum development, having developed hundreds of online courses for bachelors, masters, and doctorate programs.

Dr. Bruce A. Johnson is a professional writer, resume writer, learning and development consultant, social media strategist, and career coach. Dr. J founded Afforded Quality Writing in 2003 and has written hundreds of resumes every year in most industries, utilizing a skill set based approach to highlight the best of each person's career.

Dr. J writes blog posts and articles to help inform, inspire, and empower readers. To learn more about the resources that are available for career and professional development from Dr. J please visit: