Summary: Student got defensive when I suggested he might have some neurologial issue that should be checked, should I apologize or how to address the issue?

I am a PhD student advising a student midway through his master. This student has always been a very slow learner which has caused me frustration because I advise a few other students in the lab. Therefore, I don't have so much time and I feel that without my help he will fail his master.

Every protocol he makes, I have to teach him 3 times because he forgets the steps, doesn't take notes and is overall disorganized. Our advisor has taught him how to take notes a few times but this aspect has not improved. When he tries to do the protocol by himself, he messages me asking about the steps and ultimately can not do it.

In the last 2 times we met, he was limping. The first time, he said he fell off his bicycle and on the second time he said he "just fell" and his legs have a lot of bruises from these falls.

The experiments we do require very steady hands, but his hands shake a lot in a way I am not sure it is normal for a young person, so he has a lot of trouble assembling the devices we make and sometimes breaks them.

Last time we met, we were going to do a new protocol. To be sure he understood, I asked him to read it and explain the steps to me. I gave him an hour to read and when I tried to check it, he couldn't explain it and asked for 3 more minutes.

I believe some activities are harder for some people and even if it is extremely difficult for someone, I should not be the person to tell them to give up. I always consider the case the person might have some personall challenges, but I can only accomodate if I know if the person doesn't want to do a master or if the person has some disability.

Last time he failed a protocol, I asked by message if he would like to see a neurologist for these issues and he got very defensive. This makes me angry because I think he has ADHD or essential tremor or some form of anxiety which are all treatable but prevent him from doing his work and make me loose my time.

I should not diagnose him and that is why I would like him to see a professional, so I resent him not considering this option because if he has no issues, I feel like I should give up on him and let him fail, which is against my principles and the idea of "giving up on someone" makes me feel like a failure too.

I don't know if I should treat him as he has an undiagnosed disability or someone with the opposite of an impostor syndrome (someone who really shouldn't be doing a master but doesn't realize it).

Should I continue helping him? Give up on him?

  • 1
    Which country? In the UK and possibly US, there are special services by the university who do the relevant accommodations. As a PhD student advising a master it cannot be your burden to address such problems. You do your best, but there is only so much you can do. Sep 12, 2020 at 2:21
  • 2
    Did you discuss this with your advisor? Are they likely to support your decision?
    – cag51
    Sep 12, 2020 at 3:25
  • 6
    Talk to your advisor. Seriously. It sounds like you are doing everything you can think of to help and it’s still not working. Well, the system has senior people in charge of supervising you and the student precisely to figure out what to do in situations like this.
    – Dan Romik
    Sep 12, 2020 at 4:03
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    Consider: You need to take a more professional stance towards students you help. Budget your time carefully, because you have other higher priorities in academia than any one student. Some (in fact, many) students will fail. You're going to need psychiatric help yourself if you can't accept a student failing, even after your allocated time has been spent on them. Sep 12, 2020 at 4:28
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    An essential tremor is, of course, a problem, but what if the tremor is not essential but rather secondary to some even more serious problem? I think it's important to get medical treatment for this student. You're probably not in a position to push him hard to get treatment, but somebody (your advisor, or a department chair, or some other university official) should do so, even to the point of answering the student's "I am healthy" with "No you're not." (I have an essential tremor, and a family member died of a brain tumor, so I might be overreacting; if so, I hope it gets this student help.) Sep 12, 2020 at 5:14

2 Answers 2


I should not diagnose him

That's correct. Even if you knew how to, he is not your patient.

I would like him to see a professional

Also correct. You should tell this student they may benefit from an appointment with the disability office at your university. You can also ask that office for advice.

You should tell your supervisor about the problems with the student's performance.

Should I continue helping him?

If you have tried to help a student several times and made no progress, it is acceptable to give up. This is particularly justified if the student refuses to follow your advice. Depending on circumstances, you may also be able to give the student an easier research project.


Others may disagree, but your position sounds extremely unreasonable and passive-aggressive to me. I'm going to make some criticisms of your position here, and some of it might sound harsh, but I will end with some constructive advice to assist you. The good news is that you sound like a person who is keen to become a good teacher and not give up on students.

The student has already given you explanations for the observed physical problems you mention (except for the shaking hands, which really does not require one), and it is unclear why you do not accept the student's explanation. You have also said in the comments that the student has explicity told you that he is healthy. I fail to see how it is your business to act as a medical assessor for the student, to refer them for treatment, especially when the student denies that they have the condition you suggest. Suggesting to the student that they "might have some neurologial issue" sounds to me like a passive-aggressive way of saying "you're dumb", only in high-falutin academic language. Getting angry that the student denies this speculated neurological condition is absolutely nuts, and it reflects terribly on your teaching practice and your general patience for dealing with students.

Every protocol he makes, I have to teach him 3 times because he forgets the steps, doesn't take notes and is overall disorganized.

Welcome to teaching. Teaching exists because people are not already good at the thing you are trying to teach them. It largely consists of reinforcing things you have already explained many times before, until your students internalise the material, methods, and habits. There are always some students who do not meet the required standards, and we set a cut-off level for failure to deal with this. Some students manage to get through to levels of education that they shouldn't have, with bad habits, poor study skills, etc. Dealing with these students can be frustrating (it would be wonderful if they were all the A+ students), but that is a part of teaching. If bad work by students is something that frustrates you to the point of speculating to students that they have neurological problems, that is not great.

Last time he failed a protocol, I asked by message if he would like to see a neurologist for these issues and he got very defensive. This makes me angry...

That is totally inappropriate. Firstly, who are you to tell this guy he has neurological issues? Are you his doctor? Maybe he is just a disorganised student who doesn't know the material well. Secondly, the fact that you get angry that he denies it is absolutely nuts. It suggests that you are psychologically invested in your own (totally invented) medical diagnosis of this student, in a way that is not about helping him at all.

Let me end with some constructive advice --- demarcate the proper limits of your job. As teachers, we try to help students learn, and some students are not well equipped for this. Part of the job is to assess the quality of student work and inform students of their progress. This includes being frank with students when their work is not up to the minimum standards expected. You don't need to play amateur psychologist ---or amateur medical doctor--- for this, and speculate on the causes for poor performance. All you need to do here is to provide whatever teaching assistance is necessary, and calmly but firmly inform the student if he is falling short of the required standard. At a certain point, if the student cannot do the work, they will be failed and leave the program. It is up to the student to seek the causes of his own failure. If the student asks your opinion on possible causes, you may feel free to offer your opinion, but offering unsolicited medical opinions (in a way that seems to me to be quite rude) is generally not helpful.

Sometimes novice teachers get themselves into trouble because they take an overly expansive view of their role, and they imagine that it is their job to act as psychologist, medical assessor, etc. Unless you are very good at doing those things calmly and in a helpful way, that tends to lead to more trouble than it solves. Students appreciate teachers who stick to to the facts --- here is the work, here is some teaching assistance, here is an objective assessment of your performance, etc.

Finally, unless it is your actual paid job, it is not incumbent on you to help this student. It is commendable that you have a general ethos of not wishing to give up on students, but if you find it too frustrating to deal with this student (which you clearly do) then stop. It is silly to get angry at the student (and resentful even!) regarding your own personal hang-ups about "giving up on someone". Presumably this student has teachers who are part of the general faculty of the university so there is plenty of assistance there for him (from people who do not resent him).

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