Ever been in one of those classes where everything seems to have gone off the rails?  One person just talks and talks, and ends up monopolizing the conversation.   This is something that happens in a lot of classes, when you have one student who likes to dominate the classroom.    They will talk to the instructor incessantly:   sometimes asking questions, sometimes answering questions, sometimes just trying to be a class clown.   Whatever the exact form of their verbal diarrhea,  they will disrupt the flow of your class.

Most of the time the people who are doing this don’t realize that they are missing social cues.    If you talk to other students in class, the overparticipator will likely be near the top of the list for “class annoyances”.      Here is the thing though:   these people are still part of the class, and are as deserving of your attention as anyone else.   Different people need different things to be able to learn.

Generally:   be positive and patient, and try to talk to privately talk to the student about being considerate to their classmates.

So here is what I do, depending on their specific type.

The know it all/bored student

Some students just want to let you know that they are ahead.   They get (or mostly get) what you are saying during your discussions, and they will try to dominate the conversation with their own interpretations of things.   Of course, these people aren’t teachers (most of the time) so their explanations may vary from spot on to confusing to other students in class.

These students are often motivated by either trying to stay engaged in the class (“See, I’m participating!   I’ve answered all of the rhetorical questions you’ve asked!”) to trying to boost up their own sense of self (“I’m so smart, I can answer *all* of the questions”).     One of my colleagues even reported a person who would interrupt her answering another student’s question with the comment, “I’ve got this!”.   (Note:   It didn’t go well for him…)

Probably the first approach should be one-on-one.   They are much more delicate than you may think:   but they crave acknowledgement.   Let them know that you see that they know the material.   But also that you want the other students to be able to ask questions too… and one useful offer is to give them some more challenging material if they are interested.    Their natural desire to prove themselves will probably win you an ally in class, and they may be more responsive to non-verbal cues to keep their comments to themselves, at least until the end of a discussion.

The desperate

On the other end of the spectrum is the student who is just trying to make sense of something difficult.   They may ask about things that are off topic, or ask about things that you finished explaining only minutes before.   This is one of the behaviors that I tend to associate with ADD, or even some types of Asperger’s students:   quite simply, they can’t take notes on what you are doing and process through it simultaneously.   A quick recap will usually be enough, but over time is consistently delays the progress of the class.

When this starts to happen, I approach it with a couple different tools.   First,   I slow down lectures a bit.   It is not something that it easy to do, but leaving some long pauses for people to write (and more importantly, to think and process) and organize information.   Often times, the people can answer their own questions if they have half a chance.   Next, I will ask folks to follow some rules of participation.   And lastly, see if you can direct the students to some resources outside of class to help them get on track.   Since the goal is often to get students to independently learn, this is sometimes a tough sell.


I happen to think that every class needs a few good lines of witty banter.   It gets people engaged before class, can act as transition material in between topics, and can be something that becomes part of the class culture.   (For one of my classes, one of the important steps in solving is to  “apply more coffee” to the problem)   But some people get caught up in the banter, and let it take over.     I’ve had it happen where students have started to derail the class with discussions about what type of zombies/ninjas/dinosaurs in the story problem, and has anyone ever seen X movie?

My best technique:   ignore it and keep teaching.   People often want something to re-engage them in the class.    If they are asking these questions,  you have obviously ignited some interest, and as soon as they pause then they will change gears back to learning mode.

There are also students who want to either challenge the usefulness of the material, or the validity of your class rules.   These people are often just venting frustration – and your class (or your material) may or may not be the root cause.   Publicly, I answer with the reasons why either the material is useful or the rules are in place.     This has the effect of disarming the student’s reasoning, and hopefully will put some social pressure on the student to stop acting out in class.   But I find that you should also follow up with the student.    The goal isn’t to alienate them from the class, and talking with them hopefully will let them feel empowered in ways that they may not need in their life.    They may not become allies in your class, but these people can become incredible distractions if they are allowed to fester.


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