Disruptive Student Behavior: The Case of Talkative Nancy

In this ongoing ProfHacker series, we once again take on the potentially charged subject of disruptive student behavior.  In December, Nels asked “What’s that Smell?” a post about the smells that can emanate from students who engage in illegal questionable behavior outside of class, and what professors should/could do about it.  In our first installment of this series, I wrote about how to deal with students who engage in disruptive, off-topic conversations.  Today’s post also addresses talkative students.  But instead of talking to other students and being disruptive, these types of talkers are the ones who talk to you, the professor.  And they never stop talking.

As a reminder, in this series, we present a scenario, and we’ll offer a few suggestions from ProfHacker readers about how they might handle a similar situation.  As always, many of the scenarios we will present are dependent upon the discipline, the class size, and the culture of an institution; we will try to include as many of these variables as we can, while understanding that we can’t account for each and every situational difference.  What we are discussing here are behaviors that– no matter the discipline or the institutional culture– impede learning for other students.  The situations are real and the respondents are real.  However, we have chosen to keep the identity of each respondent and the details surrounding each scenario anonymous.

One last caveat:  we don’t want ProfHacker to become a place to complain about students.  That is not what this series of posts attempts to do.  We want to focus on what we can do, positively and professionally, to handle the sometimes difficult situations we can have with students.


SCENARIO:  You plan to facilitate a discussion in your class about readings that you assigned.  As students enter the room and settle into their seats, you can feel the buzz in the air.  They are excited.  They want to discuss the subject.  You begin class by asking a very open-ended question, a question designed to allow the students to take the subject in an area that interests them.  The first student who responds to your question, a question that is barely out of your mouth, is Nancy, or as her classmates call her, “Know-it-all-Nancy.”  Nancy is a smart young woman who often has very smart things to say about the subject at hand.  She answers your question with great precision, citing arguments from sources you did not require her to read.  You know from experience that if you stand by quietly and let her finish, class would be over and no one else would have had a chance to speak.  So, you cut her off—politely—to get other students involved in the discussion.  You ask another question, directed at another student.  Nancy answers.

RESPONSE:  Now what?  As the professor in the course, what do you do?

  • Respondent #1 (female, assistant professor, humanities):  As for students, I tend to wait until after class and talk to them individually unless the situation is extreme. Generally, I will tell them that I really appreciate their enthusiasm and insight, but I would appreciate it if they might hold back a little bit in order to allow some of the other students a chance to speak. I try to make it clear that I’m not criticizing them but rather that it’s about giving others a chance to work through their ideas too-for some of us that takes longer than others. This has worked for me much of the time, and I think it has worked because I’m sincere about it.

    If it doesn’t work, my fall-back is to say as I’m asking a question that I want to hear from someone besides Nancy. That also gets the point across, but it’s more public, and I try to handle those kinds of things privately if at all possible. Sometimes privacy isn’t possible (or effective), and the student forces our hand, but most of the time, for me at least, the student is just really excited about the material, and I want to protect that excitement as much as possible.  Once the student recognizes that they are being a bit too talkative, they will often tone it down.  With certain students a humorous public approach works best for me because it would be harder for me to be sincere about the teaming up approach and because it lets the rest of the class know that I realize there is a problem and that it’s on them to help address it too

  • Respondent #2 (male, adjunct, humanities):  I take much the same approach with students that Erin does.  I talk with them outside of class, and I let them know that I appreciate how enthusiastic they are. I also tell them that I need to let others think about the material and to contribute. So the excited student is welcome to raise his or her hand, but I won’t always call on them. When this happens in class, I will frequently make eye contact with him or her so that s/he knows that I have seen her/him, but that I’m choosing to not call on her/him.

    When a student is enthusiastic in this way, it can often breed resentment in the other students. I haven’t mentioned this before to my excited students, but I’ve always wondered if it would be effective in helping them see the situation in a different light.

  • Respondent #3 (male, tenure-track professor, humanities):  I have a couple of ways I’d handle this in a classroom. Classroom Idea #1: Something I’ve tried in relatively small classes where we’re able to arrange the desks in a circle is this:

1) Bring in something like a Koosh ball
2) Give whatever introductory lecture or set of questions you’ve prepared to start the discussion
3) Ask students to raise their hands to contribute to the discussion
4) Toss the ball to the first student you call on
5) Each student is then responsible for choosing the next student and tossing them the ball

When I’ve done this in the past (it’s been awhile), it’s worked really well not only to keep overly talkative students from dominating the conversation but (often, but not always) it encourages less talkative students to make a contribution when they might otherwise not do so. Furthermore, it gets students to respond to each other and start a real group discussion rather than just say something to the instructor, ignoring other students’ contributions. This is probably not the kind of thing you want to do more than a few times in any given class, but I think it does a good job of modeling what a successful and inclusive discussion would look like. Possible downside: it could be perceived as a childish exercise (though I’ve never had that reaction from students).

Classroom Idea #2: Announce in advance that you’re going to devote a class meeting to an “oral quiz.” The way for a student to do well on the oral quiz is to make a contribution to the class discussion: give them something like 15 or 20 minutes to have this discussion while you place a checkmark next to each student’s name as they talk. (Alternately, have more than 1 “round” in your quiz: each student only gets to contribute once in each round.) Then explain that a discussion in which many different voices are heard is always preferable to a discussion in which a limited number of voices are heard.  More perspectives = fuller consideration of the topic at hand.

Now, it’s your turn: How do you handle this type of behavior from students in your classroom?  Please leave suggestions in comments below.


[Image by Flickr user, Desiree Delgado.  Used under Creative Commons.]

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