Those Students Who Participate Too Much

Do you have any students who participate too much? The ones who would answer every question and happily dominate every classroom discussion if we let them?

The rest of the class loves and hates these classmates. They are loved because they take the pressure off everyone else. They are hated because they speak so much. Their endless contributions soon bore others. And they are hated because they make those who struggle to contribute feel woefully incompetent.

Their behavior also presents all sorts of problems for the teacher, who would love to call on somebody else, but often that familiar hand is the only one in the air. Generally over-participators are bright students. They care about the content and have the level of motivation a teacher would like to see in all students. But their determination to keep themselves always at the center of discussion tests everyone around them.

Generally teachers do not rebuke the over-participator in public. Researchers in the study mentioned below asked students what they expected teachers to do about fellow classmates who over-participated. They found that students expect teachers to manage compulsive communicators through management strategies that are not rude or demeaning. Students “do not want to witness a fellow student subjected to negative sanctions when it comes to this particular transgression.” (p. 28)

What’s the best advice, based on this research? Address the problem using positive and constructive communication strategies. It helps to have a discussion early in the course about the characteristics of effective discussion and teacher-student exchanges. If students are asked to describe those conversations that hold their attention and help them learn, they are usually quick to name the over-participation problem and state preferences for dialogue in which many people participate. Teachers should design participation activities that require the contributions of many: small groups presenting brief reports, sharing examples, or offering summaries.

It may be useful to talk privately with the student who is participating too much. It may help to make clear how and why too much communication from one student inhibits the learning of others. Perhaps the student could be encouraged to move his or her participation to the next level by not just answering questions, but asking them; by not just making comments, but specifically responding to things other students say in class.

Participation norms are established early in the course. If a teacher holds fast to hearing from a lot of different students right from the start, that norm will be established and can be maintained throughout the course.

Reference: McPherson, M. B., and Liang, Y. (2007). Students’ reactions to teachers’ management of compulsive communicators. Communication Education, 56 (1), 18-33.

Maryellen Weimer, PhD, professor emerita of teaching and learning at Penn State – Berks, is the editor of The Teaching Professor.

Excerpted from The Teaching Professor, Nov. 2007.