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This Student Is Driving Me Nuts!
Student in Dr. Craig Rucker's class
Dr. Rucker must manage classroom dynamics when a student dominates the discussion.
Dr. Craig Rucker is having difficulty managing one particular student in a graduate level class he's teaching. He's frustrated that this student dominates the class discussion with her professional experiences. Craig speaks with a friend to figure out how to maintain a positive learning environment for all.
Full Story:
Dr. Craig Rucker is annoyed with one of his older graduate students. Dr. Rucker, an industrial engineering professor, teaches a graduate level class in statistical quality control. One student, Natalie, has worked in the quality engineering department of a local manufacturer for 12 years and monopolizes most class discussions with her industry experiences.
Strategies Menu
Natalie's excessive enthusiasm drives her to cut people off, even though some comments and questions are thought-provoking. Craig is worried that her behavior is negatively impacting the other 23 students.
Craig has successfully taught students with different levels of engagement, but Natalie really irks him. He must figure out how to better manage the situation to make the course a positive experience for everyone.
Craig disclosed his frustrations to a friend in the department. His friend, who had a similar experience with a vocal returning student, offered suggestions for managing the class and explained factors that could underlie Natalie's disruptive behavior:
Remember that a myriad of factors could be the root of frustrating student behavior. Be willing to entertain these possibilities when working with students.
  1. Recognize that you are working with an adult learner and consider best practice strategies for teaching these non-traditional students. Older, returning students such as Natalie have different expectations than traditional students, such as expecting that class material can be related to her specific work experience.
  2. Focus on discussion management techniques that engage as many students as possible. Natalie's active voice in class may stem from wanting to self-direct her learning rather than being fed information from an instructor, but other students may need encouragement to speak up in class. Consider using small group discussions or activities that more easily allow students to contribute. You might also need to privately explain to Natalie that though you appreciate her quick mind, other students may need more time to think.
  3. Provide opportunities for her to share her experience and include her in the teaching. For example she could give presentations on topics relevant to her. The act of preparing a presentation or teaching others increases learning.
  4. If after trying these suggestions Natalie continues to disrupt students, you may need to talk to her directly. For example, you could discuss with her privately that she is affecting the learning of other students. Her interruptions may be due to poor social skills rather than her position as a returning student, and she likely will oblige if tactfully brought to her attention.
Although it took effort on his part, Craig realized some logical reasons why Natalie was disrupting the class. He tried a few of these suggestions and obtained more balanced participation in the class discussions.
Understanding adult learners
Adult learners, i.e., returning students in their late 20s or older, have different expectations from traditional students. For example, they expect their experience and knowledge will be used in their courses and that course material will be relevant to their profession. These links may help engineering educators understand adult learners' expectations and behaviors.

30 Things We Know For Sure About Adult Learning
A list of thirty facts about adult learners related to their motivation to learn, curriculum design, and expectations of the classroom.

Principles of Adult Learners
Explains nine characteristics of adult learners that should be considered and respected when teaching non-traditional, returning students.

Assumptions about the Adult Learner
Easy-to-read list of primary characteristics of adult learners, based upon research and theory.
Engaging more students in discussion
To create an engaging and inclusive learning environment, the instructor should keep the discussion open to all students. However, it takes skill to manage productive, inclusive discussions when a few vocal students dominate. These links may help you get balanced student contributions and provide your students the increased learning that discussions offer.

Teaching Engineering: Nontechnological Alternatives to Lectures (PDF)
This chapter includes detailed advice for managing discussion in engineering courses (see pgs 1-9) as well as for guiding students in small group discussions (see section on Informal Cooperative Learning Groups, pgs 9-11).

Teaching Tips: I worry about talkative students hogging the discussion in my lecture
Quick advice for creating small discussion groups when class-wide discussions are dominated by one or a few vocal students.

Teaching Methods: Discussion
Lots of advice for managing discussion in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) courses while respecting the needs of a diverse student population.
Using students' prior experience
Since students generally learn best when they can relate new knowledge to old, provide learning activities that use your students' prior experience. Also, adult learners often expect instructors to acknowledge and use their life experience in learning activities. These links suggest teaching methods that can tap into students' experience.

Peer-Assisted Learning
Explains peer-assisted learning, in which students are paired together to tutor, monitor, or assess each other. A technique that could allow students to share their knowledge, mentor other students, and reduce social isolation.

Student-Assisted Teaching
Explains how students can take on roles in teaching and curriculum development, such as develop in-class presentations or assist other students with coursework. Though the article mainly discusses the experiences of undergraduates as teachers, student-assisted teaching could give anyone the opportunity to use their experience to help teach other students.
Handling disruptive behavior
Sometimes addressing possible underlying reasons for an outspoken student does not alleviate disruptions. Direct, assertive responses to behavior that disturbs other students may be necessary, and the following links may help you to appropriately confront disruptive students.

All In a Day's Work
Tips from engineering education researchers for responding to non-disruptive and disruptive student behavior.

Common Disruptive Student Behaviors and Possible Responses
Provides advice to STEM instructors for responding to behaviors such as talkativeness, rambling, or grandstanding.

Handling Specific Disruptive Behaviors
Suggestions for handling discipline problems. Starts with reminders to stay calm.

Reducing Incivility in the University/College Classroom
A journal article providing the implications of uncivil student behavior, research tracking such behavior, and practical strategies for reducing student incivility.
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