If you teach long enough, it will happen to you: there will be a class member who overcontributes, dominating the discussion, and sometimes taking the lesson off on an unwanted tangent.
It’s tricky to handle because you don’t want to offend the person. On the other hand, unaddressed, it can ruin a class and drive other class members to the foyer and beyond.
We’ve got six tips to help you handle classmembers who overcontribute.
1. Explain your discussion strategy
Take the time to explain your discussion strategy to the class. This assumes you have a discussion strategy (which you should!). Ideas include:
- You will be calling on a variety of class members, so people should not be offended if they raise their hands and are not called on (more on this later).
- You will allow think time, meaning that when you ask a question, you will have a pause before you begin to accept responses, allowing people time to gather their thoughts. This ensures that those who are deep, but not necessarily quick, thinkers have their opinions valued and heard.
- The class will be comfortable with silence, so just because a question is asked and there are no responses right away, no one needs to feel like they have to give an answer just to fill the empty air. We can wait for quality, varied responses.
2. Adjust the way you call on people
Looking around the room for raised hands is not the most effective strategy.
One possibility is to use a deliberate method, such as writing class members’ names on tongue depressors and drawing names or even one of the apps that can do the same thing.
You can also mentally divide the room into four quadrants, and call from people in all of the quadrants.
Try setting a limit of how many times you will call on a single individual.
You can make sure that you don’t just have class members respond to you, but also to each other. Do this by saying things such as:
- Who agrees with what so-and-so just said?
- Who can add to what so-and-so just said?
- What’s another way of looking at this?
- Who has another example of what so-and-so just shared?
3. Let your theory guide your intervention
There are many reasons that class members dominate the discussion in class, and it’s important that we try to understand why it’s happening so that we manage it appropriately. If we misconstrue why it’s happening, we can inadvertently hurt feelings or be unsuccessful in solving the problem.
Possible reasons for overcontributing include:
- lack of awareness that it’s happening – some people simply don’t realize they’re doing it
- attention or affirmation seeking – some class members are seeking attention out of loneliness or a lack of confidence
- helpers – often people think they are helping the teacher by filling silent space
- pride – unfortunately, some class members are prideful about their knowledge and insist on sharing it, whether it helps the class or not
If you have an overcontributor, spend some time reflecting on what you think motivates that person. There are more reasons than those listed here, so don’t feel limited by this list.
Effective intervention will depend upon an accurate assessment of the rationale behind the behavior, so don’t skip this step.
For instance, if someone is seeking attention, often that attention need not be given in the middle of the class for the person to feel recognized and appreciated. Brief interactions before or after class may be enough.
4. Enlist their help
This strategy works especially well with those who overcontribute out of a desire to help or because they have a breadth of knowledge they’d like to share.
Approach them and ask for their help. Some ways to do this include:
- Share something in an upcoming lesson and ask them to prepare a 1-minute explanation of the principle or idea to share with the class.
- Ask them to sit near someone who doesn’t contribute often and quietly discuss questions with them, so that they may encourage the person who rarely contributes to speak out.
- Tell them in advance you’re going to be calling on those who rarely contribute this class period, so they don’t become offended when they are not called on.
- Thank them for always being willing to share, and ask them to understand that sometimes you don’t call on them because you’re saving their comments for difficult questions further on in the lesson.
5. Provide another way
Often, especially for those without another outlet for discussion besides class, they simple need to know that someone knows they know. That sounds convoluted, but I think you know what I mean.
The teacher can make this possible without constant commenting by allowing for discussion to occur in other ways beyond the class time. Ideas include:
- using a Google doc or other tech tool to share ideas
- having sticky notes, index cards, or other means available for people to write down ideas and share with you
- email, text, or call class members during the week to follow up with the discussion, providing another outlet
6. Make sure you’re not the cause of the problem
There are a number of ways that teachers exacerbate the problem with overcontributors, the most common being the allowing of it without intervention for a long period of time.
Other ways teachers make the problem worse include:
- only calling on a few people or only calling on those with raised hands
- asking low-level questions that have one right answer (e.g., “What did Lehi find outside his tent that told him the direction they should go?” or “What are the four principles of the gospel?”)
- having no questioning strategy
- using the same teaching techniques over and over (hint: if you have a PowerPoint every week, you’re not doing it right)
It can be fixed.
With prayerful reflection, this problem can be addressed with kindness and patience, and doing so will help your class in powerful ways.
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