I’m a teaching assistant for a medium-large class (~80 students) at a university. One student has a habit of interrupting me or the professor when we are lecturing, which can be very disruptive. Sometimes we have to cut him off while he is speaking, which feels rude, but we have limited time to teach. He’ll also monopolize class discussions. He’s often insightful and on-point, but I want to get other students’ input too! I don’t know what to do! And I don’t want to hurt his feelings! Help?
This sounds like a student who means well, so I’m going to answer this question with the assumption that he isn’t a jerk and isn’t taking up all the space on purpose. Some students do not mean well derail things for different reasons, but that doesn’t sound like what you’re dealing with here.
Here are my thoughts on how to deal with well-meaning students who take up too much space:
Make time outside of class to talk to them:
- When students are really into your subject and monopolize class time, it’s generally not because they want to shut everyone else down
- It’s usually because they’re really into the subject and passionate about exploring the particular questions that are interesting to them
- That’s a beautiful thing, and there needs to be space for it, but it can’t take over the whole class
- When students derail class to discuss the questions they’re interested in, it can work well to say something like “That’s a great question, but we need to get through some other things now. Let’s talk about that during office hours.”
- This demonstrates that you respect them and their questions and dedication to the subject, and that you will make room for it but need to make sure that the things that need to happen in class time happen
- That only works if you mean it and follow through, though
There also might be a cultural issue. Norms about interrupting are highly culturally dependent:
- In some cultures, the way you demonstrate that you’re respecting someone and paying attention is to take turns talking, and wait for the other person to indicate that it is now your turn.
- In other cultures, the way you demonstrate that you’re respecting someone and paying attention is by interrupting in on-topic ways and expecting that they will also interrupt you.
- It can be really frustrating to negotiate conversation with people who have radically different assumptions about how to pay attention
- It might be that your student thinks that they are doing what they’re supposed to do, and that there’s confused with lack of response and interruption
- If that is the problem, it might help to make expectations clearer. If the cultural divide is that wide, dropping hints and relying on politeness won’t help, but being explicit might:
- For instance, by saying when they interrupt something like “I’ll take questions at the end”, or “Let Bob finish his point first”.
- This demonstrates that you respect him and his interest, but that you aren’t going to allow it to take up al of the space
It’s also possible that he finds it difficult to follow what is going on:
- I’m not sure how to describe this, but I know that I find it easy to pay attention to conversations and nearly impossible to pay attention to lectures
- For me, the things that make it possible to pay attention to lectures are asking a lot of questions, using a strategy like collaborative note taking , or writing notes that are as much running commentary as they are taking down information.
- He might be asking a lot of questions in order to follow what is going on
- I’m not sure how you’d go about assessing or responding to that. I am mentioning it as a possible problem in hopes that someone else will have suggestions about what teachers can do if they suspect that a college student is having that kind of problem
No matter how you approach the situation, it’s possible that it might hurt your student’s feelings to realize that he takes up a lot of space and that it bothers people. This is not something you have complete control over. Facing up to problems like that can be painful. You shouldn’t avoid getting your class back on track in order to protect him from that kind of pain.
You should treat him and his interest in your subject with respect, and help him find ways to pursue it seriously without taking up all of the space during class. You’re probably in a position to do that. You’re not in a position to manage his emotional life.