Students who take up a lot of space caring about the subject






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?
realsocialskills said:
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.

aura218 said:

Fwiw, I was this kid in college. I was just SO INTO EVERYTHING and so glad to be finally taking classes I actually cared about, and I had SO MANY THOUGHTS, that I treated a lot of classes like a personal tutoring session between me and the prof. It took me a long time to notice, in one class in particualr, if I talked less, other students talked more. 

If the prof had talked to me outside of class (NOT in front of other students, and not over email), and used an encouraging and concrete explanation of expectations, I would have changed my behavior.

Here’s what I needed to know: “It’s good that you’re talking. You have good ideas. I have noticed that when you talk as much as you do, other people don’t want to speak. This isn’t your fault, you’re not responsible for their behavior. However, it would help me do my job if you could please limit your comments to x# per session. Also, when you comment and I respond, that’s an indication that it’s time to move on. I’m sorry, but I have a lot of material to cover, so we can’t spend too much time on any one topic. Again, this isn’t a negative comment on you as a person or as a student, and I do enjoy having you in class. I’d be happy to talk to you over email or during office hours if you have questions that you don’t have time to bring up during class.”

People who talk a lot in class can sometimes be very insecure — after all, they’re talking to the professor, not their peers, and they’re working very hard to prove that they’re right. To smart geeks, academics is a safe social environment, b/c they feel safe when they know their intelligence is being shown off. So, you don’t want to shut this kid down by making him  feel badly, but you do need to give a concrete explanation of what you expect (b/c he obv doesn’t grasp social subtleties). So this is an instance when you give criticism couched with positive encouragement on either side.

realsocialskills said:

Generally agreed. The only thing I’d say is that it might not be that he *generally* doesn’t grasp social subtleties; it could also be that he’s from a culture that has very different social expectations. But in either case, being concrete helps.

It also might not be necessary to take him aside to explain stuff - I’d try being explicit in the moment about what’s appropriate first. Partly because of the general principle that if one student visibly doesn’t understand something, there are probably other students who aren’t getting it either.

It’s likely that there are other students who aren’t speaking up because they know that guy is doing it wrong, but they don’t know how to participate without acting like he is.

sugaredvenom said:

Every student I’ve ever seen do this has been a dude. 

I can’t add anything constructive here except for that men really, REALLY need to be aware of how much time and space they take up.

shulamithbond said:

I’m sorry, I normally don’t argue with these kinds of sentiments because as a feminist it’s a pattern of male behavior that I do notice and I generally think it does spring from the messages society gives men vs. women about how much space they’re allowed to take up. But in this case I’m going to.

Because speaking as an autistic person, this is something that’s REALLY common with us, and it’s not easily controllable. I’m not saying we shouldn’t learn to control it, obviously it’s our responsibility to work on our own behavior so that we don’t disrupt other people’s education. But we get snapped at and ridiculed by teachers and peers for doing this - for doing something we aren’t even necessarily aware that we’re doing. And I’ve seen women on the spectrum do this. I’ve probably done this at some points in my life.

So I’m really not comfortable with shaming this behavior as something that only - or even mostly - *entitled dudes* do. I think men do talk more in class and feel more free to talk on the whole than women, and that’s a problem, but this behavior is not limited to one gender, and it’s not a case of just flipping a switch and becoming aware. There are steps you can take, but it’s fucking hard.

And we can talk about the fact that a guy is probably more likely to be allowed to get away with this kind of behavior than a girl or a nonbinary person would be. To me, that’s how male privilege enters this. But the behavior itself is not inherently male behavior, and I feel weird when people frame it that way because it erases autism/neurodivergence as a factor, as well as autistic/neurodivergent people who aren’t men.

realsocialskills said:

Yes, agreed. There is a male entitlement *version* of this problem, but that’s not the only version. I was assuming the OP wasn’t talking about the male entitlement version, because that version tends to involve a lot more off-topic condescending blather than insightful comments.

Sometimes students take up too much space with little or no malice.

Boys and men who don’t know how to tell when it’s time to stop talking are allowed to to take up too much space. Girls and women who don’t know how to tell when it’s time to stop talking are often harshly shut down, and prevented from participating at all.

There are things that teachers can do to manage conversational dynamics in a class, for instance:

  • Making conversational expectations clear rather than assuming everyone knows intuitively
  • Speaking up and redirecting right away when a student’s class participation is causing problems
  • Offering to discuss things during office hours or via email
  • Cutting off students who are mansplaining, being condescending to you or other students, or otherwise filling the space with obnoxious blather
  • Noticing which students aren’t speaking up much, and asking them for their views

It’s really important that teachers do these things. When teachers don’t control conversational dynamics in a class, one or two students will dominate (whether they mean to or not).