Strategies for Dealing with Students who Dominate Discussion

Most teachers welcome student participation in class discussions. When the school year starts, only one or two brave students seem to have the confidence to volunteer to speak. After a few weeks when more students want to participate, how does that once brave student who talks too much become so annoying? Beep. Beep. Beep. Back it up and start over.

STRATEGY-anticipate the problem before it happens

Prior to that first classroom discussion, ask students if they know any details about what makes a good discussion. In small groups, ask students to think of the best and worst discussions they remember and write down the reasons why it was the best or worst. Then each group shares their answers while the teacher writes results on the board with extra marks beside repeated characteristics. At the end of this exchange, a few informal rules can be developed based on student input. Most likely, one person who tries to take over or talks too much will be in the examples of a bad discussion. If it isn’t, then the teacher can contribute the idea.

STRATEGY-test the first strategy with fun activity

A strategy that appears to be more fun than serious should help keep Mr. Bossy from dominating the class discussion without a verbal scolding. This activity will help determine the student’s extensive talking as a harmless habit or something more serious.

Before you begin place student desks or chairs in a circle, then hold up a tennis ball or a similar object for the class to view. Explain that you will moderate. Go over brief rules. For example, students may not make negative personal comments about other students or teachers, stay on topic, no profanity and the only person allowed to talk is the one holding the tennis ball! After the initial comments and a beginning statement, the teacher tosses the ball to a student.

After a few exchanges, if Mr. Bossy hasn’t raised his hand, toss the ball to him. Allow him the same time as the other speakers and when he’s in the middle of his filibuster, BEEP. The buzzer, horn, whistle or your sound effect goes off. Motion for the ball. This is that defining moment most students were anticipating. If MB tosses the ball back with minimal grumbling, let it go. Continue with the process. If he tosses the ball back and whines about how it’s not fair or a similar negative response, then you need to remind him of the rules determined by the entire class. Ask the other students to shout out the rule. Then reinforce the fairness of the rule and restate its importance in a good discussion. Most of the time, the issue is resolved and the group continues. Problem solved. Spend some extra time with the student for extra support.

Under the unfortunate circumstance that Mr. Bossy can’t handle giving up the spotlight, then you should already have plan B prepared and ready to roll. First, keep in mind one of the objectives was to address this very issue without using a confrontational manner. Try to use humor; try to keep it positive. If Mr. Bossy’s actions exhibit completely unacceptable behavior such as hurling the ball at someone’s head or using the special ‘F’ word reserved for such instances, then the teacher must quickly and effectively remove the student from the room. Consequences for violating classroom rules must be enforced as well as additional consequences for his poor choices during the discussion. If possible diffuse the tension with humor. “He should try out for the baseball team,” or a similar comment might work. Do not make negative comments about the student or dwell on what happened. Simply restate the rule and how it was violated. Then regroup and move on. All students are weighing your reaction. Handle it professionally.

Variations of this activity can continue for the discussion format after the rules become familiar. Students should be able to handle throwing the ball to another student instead of back to you. They will get to the point that they don’t need a prompt to give someone else a turn. This strategy allows all students to participate in a discussion and keeps one person from dominating the discussion with a simple method using a tennis ball.

STRATEGY- Other techniques for participation

Assign roles for 2-3 students per groups to conduct discussion within that group with each member serving a certain role. After everyone has contributed, discuss results.

Another way to keep participation opportunities equal is a similar activity. Students speak at a podium with a timer buzzing after the indicated time limit. The teacher gives each student a card or another object used like a ticket to hand in when the student comes up to speak. Once the card is handed in, that student is done speaking.

If the need arises, use participation points for credit or non-credit to enforce no talking from those who don’t have the floor or to encourage more participation from quieter students. Depending on the particular class, there are many ways to tweak these activities to fit a variety of group dynamics.

STRATEGY-Make the student important

Take the perpetrator under your advisement. Remind him that you both want the same thing. Allow him to act as your personal assistant or classroom aide the next time there is a class discussion. For example, tell him he already knows how to speak to the group and you need him to take the role of recorder. Remove him completely from the next discussion. Following the discussion, point out strengths and weaknesses of the activity and listen to student feedback. Ask MB to stay a few minutes to organize notes. See if he noticed or will admit to a smoother flow in the discussion. Continue to give him extra support and attention and allow him back into the discussion group. Hopefully, your relationship has improved to the point that more respect and less insecurity exist for MB. The extra attention might provide the turning point in changing his attitude. If he can see the situation from another person’s perspective, you helped him overcome a potential roadblock in his education.

There are many useful strategies teachers can use to make sure the same students don’t dominate class discussions. Many of them involve common sense. Most importantly, avoid being negative or talking to the student in front of the class. If you have a student with the urge to dominate class discussions, have him sign up for the debate team! Try some activities, role playing, assigning roles in small groups or listening to feedback as ways to address appropriate student participation.