Managing Strong Personalities in the Classroom

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I imagine we’ve all had classes in which one or two students dominate the room.  Maybe they ask questions at every turn or monopolize discussions, not leaving room for others to speak. Making room for everyone in the classroom without alienating these students can be a difficult task.  Here are some methods that can be used to keep a balanced classroom:

  1. Shake up the traditional classroom dynamic…  by giving students opportunities to lead activities, take up homework or teach and present ideas. By interrupting the usual hierarchy, students who tend to take over the space might find new ways of participating. Other students can develop a sense of ownership and power in the space, making them more likely to engage.
  2. Make the classroom a safe space… so that all students feel comfortable participating. Be encouraging of questions and comments and thank students for their input.  Model confidence even when you are challenged by a student; let students see that you are comfortable even when you make a mistake or don’t have an answer, and that they should be as well.
  3. Be specific when asking for participation.  Frame your requests: “I want to hear ideas from three different people”; “I want someone in the back row to answer this question”; or “Let’s hear from someone we haven’t heard from yet today”.
  4. Use group-work/pair-work.  Create tasks for small groups or pairs and structure activities to build space for each group member. Certain activities, such as chain stories, have this structure built in, and other activities can be organized to suit the purpose. In group discussions, students can take turns giving opinions on a topic, or asking and answering questions. Group tasks can include assigned roles, with different members of the group responsible for different portions of the task.
  5. Talk privately with a student… when necessary. Be straightforward but intentional with your language to ensure the student feels respected and appreciated.  You might start the conversation with comments like: “I like that you ask questions”, “Your enthusiasm is great” or “I can tell you know a lot about this topic”. Give them options: “I want to have time to answer all of your questions, can you save them for the end of class?” or “Try writing down your questions and looking for answers in your textbook before asking me.”  Use the perspective of a shared goal that can be achieved through teamwork: “Everyone needs practice – can you help by leaving time for others to talk, too?” or “Your ideas are really interesting, but the class needs more time to focus on ______, so help me stay on topic”.

These are the techniques that have brought me the most success.  Have you found other things helpful?  Let us know!  That comments section is looking a lot like a whiteboard waiting for a brainstorm… 🙂

POST COMMENT 4

4 thoughts on “Managing Strong Personalities in the Classroom”

  1. This is an excellent topic. Thank you for providing these methods that I plan to try when circumstances call. One method I have used to address students who monopolize group discussions is to challenge themselves to participate in the opposite way that they normally do. For example; if one is quiet and contributes little, they are to speak more or if one is dominant and seems to always hold the floor, they are to speak less. All members of the group are accountable and need to ensure that each person speaks for a similar amount of time. After all, each member could exercise discussion/conversation strategies to encourage others to speak and also interrupt politely to discourage others from over speaking.

    1. Hi, Mirella. I like your idea of challenging students to behave in a different way than they normally do. I think framing things as an interesting challenge or experiment is often effective. I’ll have to try that sometime, thanks!

  2. Misha,
    Thank you so much for these ideas. Last term I had two strong personalities to deal with. One was a retired professor who really missed being able to lecture for blocks of twenty or thirty minutes at a time. Once he got the floor, he did not want to yield it. The other was simply a very keen, curious student with question after question after question. I think the ideas you share here, had I thought of them, could have helped me a lot. I’ll keep them in mind for the future. –KM

    1. Hi, Kelly. The students you describe sound like very familiar classroom characters! I hope these ideas are useful for you in the future — good luck.

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