By Carrie Chirolas-Burnet

Change not only creates the need for most training classes, it can also shake up the pecking order. When people use a class to act out their power struggles—to intimidate others with brains the way schoolyard bullies intimidate with brawn—the instructor can end up in “no man’s land.”

In the classroom setting, I like to refer to a “technical” bully as a Dogbert, in reference to the character in the Dilbert comic strip who treats people with disdain, particularly his master, Dilbert. A Dogbert can annoy or distract students, but rarely does this kind of person ruin a class. When two or more Dogberts get into a cockfight, challenging the instructor and each other with esoteric questions, making condescending remarks, and flying through the material with a “keep up or die” attitude, the whole class loses.

Highly competitive groups can be both the most rewarding and the most challenging to instruct. And some of the brightest students can also be the most disruptive. Here are my suggestions for managing a class full of Dogberts.

Develop strong facilitation skills
An instructor should always be flexible and responsive to the wants of the class, but this is a tough situation. A vocal segment of the class wants things faster and harder, and an intimidated minority may not say much at all. Good facilitation skills are a big help—it is difficult to avoid riding roughshod over people if you have not noticed they are intimidated. These tips will help your classroom management skills.

  • Ask up front what your students want to learn. Find out during the introductions, when everyone should be encouraged to speak.
  • Use tent cards with names on both sides so you can read them as you move around the room. Address people by name and ask what they think.
  • Watch for body language cues. Shoulders creeping up toward the ears are a good indication that someone is about to be overwhelmed.

Have your notes ready
Good lecture notes are essential—reading from the book will send some of your class out the door at the first break. Give students something to note: tell them where to highlight important tips, fill in, or emphasize different parts of a picture.

  • Always have alternative examples worked out: same concept, different path to a solution.
  • Vary the order of a presentation: Do some exercises during the lecture, or as a group.
  • Never put everything on the handouts. Leave some “blanks” for students to fill in during the class.
  • Distribute the following information separately from class materials:
    Web addresses
    Reference materials
    User group information
    Mailing list information
    Solutions to the exercises

Prepare “extra credit” work
Additional work (for students who can do it) also can help to keep the Dogberts quiet and busy. If some people are finished far ahead of the rest of the class, try assigning some extra activities for them to do. Discuss the solutions to these extra problems with the whole class so that everyone is included in the exercise. Here are a few tasks you can use for extra work:

  • Have the person investigate the answer to one of the esoteric questions from a previous class, like one of those “What about when…?” scenarios. Be certain you know the answer, however, or the class may bog down while you search for it.
  • Tell the person to set up the source code for some problem, and review the project with the class.
  • Ask the person to redesign a standard solution to a problem, making it easier or faster for users.

Keep your own competitive nature in check
The hardest thing to remember is not to get caught up in the competition. The instructor is “Alpha Techie” by definition, just as “the umpire is always right.” Keeping cool in the face of a student who wants to usurp your authority is difficult, but joining the game is a losing proposition.

You cannot play these games and teach a class. An instructor’s goal is to make everyone more confident and competent. Dogbert’s goal is the exact opposite. When you’re trying to avoid joining the fight, keep these tips in mind:

  • Always remember the instructor is above the competition.
  • Dogbert dodging phrases: (I’m told these also work with teenagers.)
    “I’m not going to argue it with you.”
    “We need to finish this now, but we can look into that later.”

Classes naturally generate tension, but an effective instructor must diffuse that negative energy while remaining focused on the material. Dogberts exploit any chance to demonstrate their superiority, and will pick on anyone to prove their point. Instructors must maintain their authority, vary the order of a presentation, and customize exercises “on the fly” to keep the whole class productive.

Carrie Chirolas-Burnet is a lead systems analyst by title and a jack-of-all-trades by temperament. In addition to holding degrees in physics and English, she is a Webmaster, MCSE, and a member of DNRC, Dogbert’s New Ruling Class.

Have you gotten into a showdown with a Dogbert or tried to break up a fight between two of them? How do you keep your advanced students happy during a class? Share your secrets for managing technically advanced students with us.