While all technical trainers are familiar with the uninterested student, it’s the overly interested ones that sometimes cause more trouble. In our recent article about technically competitive students, we listed several ways to tone down the Dogberts in class who want to bicker with you or with each other about who knows more about the subject at hand.

TechRepublic members are obviously familiar with this type of student and have many ways to deal with them. This collection of reader mail highlights the best ideas members suggested for silencing the Dogberts or getting them to help with the learning process.

Throw down the gauntlet
When you’re faced with a disruptive student, you can always call his or her bluff. TechRepublic member Darrel R., a technical trainer and course developer, has a list of questions that he asks Dogberts point-blank in front of the entire class.

  1. “How is this discussion helping the class? Is this helping us to meet our objectives?”
  2. “Can you substantiate what you are saying? Are you prepared to provide formal references and documentation to support your assertions?”
  3. “Think of the others; do you understand why they are here? Do you understand the objectives of the class?”
  4. “Why do you think that you need this class? Why are you here?”
  5. “Are you prepared to deliver a formal lesson to the class complete with your own lesson plan and substantiating documentation?”
  6. “May I please have your boss’s name and phone number/e-mail?”

Darrel said that he usually doesn’t have to go beyond question # 2, but that he has run through the entire list on rare occasions. He also has gone even further.

“Also, on rare occasion, I’ve physically handed my marker to the offender, taken a seat in the back of the room, and told the person to ‘take us where we need to go and don’t waste time.’ I’ve never had to sit in the back for more than five minutes, and never had to do this more than once in a class.

“I don’t enjoy doing this, but I am compelled to maintain the integrity of the class and to protect the interests of the others in the class.”

Carrie S., a software instructor and training director, offers another way to dampen the one-upmanship enthusiasm of Dogberts.

“Take them aside during a break and say, ‘I think you may want to advance out of this level. But, if you get in to the advanced level, you will need to keep up with the advanced students.’

“Sometimes this works because they suddenly realize they may not be able to be a Dogbert in front of the advanced-level students. This statement alone says the instructor has recognized their superior skills. They tend to lie low for the rest of the class.”

Input from a Dogbert
Adrienne D. offers the other point of view: one from a Dogbert enduring a not-so-exciting class:

“Being in the ‘technically advanced’ group, and being forced to sit through a class where the instructor is struggling to convey information that you have ‘at the tip of your tongue’ can be pure torture. Here is a technique that I have used in the past to help the class (and the instructor) move along more smoothly through the troubled waters:

“Dogbert: (after raising her hand and waiting patiently for the instructor to recognize her) Does that mean that… (and then inserts in a simple, concise manner a restatement of the point the instructor was trying to make, in language anyone can understand)…?

“Instructor: Yes, that’s exactly right!

“Other class members: (Heaves a sigh of relief) Oh, I get it now!”

Adrienne also suggested that Dogberts can help out an instructor when he is having trouble.

“…you not only get the satisfaction of being right (better than the instructor if you will), but of helping out and lessening your time of torture. Know that your primary purpose for being in class is to help provide a balance, and that you can always learn something. And don’t overdo it; you only want to help if the instructor is struggling with the topic.”

Flattery can help also
If a Dogbert isn’t tactful enough to volunteer his or her expertise in a helpful way, the instructor can do it. PRWain said that explicitly acknowledging students’ strengths defuses a lot of the objectionable behavior. Try comments such as:

  • “Alice, I know you know this stuff, can you let the rest of the class tell me the answers?”
  • “John, you are on top of the stuff in the next exercise, could you help Carl sitting next to you?”
  • “Ali, with your brainpower, you will be able to dig that out of the manual.”

This member said that it is amazing how a little public acknowledgement improves a student’s attitude.

Try distracting them
Pat C. teaches some user-oriented courses that are very small, and often involve some users who are tech-savvy, and some who are tech-timid. Pat uses the “You teach, you learn” principle to let the technically advanced demonstrate their understanding.

“’You teach, you learn’ can also be used in a larger class, or with technical-level instruction. When I teach a hardware service class, I bring a ‘gold screwdriver’ (or some other tool), one for each unit we will use in the class. Dogbert is delegated to perform some maintenance procedure for the group—I hand him the tool, he’s occupied, and I get to cover the technical details for the rest. It’s rare (but not unknown) for any one student to continue being a Dogbert through the whole class!

“My final trick for Dogberts in a hardware class is to completely disassemble the unit (talking all the while), then hand the tools to the most vocal among the group and leave it to him/them to assemble it again. This also gives even the most timid in the group a chance to participate, even if it is just to hand over screws or lend a hand to steady a component. The quietest students often shine in this process, because they were paying attention.”
How do you use the strengths and weaknesses of your students to your advantage? Do you encourage them to participate and share their expertise or their questions? Tell us how you use student interaction as part of your teaching plan.