Strategies for Dealing with a Discussion Dominator

Helping students create a classroom code of conduct is one way to discourage any student from taking over classroom conversations.

The approach to teaching in higher education seems to be moving away from the traditional lecture format, and moving towards more active application of material in the classroom through activities and discussions. Since I began teaching in graduate school I have embraced this trend, by utilizing what I call an “interactive” lecture style, and by incorporating small group work, in-class activities, and discussions into my classes. Adolescent development is a topic that lends itself especially well to student discussions. When students are actively engaged in what goes on in the classroom, they are likely more actively engaged in the material as well—and this is certainly a good thing.

One potential pit-fall of having students more actively engaged in how classroom time is spent is the risk that one or two students will dominate the discussion, leaving little room for the contributions of the rest of the class. There is usually at least one in every class—that student who jumps in frequently, talks at length, and ends up dominating the class discussion (not only in time, but potentially in focus as well). What is the best way to deal with this issue?

Over years of teaching, and of observing discussion dominators, I have employed a number of strategies to try to get a more even balance of classroom participation. I have tried to urge other students to step up more often (e.g., “we haven’t heard from so-and-so yet on this topic…”), I have tried to subtly hint in class to the dominator to scale back (e.g., “thank you so-and-so for being so willing to share, but let’s hear from someone else this time…”), and I have tried various configurations of discussion formats (e.g., dividing into small groups, and having each group tackle a discussion question—then having each group share with the entire class). I have even tried talking to the discussion dominator outside of class, to explore why they are so eager to talk in class, and to tactfully suggest that they give others a chance to talk in class as well. One such discussion dominator shared with me that he didn’t retain the material unless he was active—that he had to be “doing” something to stay on task.  For that discussion dominator, I ended up getting him some silly putty as a “fidget toy” so that he could be doing something in class, without always being the one to talk. In this particular case the fidget toy worked wonders, but typically these strategies are met with limited success.

So, a couple of years ago I started doing an activity on the first day of class to try to set the tone for the semester. I felt that students should not only be more active in the classroom, they should also be more active in creating the classroom culture. I have students divide up into small groups, and discuss things that: a) contribute to an optimal learning environment; and b) distract/detract from an optimal learning environment. Once they have done this, I ask each group to draft three proposed class rules. I then compile these class rules, and we (as a class) decide on our final class code of conduct for the semester.

Almost every semester that I have done this, the issue of a student dominating discussions has come up when students identify it as something that detracts from their learning. Before we agree on the class code of conduct we go through it as a class, item by item, and discuss what the students who drafted it meant. I have found that students explaining to each other that it is every classmates’ responsibility to allow others to share (and not dominate the discussion) is very effective in setting a more egalitarian tone to discussions. In addition, I usually try to interject that there are different types of students—those who are quick to share and are comfortable talking in class, and those who like to have time to think and may be more hesitant to talk in class—and that they should be aware of those tendencies in themselves, and work to make our classroom a place where everyone has the opportunity to contribute to discussions.

This approach has worked well for me, although I still occasionally have to remind classes (or individual students) about the policy they designed and agreed to. Do you have a strategy for dealing with the “discussion dominator?” I would love to hear from you.

By Renee Paltz Dennison

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