The Know-It-All, Question Hog and Daily Debater:
Dealing with Difficult Students
August 2007 - Tegan Jones, Certification Magazine
Whether they’re overly enthusiastic or just plain hyper, difficult students can easily
derail a class by disrupting the learning process. By dominating the discussion or
distracting others, these problem pupils can waste hours of valuable class time if the
instructor doesn’t deal with them directly. To keep their courses on track and
maintain a positive learning environment, trainers need to create an atmosphere of
empowerment, acceptance and internal control.
Promoting these values in the classroom helps instructors cultivate a psychology of
success in their students, said John Shindler, associate professor at California State
University, Los Angeles, and author of “Transformative Classroom Management.”
Further, he said developing this psychology improves the classroom environment by
addressing the fear of failure that causes many students to be disruptive.
“When you have a failure psychology, you're easily threatened, you quit easily and
you're looking for ways to displace the responsibility onto other people,” Shindler
explained. “And when you feel that way, you become disruptive because it’s a lot
easier to become disruptive than it is to feel like a failure.”
These students can act out in many ways, not all of which are rude or abrasive — the
failure psychology can manifest itself in seemingly benign actions such as dominating
classroom conversations or asking too many questions, Shindler said. Because these
students are not causing trouble but genuinely trying to learn, they can pose unique
Some prime examples of these difficult students include the know-it-all, the question
hog and the daily debater.
The know-it-all student tends to dominate classroom discussions with long-winded
answers and comments that demonstrate his or her extensive knowledge of a
particular subject. Although trainers love engaged students, these individuals can
monopolize the discussion to the point where other students tune out as soon as
they open their mouths.
To prevent this situation before it starts, instructors should make a statement early
in the class about the importance of hearing everyone’s ideas. If they make it known
at the beginning that they might have to stop some speakers to make sure that
everyone gets a chance to talk, know-it-all students probably won’t feel singled out
or hurt when they are cut off, Shindler explained.
If the problem persists, however, the trainer should pull that student aside after
class to discuss the problem.
“Validate the fact that they have a lot to contribute and make them feel like they’re a
special student, but let them know right upfront that there needs to be some kind of
proportionality to the amount that people talk,” Shindler said.
The Question Hog
The question hog is generally a student who feels very confused or anxious about his
or her ability to understand the concepts being discussed in class. Although it’s
important for an instructor to answer this student’s questions and allay his or her
fears, after class is probably the best time to discuss personalized, in-depth
questions, Shindler said.
It’s also beneficial to make students wait until the end of class to ask their questions
so they are forced to spend some time trying to find the answer for themselves —
finding the solution on their own will give them much more confidence than having
the explanation given to them.
“It’s conditioning —if they ask something, and you give them what they want, you
condition them to continue that behavior,” Shindler explained. “So, when they say, ‘I
want the answer,’ you say, ‘I'm going to give you the answer later.’”
The Daily Debater
The daily debater will latch on to any point of contention and attempt to debate the
issue ad nauseam with the instructor. This behavior often stems from a desire for
power or control in the classroom setting, so engaging in these types of arguments
with students can reduce the class to a two-person power struggle, Shindler said.
The best way to defuse this situation is for trainers to resist the desire to defend
their stance, immediately side with the debater and quickly follow up their response
with a positive thought.
If the argument is about the subject matter, the conversation can be continued
constructively outside of class. If it’s about the way the course is run, instructors
should ask to see those comments in writing so they can address the student’s
concerns at a more appropriate time.
“Don’t go into that place where you're getting hooked into a power struggle — it’s
essentially an endless hole that you’ll never get out of,” Shindler said. “These
students won’t quit until you ignore them or validate their feelings and give them a
real clear sense of what's expected.”