The Case of Promiscuous Participation in Class

One Way to Manage Monopolizing Students

Posted Dec 26, 2013

In my last blog entry I discussed calling on students who might be reticent to talk in class. That got me wondering about how to handle students who want to talk too much. We have ethical obligations to respect students, no matter how introverted or extraverted they are.  We also have duties of beneficence to provide an environment in which as many students can learn as possible.

My most common approach is to talk with over-active students outside of class, thank them for their motivation and activity, and tell them that they need to learn another skill—listening!  I’ve never been really happy with that approach so I talked with one of the best teachers I know:  Carl Pletsch.  Carl is a history professor at the University of Colorado at Denver.  In addition to conducting research on intellectual history (he wrote Young Nietzsche, Becoming a Genius), he teaches modern European and ancient Greek history.  He’s also done a ton of work on technology and faculty development. 

Here’s what Carl said:

How can we prepare for and deal with the extreme extrovert as well as the introvert?  We want to encourage participation in the classroom, right?  But what if a student tends to participate too enthusiastically, crowding out other participants?

Here is my approach:  I buttonhole the loquacious student for a private conversation outside the classroom. I don’t want to squelch him or her, or suggest talking less. I want to respect their motivations and enthusiasm.  So instead of just trying to get the student to participate less, I am ready with a series of challenges, beginning with this: 


Carl Pletsch

If the student seems prepared and focused on the topic of the day, I might say something like, “I appreciate your willingness to contribute to our class discussion!  But I want to challenge you to take your participation to the next level. Next class session, see if you can make a comment that addresses what another student has said, naming him or her, and showing that you are interested in what other students may be thinking. OK?”   I emphasize that this is a skill, taking participation to a higher level.


Carl Pletsch

If the student seems generally ill-prepared, making comments that actually divert attention from the topic of the day’s session, I might still praise him or her for participating, but my challenge is for the student to come with comments on the reading next time, and to be prepared to refer to passages in the text to support the comments.

In the following sessions I’ll notice whether the student merely disagrees with another student, or whether he or she says something complimentary.  I can then revise the challenge to include the idea of saying something constructive that builds on another student’s comment.

If this works, I praise the student and suggest the next level of challenge: “Can you listen to the discussion until you have heard enough to discern a relationship among several students’ comments?  Then you might try to make a comment that compares or relates several other contributions.”  Again I suggest giving credit to others by name.  

My primary goal is to make the whole classroom safe for everyone to participate, but by challenging the loquacious students I am also encouraging them to develop new skills that may serve them well in life. I try not to discourage students from participating, but to channel their energy in more constructive ways—ways beneficial to both the class and to the students themselves.


I think Carl’s technique is wonderful, and I plan to use it next semester.  Carl and I would both like to hear from you about your approaches.


Mitch Handelsman is a professor of psychology at the University of Colorado Denver and the co-author (with Sharon Anderson) of Ethics for Psychotherapists and Counselors: A Proactive Approach (Wiley-Blackwell, 2010). He is also an associate editor of the two-volume APA Handbook of Ethics in Psychology (American Psychological Association, 2012).

© 2013 Mitchell M. Handelsman. All Rights Reserved