Male Student Dominating Discussion

Here is part of a comment by Ori Simchen from a discussion on the Leiter Reports blog: “In philosophy we seem far more willing to tolerate the arrogant male undergrad or graduate student speaking with great confidence about he-knows-not-what. This just isn’t so in linguistics or psychology, which probably helps explain the migration of highly able young women from philosophy into those neighboring areas.” Judging by the reactions I have seen on Facebook, Simchen’s conjecture strikes a lot of people as highly plausible. Assuming it is right, what advice do you have for managing classroom discussions so as to minimize this sort of behavior? I never know what to do, even when it is obvious that a particular student is much more confident than he deserves to be about what he is saying, is taking up way too much air time, and is causing other students to dislike the class. I mean, those guys are paying good money too, and sometimes what they say is not completely off the mark (even if they constantly overrate the value of their own comments and in any case take up way more discussion time than they should). It feels weird to shut them down, but at the same time I don’t like the way they’re spoiling the atmosphere in my class. Are there good strategies that have been developed for dealing with this problem?

I think it’s perfectly possible to quiet such students down in a polite way.  When you ask a question you can say “This time I’d like to hear from someone on this side of the room/someone I haven’t heard from before.”  When he’s going on too long, you can say “That’s really interesting, but I want to hear from other people too.”  But also, you can talk to him privately and explain that while it’s great that he’s so enthusiastic you think it’s important to hear from other people too.  You could ask him to hang back a bit to help you in achieving this goal.


It’s also possible to request that students raise their hands before speaking, and then call on people who don’t take up so much air time. If Talkative Student is the only one with his hand up, you can say, “Let’s hear from the rest of you–Quiet Student, what do YOU think?” But the best solution to this problem, depending on the size of the class of course, may be to put the students into discussion groups of about 5-8 students and let the others do some of the policing. I’ve found that to be surprisingly effective.


Note that the Center for Research on Learning and Teaching at the University of Michigan has some great resources for teaching through discussion (and other topics  – see the rest of their website).  A few other techniques for undergrad discussions include: (i) giving each student two “tickets” at the beginning of class saying that each contribution to discussion requires a ticket and no one can speak without a ticket unless all the tickets are used up.  This can also put pressure on the more quiet students to use their tickets. (ii) Placing a deck of playing cards (or just consecutively numbered index cards) in the middle of the room and each person takes a card (they are stacked in order) when they have something to say, and the order of comments proceeds by the order of the cards that were selected.  (Note that this can be somewhat disruptive to discussion since people are jumping up to get a card.  But it also encourages longer comments and less “popcorn” discussion.)  (iii) After posing a question give students time to write down their answers and then put the written slips in a bag or box or envelope.  Then draw out the replies and read them.  This allows students who take a bit longer to think through their answers time to think; and it allows students to remain anonymous if they feel anxious about “owning” their reply (you could have them put their name on the slip but not read it out so you can know who is making good comments without revealing it).  Once students see that their replies are positively received, this can give them confidence.

The more difficult issue is how to disrupt the arrogance of the male student(s) and encourage the confidence of the female student(s).  This isn’t just about air time.  The third strategy above can help, but I think there is nothing like a one-on-one conversation with the students in question, especially at the grad level.  Often arrogant students aren’t fully aware of how they appear, and under-confident students need individual encouragement.  Also, selective use of micro-affirmations for the under-confident can make a big difference.  On micro-aggressions and micro-affirmations, see Mary Rowe (2008). (Note that educating ourselves about micro-aggressions and micro-affirmations and using that knowledge to intervene – even in faculty contexts – is very important for good climate.)


Another reply added 12/8/13:

In virtually every seminar I have taught over the last 25+ years, at least one student has, from the outset, naturally tended to dominate the conversation in a philosophy class. This usually begins the very first class. If one is not watchful, especially early in the semester, discussion will quickly tilt in a certain direction. Professors can help that tilting, sometimes unwittingly, by coming to rely on the talkers. This will discourage more careful, shy or less verbose students from jumping in. From the very first day of the class, it is very important to include as many students as possible. Think of this as spreading the conversation out across the whole room.

When I evaluate teaching of our TF’s and graduate students I always stress the importance of this. I watch to see whether I can help with new techniques to help the teacher learn to spread it around. We are educators and have a duty to cultivate participation from all of our students, not only the ones who voluntarily jump in. True, some people are more verbal than others. But these verbose people too need to learn to converse, and that means sharing the floor.

My general advice to teachers includes this:

  1. Be explicit, from the very first day, that you expect conversation and participation to be as widely spread as possible among students throughout the semester, and that you expect everyone to be participating and will work for this.
  2. When the talker raises his or her hand repeatedly, say “I’d like to hear from someone else now”. Make eye contact elsewhere. Call on someone else if necessary. Learn students’ names to be prepared. Notice who is strong enough to be called on directly, and use that if you need to.
  3. Encourage shyer students to speak too, either in written comments or in person, in office hours. “I’d like to hear your thoughts, because I think you have something interesting to say” sounds an encouraging note.
  4. When as often happens the verbose student picks up on what someone else was getting at, say so and credit the originator of the comment. Make the conversation collaborative. “I like your point, but I don’t see that you have really satisfied X”, for example. Do not in any way reinforce domination as a tactic. Work against it: democratic aspects of conversation need reinforcing.
  5. If a verbose student tries to manage you or another class member down, do not reward them. “I see your point but you are straying from what is the important point here”, or “I don’t see what you are getting at, because Y was making a different point”, “You are disagreeing with Y, but your own reasoning seems to me in need of shoring up”. Loud talkers generally want not only attention, but to be competitive and reinforced. Find a way to work against this.
  6. Be especially disciplined yourself not to rely on the verbose ones to keep conversation going. It’s your job as the instructor to moderate and enliven things, not the students’.
  7. The very first day is extremely important. Begin by having each student introduce him or herself briefly, stating why he or she is in the class. Listen and figure out from the start whom you think needs to work on public speaking skills. Make a point of helping that student along. Ask a few easy introductory questions to get things going. If the class is quiet, WAIT THEM OUT. Do NOT speak up for them, especially the first day. They will get it in their heads that this is a note-taking class, and clam up. Spreading conversation out the first day is absolutely essential.
  8. Use Blackboard or virtual discussion boards to create threads of discussion before you get to class. If a student is shy in person, but makes good comments on the virtual blackboard, pick up on these during your own class presentation and see whether you can draw the student out in person. Encourage, encourage, encourage, and that means differ with them, draw them out, coax them.
  9. Be very aware that a minority student in the class — that is, the only female, or the only male, or the only person of color, or the only first year grad student, or the only one with a learning disability, or the only libertarian, or the only religious believer, or the only atheist — can easily feel intimidated or against a fence. You need to support that person perhaps especially. Your job is to let that person learn the art of conversation, give them a safe space in which to speak, give to them the joy of give and take, and help them learn to think out loud, in a critical but supportive environment in which intellectual exchange can flower, and disagreement as well as agreement. If you are not helping these skills get honed, cultivating them for the next generation as a whole, you are simply not doing your job as a philosophy professor.

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