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I am a TA for an introductory computer programming course at a university in the US. There is one student in particular who, during lecture, will argue with me about every point I make, which eats up a lot of lecture time and becomes un-enlightening for the students, as I am mainly repeating myself to answer the question/respond to the argument.

The student doesn't have previous knowledge in the programming language, so I don't think he's some conceited maniac trying to prove that he's better than me. Simply put, I think the best inference is that he has a sort of mental condition.

For instance, if I show an example on the board, he might blurt out that it's wrong, and try to explain why. While I appreciate students double-checking me, almost 100% of the time, the examples and points that I make are not incorrect, and after explaining it, he becomes quiet for a little bit to process what I said, and tries to point out another flaw. Essentially, he would try to challenge me if I said "1 + 1 = 2", if he could.

These debacles can go on sometimes for up to two minutes before I have a chance to move on. Very frequently, he asks questions/challenges me on things that I just explained or went over, so the class doesn't benefit from this, and it's generally a non-productive use of time. Often times, I will say something like, "If you'd like to discuss this more, we can during office hours," which is a statement that he seems to ignore completely, and will continue his questioning even after I've said this.

Additionally, when I am helping individual students in the classroom during work time, he will shout out to me from across the room to tell me something or ask me a question, and when I say "I can help you shortly when I'm done with Sally here," he will sometimes leave his seat and approach me directly, interrupting my conversation with the student.

How do I deal with a student like this? It seems like he has a mental condition of some sort, based on his interactions and mannerisms, though I've never received a notice from the university's disabilities department. The reason why I bring up the possibility of a mental condition is because he is set off very easily, so I'd like to handle the situation as delicately as possible.

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In my Canadian university we have a Student Services department that handles situations like this and they have a process for identifying students who might be at risk for harm to self or others though it doesn't seem like it has reached that point with you. At least reach out to a similar department (and your prof) and they might come back and say "Oh yes, we're aware of him..." – Rick Henderson Feb 25 at 1:30
    
Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – eykanal Mar 1 at 17:45

11 Answers 11

I have responsibility for students with alternate needs within a Computer Science department and thus have professional experience of the situation you describe. It is not uncommon in our subject.

Our experience is that computing attracts a higher proportion of students on the Autistic Spectrum than do other disciplines. We are operating with about (my personal guess) 2-3% (of total cohort) diagnosed and perhaps double that number undiagnosed.

Some of these students are often not aware of the rest of the class being present and treat teaching as a personal one-to-one dialogue with the teacher. They act as they would sitting with you across a desk. Sometimes it is more extreme and the social norms and boundaries of even working one-to-one are not clear to them. Although, as a spectrum condition, each person may be different, it is common that they wish to understand every point of minutiae before they can build the big picture understanding; becoming detailed obsessed is often a common trait. This leads to question after question as a form of quest.

You should seek advice from a more experienced professional in your institution. It is likely that the student's condition is known, but details are often considered confidential and perhaps not shared with you, because that is what the student may wish. The student may be receiving support elsewhere, perhaps in the form of mentoring. If that is the case then the mentor may be able to assist in explaining the social situation to the student and also give you guidance on how to reply.

Sometimes such students are not diagnosed with any specific condition and are not receiving support as it has never been needed. They are likely to have achieved high grades in earlier studies and the good results have propelled them through to your class.

For a student who is unaware that their behaviour is different from others in their class it is more difficult to handle. I ask such a student to speak to me in a one-to-one appointment in my office. I do not assume that they have any named condition, as this is not really relevant. I just talk to them to explain how lectures work, clarify my role and how I can answer questions. I often have to explain, sometimes in great detail, what makes a good verbal question in class, what makes a good verbal question, what makes a good written question for email, what makes a good question for the class VLE, what makes a good question for StackExchange and so on. It is often the case that no one has ever explained how information is obtained. It does take a degree of tact and experience to do this, which is why I suggested seeking more experienced advice.

Remember, some of the achievements in our subject have been made by people who others found difficult to work with. Look at the movie "The Imitation Game" and you can clearly see (in a fictionalised portrayal) Alan Turing is shown displaying tendencies similar to those you describe. I'm sure if you had a current student with similar attributes you would have been pleased to have had the opportunity to have someone so similarly gifted in your class.

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I would also add that in many cases, it is the student's own discretion whether or not they reveal or make known any mental disorders they may have - so do not assume the student's condition is 'known', nor that they necessarily would want it known. – Zibbobz Feb 24 at 14:32
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"You should seek advice from a more experienced professional in your institution". In the US, at least, virtually every university has an office of disabilities, and they can provide training on working with disabled students and possibly provide screening if that's felt necessary (and of course with student cooperation). In some cases, they may already know of the student and can give even more detailed support (including acting as a very good liaison if the student is amenable to that). – guifa Feb 24 at 15:51
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Keep in mind that (like The Social Network) The Imitation Game is highly fictionalized, and that the historical Turing may not have exhibited the same type of autistic behavior depicted in the movie. – Kyle Strand Feb 24 at 20:34
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@CMosychuk When to correct actual mistakes on the board is always a hard thing to judge. We had a first-year maths class in which the lecturer seemed incapable of doing simple arithmetic at the board without making mistakes. In that case, interrupting every time was essential because, if we didn't, he'd continue the calculation for another three lines, then get stuck and spend forever trying to figure out where he'd gone wrong. – David Richerby Feb 24 at 22:57
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Further to Kyle Strand's comment, I would ask you to strongly consider removing the movie comment. A comparison of The Imitation Game with Alan Turing: The Enigma (which the movie is meant to be based on) makes it very clear that the Turing displayed in the former probably has very little to do with the historical Turing. This is not to say that he was an easy person to work with but that movie is not really OK to use as a historical referent. – E.P. Feb 25 at 10:44

As a fellow TA, I would definitely recommend that you discuss this issue with the professor in charge of the course as taking matters into your own hands without his knowledge (especially with special cases like these) could cause problems. When discussing the issue with the professor, I would refrain from using the phrase "mental condition".

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Brian's answer is good, but this is the first thing you should do. – Kimball Feb 24 at 13:23
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What would you prefer over "mental condition"? At some point you have to bring up the fact that he may have a disability and that seems like as good a way as any. – Azor-Ahai Feb 25 at 4:01
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Diagnosing any sort of mental condition requires an expert's opinion. The OP should explain and discuss the actual events that are taking place and allow the professor to make the final judgement. Furthermore, using the term "mental condition" about someone when you clearly aren't qualified to do so might imply that you have a certain bias against that individual. – Abbas Javan Jafari Feb 25 at 5:01
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I like your answer, except the last part. Any reasonable person will understand why you use the term "mental condition". If had no arms would you say he didn't have a physical condition? Political correctness like this is hindering solving the actual problem. – Lasse Feb 26 at 7:07
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The problem with diagnosing metal conditions, without proper training, is they are notoriously difficult to pin down. Your diagnosis may be completely off base and lead you to a less effective way of handling this student. Autism is somewhat more common in engineering than other disciplines, but it could also be narcissism, or he could simply be an entitled jerk. A more experienced professor will have a much better chance at figuring out the root of the problem, and how to effectively handle the situation. – Morgen Feb 26 at 7:50

Note: This started out as a comment to vonbrand's answer, but grew a bit too long, so I turned it into a separate answer of its own.

While asking students to defer any distracting (irrelevant, too advanced, based on a quirky misunderstanding, etc.) questions until after class can indeed be a good way to deal with such interruptions in general, it may not work very well for some students with autistic spectrum traits or other behavioral patterns like those described by the OP.

Not only can such strongly detail-oriented students get fixated on the apparent error, and become unable to process further material until it has been resolved, but if they also have poor social awareness, they may not even find it easy to realize that others in the class don't necessarily share their inability to get past the (apparent) error. From their viewpoint, they may actually feel that they're doing the whole class a favor by insisting that you resolve the issue now, so that it won't undermine the validity of everything else that you're about to teach.

(It should be noted that, in some cases, this could actually be a valid reason to interrupt your presentation. If you were presenting a deductive argument, following a novel line of reasoning that had not already been independently verified many times, and if there really was an error in one of your early steps, leaving it uncorrected could indeed cause everything built upon the erroneous step to be meaningless. This is, of course, not a very typical scenario in undergrad teaching, but it may seem that way to the student who is new to the subject, and having a hard time accepting your presentation of it.)

What might help, if your problem student seems unwilling to defer their questions until a more suitable time, is speaking with the student one-on-one and suggesting that, if they spot what they think is an error, they should write down a note of it (to let them switch their attention to other things), briefly mention it to you, and then try to set it temporarily aside and concentrate on other things until you both have time to look into the matter more closely (which might be e.g. after class). Do reassure them that, while you don't have unlimited time especially during class, you will at some point (it may be helpful to be specific here, e.g. reserving up to 15 minutes after class for such things) at least take a look at any potential mistakes they've noted down.

You might want to also suggest that, if the student still thinks there's a mistake even after you've looked into it and found none, they should go over it using their textbook at home, carefully prepare a written analysis of where the error is and what the correct answer should be (with test cases, for a programming class) and submit it to you and/or your professor. (Obviously, get your professor's OK before involving them here!)

On one hand, this will help reassure the student that the issue they noticed will not get forgotten or swept under the carpet. Also, the odds are that, if they do carry out that analysis, they'll eventually find their own mistake without you having to spend excessive time and effort chasing it down with them, quite likely producing less stress for both of you.

Finally, if the student does find and document an actual mistake, do remember to thank them, note the mistake during the following class, and briefly present a corrected version of whatever material the mistake was in. In the (perhaps unlikely) case that this does actually happen, it will help raise the student's confidence that you're not trying to hide or brush off any actual errors in your presentation.

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Excellent answer. It is just too bad that we (as teachers) more often than have no training/guidance on what to do in such complex cases. – vonbrand Feb 25 at 10:56
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Excellent. Yes this matches my experience too, and was what I tried to capture in my answer. – Brian Tompsett - 汤莱恩 Feb 25 at 11:26
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Straight out of the Tao of Teaching (if such a holy scripture would exist). To try to get this type of student conform to a more conventional/passive student-teacher dynamic would likely be an exercise in futility and frustration for both sides. Instead, the solution proposed in this answer does not require the student to suppress their immediate problem solving instincts at all, it in fact even manages to empower them --along with their scheduling, prioritizing, summarizing, and researching skills-- while also mitigating the main problem of classroom interruptions. Brilliant answer. +1. – Will Feb 28 at 23:24

The tactic to use "in the trenches" is to just say "That is an interesting point, but goes beyond (or to more detail, or...) what I'm prepared (able, have the time here, ...) to cover right now. Please check back with me after class, and we'll agree to meet to clear up your doubts". If they are really bright (but just socially inept), you might suggest more advanced study material to work through and discuss, or direct them to the teacher to do so.

You have an obligation to your other students in the first line, and wasting their time (or boring them, or even confusing them by going into intricate details they don't grasp) isn't in their (or your!) best interest. But you should also consider the outlier. Maybe you can help them by guiding towards more social behaviour.

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This is a good idea. I'll do this; thanks! – homersimpson Feb 24 at 20:32

Don't forget to take care of yourself. I had a similar student a couple of years ago, and decided I just had to gut it out. That was the wrong choice, of course. I almost didn't make it through the class! I'd sit in the parking lot for 30 minutes dreading what was ahead of me. As a part timer, I didn't know what resources for support and advice were available to me.

Your instructor, and your fellow TAs, can help, as well as the resources mentioned in the other answers.

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Note: I'd comment but I can't due to this being my first reaction on this part of StackEexchange.

I fully agree with Ilmari's answer, and I'd like to add that you should be wary of your approach to his "Mental Condition". It may just be him struggling to understand, and forgetting that he's disturbing the class.

And although many people here suspect an Autism Spectrum Disorder (And they're probably right) I'd like to emphasize that this is a very broad spectrum, and Autism is one of them. I'd advice you to not call him an Autist at any time, especially don't call him that when his disorder is something else in the Autism Spectrum. As someone who has Asperger's Syndrome (An ASD) himself, there is nothing I hate more than people calling me an Autist because they think it's the same thing.

And educate yourself on the broadness of this spectrum, especially when you actually find out his disorder. Some can be handled with ease, others require a very delicate approach. There is also the odds of Perpetual Development Disorder Not Otherwise Specified (PDDNOS) which is the hardest to deal with as it is (as the name suggests) almost literally the "None of the above" checkbox (No offense to anyone suffering from this disorder).

Remember that most of these disorders do not actually make it impossible for him to function properly, it just makes certain situations harder to deal with for them, as they do not always realize their actions are different from others.

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One challenge of being inexperienced is that, by definition, you don't have a sense of the "normal" variation in student behavior. There are several good answers already, but I am not sure if any of them have mentioned this:

Invite a more senior professor to sit in the class for one day, observe silently, and then talk to you in private afterwards.

This way, you can get a second opinion about whether the student is truly unusual and disruptive (in which case you need to handle it outside of class) or whether they are challenging but relatively typical (in which case you need to adjust your teaching).

In a typical department, there are several people who you could ask: your advisor; your teaching mentor, if that is a different person; the course coordinator, if there is one; the administrator in charge of undergraduate courses; or the department chair (particularly in a smaller department).

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And if that student stops doing it on the day the professor sits in? – scaaahu Feb 27 at 13:28
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That would be a great day :) I took it from the question that the behavior was quite frequent ("every point I make"). My own experience with such students is that, as long as the professor sits out of the way and doesn't make a big deal of it (no announcements or anything like that), students with the kinds of problems described won't change their behavior much. – Oswald Veblen Feb 27 at 13:31
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Then it's worthwhile for the OP to try. +1 for the idea. – scaaahu Feb 27 at 13:38
    
Asking somebody senior to sit in is disruptive in itself, and might make matters worse. But presumably you can find out what other classes the troublesome student is taking/has taken, and ask around the teachers/TAs, or even fellow students. Also check if there is some record about the case. – vonbrand Feb 29 at 23:10
    
I am not sure it is disruptive in itself. In a class of 5, it will certainly stand out. But in a class of 30 or more, if the person comes in quietly and sits in the back, without saying anything, it does not need to be disruptive. It's also common enough to have someone observe your teaching to write a letter of recommendation, which can be done without disruption. @vonbrand – Oswald Veblen Mar 2 at 2:03

All the current advice is very good. Talk to your Professor. Talk to student services/disability services. Experiment with different approaches. Defer all the questions until after class. And I especially love Ilmari Karonen's answer, which is the most likely to succeed I think (don't just skim that one, read its last four paragraphs especially).

That being said, if worse comes to worse, talk to your union rep/HR, and see what support they'll give you to kick him out of your classes (either temporarily as a response to his disruptions, or permanently as a final solution to his behavior).

Obviously, this last approach is not to be considered lightly, and you'll want to find out what the protocol is before you do anything. However, that option should be on the table. Even if you do not care about your own well being, you should consider how those constant disruptions will affect the other students. It's your responsibility to make sure your other students also get what they've signed up for.

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+1 for the last paragraph. – scaaahu Feb 27 at 12:27
    
In many cases, this is not an option for a TA - even as a last resort. They may not be considered an employee at all and there may be no union at all. Not always so, but not at all infrequent. – cfr Feb 29 at 1:48
    
@cfr, It doesn't matter, I was talking about HR in the most general sense. He should talk to whoever is in charge of the department responsible for his pay check. After all, I am sure that the department would care if he cancelled a class because a student was being too disruptive and refusing to listen to reason. Or if a student had a tantrum and the TA feared for his safety. Talking to his Professor is good, and he should definitely do that to see what (s)he tells him, but a Professor may not have the cumulative experience, nor the appropriate HR training, to resolve a situation like that. – Stephan Branczyk Feb 29 at 21:24
    
It is better to go through the prof if at all possible. I admit that not everyone will do this, but a prof who lacks the relevant expertise should seek additional support for themselves and the TA if required. You can't support TAs effectively if they don't tell you when they are having difficulties. And the prof almost certainly has more experience than the TA, at least (even if it is a first job they were probably a TA) and has overall responsibility for the quality of the education the students receive. – cfr Feb 29 at 23:35

What can we change?

First off, let me say something which will keep you out of hot water: different people have different learning styles and this is not necessarily any sort of "mental condition" -- it could be, but it might not be. Therefore tact requires that you completely stop being suspicious of the latter: if you are sneakily telling yourself "it's okay, she's just autistic" then you strongly risk accidentally blurting that out to either a friend or a colleague, and once that's out of the bag your job could be impacted by the results. Just admit honestly to yourself that you don't know, and that it is one of the possible explanations for why your student is a "problem student".

Now, I agree that the student's learning style shares some similarities with some aspects of Asperger syndrome or possibly something on the autistic spectrum, regardless of whether or not he/she has those. So, what changes can you make that would be friendly to that sort of learning style?

Use more neutral language.

If you are saying "Here is how you solve that problem" then you might be silently implying that either (a) there is only one way to solve it, or (b) your way is the best way. There's usually a lot of different ways to skin a cat.

For instance, in my field of physics, very often there is some thermodynamic property which you can easily see by looking at fuzzy things called "total differentials" but which would have to be more rigorously made by appealing to certain definitions of certain limits -- someone who has done all of the needed rigorous work will probably come to the easy way and say "yes, but that's a load of crap, you do not know that these properties hold!" and indeed they're right, it's a heuristic rule (not a proof) to re-derive the property.

Similarly in computer science, e.g. we do amortized analysis by appealing to "potential functions" which we choose to make our proofs work; someone who has actually carefully analyzed the algorithm and the time costs of every little part will probably think that your approach is full of crap. Opt instead for vocabulary like "Here's one way to see that this is the right answer..." that makes it more clear that you're not telling people how it has to be done, but just how you like to do it.

Make the class a little more predictable.

This learning style benefits from being able to review material in advance, on their own. Don't be afraid to ask them to review the material in advance to understand how it all works.

Make the class a little more structured.

Right now, you have advertised that you're open to all questions at all times, and you're getting upset with a student for asking all of his questions whenever he has one! I get that you're also upset with his tone and whatever, but you need to change that tendency.

To fit with the last point: always introduce this by saying "hey, at our next class, as a heads up, I am going to slightly change the rules of this recitation section...". Remember, if you're making a change it has to be predictable!

Try to either make a slideshow or write on a board so that you never have to erase anything; if there are multiple slides/boards, number them. This gives a consistent way to reference what's already been said and when, and removes the pressure to get in a question before the board is erased.

Have clear rules about how questions will be asked and when they will be answered. For example, tell everyone that whenever someone has a question, you'll judge whether you can answer it in less than 30 seconds or not; if not then you'll write it down in a notebook with the slide number and the asker, and then you'll keep going -- 15 minutes before the end of class you'll have an alarm go off to remind you to go into "questions mode" where you go back and answer these questions in sequence. If this does not reduce the number of questions, again, give advance notice that each student will receive a maximum of 5 questions to ask during that period. The important thing is that this remains consistent for everyone -- if any question takes longer than 30 seconds to answer, write it down, come to it at the end of class. They must be firm rules: "If you have more than 5 questions that I have to write down, I'll take photos of these boards with my phone and will answer them during my office hours."

If you can get a 30 second hourglass that's even better, because then you can advertise it to everyone else as a sort of game: tell people "I'm trying to get better about quickly and concisely getting to the heart of the problem!" and people will respond well.

Try to set up an incentive system.

For example, maybe you will always try to resolve every question in 30 seconds with your little hourglass timer, but you will up-front either say that a question is "easy" or "hard" for you. Now buy a big bag of candy or some other sort of reward (stickers are still fun, right? Or whatever). Then the rule can be: if someone says that their "hard" question was resolved after 30 seconds of explanation, you both get a candy. This encourages the student to still ask their question, but to maybe try to "boil it down" to some essential basis that can be answered much more quickly.

What do the above approaches center around?

Those sorts of changes encourage that the "problem student" gets to study your approaches on his/her own, chooses 5 questions that really speak to their own conceptual difficulties with your approach, and has a set time where they get their questions answered. In addition they will hopefully try to reduce the scope of their problem to something precisely wrong with what your approach is, rather than trying to advocate their approach in place of yours.

This student's learning style is actually really refreshing! They are not a robot -- but they do really just want things to be simple and consistent. To understand the human side, think of it as a "cut through the BS" type of learning style: all of these extra rules and social considerations are a huge extra mental cost where you're trying to negotiate certain social relationships as well as get your questions answered to your satisfaction -- but why accept that sort of extra mental load if you don't want to?

Rituals and rules help to structure that social-relationship-negotiation and make it cognitively easier. Yes, it is added administrative cost up front, but it can also pay off in giving you more freedom with your limited resources later. This learning style is refreshing precisely because it challenges you to essentially always "do the dishes right after you eat" -- it sucks because you have to interrupt your TV show or whatever to clean up, but it turns out that it is more efficient (the dishes are much easier to clean before the food dries onto them) and has a certain aesthetic benefit (your apartment is cleaner on average). So take this as a time to try and learn from them, and to pick up skills that will better help you teach people in general in the future.

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I have had experience in similar situations (University Classroom). I would advice implementing a strict "Hold questions until after lecture" policy. If possible, ask the student who is disruptive to wait until you have spoken with the other students because you want to pay particular attention to his points and questions. In essence, invoke the principles of good Ole Dale Carnegie. Good luck.

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That is too drakonian. Some people genuinely don't understand, or would like to see another example. I have to humbly confess that I occasionally blunder, and my mistakes get caught (usually!) by a student or two, limiting any damage done – vonbrand Feb 29 at 23:14

Above all, be patient. Being an introductory computer science course/lab, realize many others will be interested in what is going on in your head and will further learn from you how you approach things in a professional manner. Try to be a role model for him and others. Yes there will be many who will be unstimulated. Realize given your knowledge things may appear rudementary to you, however are far from it for them. Try to adapt to your audience, they are different each and every time; a one-size-fits-all approach is not optimal.

I would strongly advise on keeping any classification of a mental condition to yourself. If speaking to him, a professor, or others be very careful not summarize the behaviour as some sort of disability. Consider speaking informally to your university's title IX coordinator about how to behave before doing something you may regret! Both from a liability standpoint and the well-being of the student. Just drop by their office and chat.

I am not sure how to delicately handle him interrupting your dialog with other students, beyond being firm with him each and every time so that he learns. I encourage you to seek counsel from your department there.

As a personal aside in a similar situation, a consistently conceited/rude student had asked for help one and one, their phone rang, they held up their hand in a "talk to the hand" manner and proceded to talk to whomever on their cell phone. That student was permanently moved to the end of the queue for the remainder of the semester (and future grading in later courses).

As another aside from the vantage of a student, in Calc 2 there was a female as you describe, with at least a dozen questions every lecture. Eventually the instructor embraced her willingness and would call on her, and intermittently check to ensure she understood things. Some of her questions were rudementary, however I didn't understand much of the new material either; eight years later I am still thankful for her inquisitive nature and remember her with fondness. In a later course, I remember the instructor consistently reacting in an inhibitory manner and so she didn't speak up nearly so much; I worry that she didn't do so well there.

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