There is a classmate who repeatedly interrupts the flow of lectures in various ways. We assume he has learning difficulties of some kind due to how he acts and because he has an assistant with him in most lectures.

Generally, it will be things such as asking an excessive number of questions. Often, in the middle of going through something, he will interrupt and ask the lecturer to repeat something said or written half a page ago–or will interrupt to try and jump in with the answer to the problem we are working through as a class. Or a question on a semi-unrelated topic, or on a different method of solving the problem will be asked.

The issue with these questions is they will be blurted out in the middle of an explanation, breaking the flow, and are extremely common, taking valuable time away from the lecture.

Additionally, he will often tell the lecturer to stop or go back a page so he can take a photo of the screen with his phone–and will often take up to 4 minutes before the lecture can go ahead.

Our lectures are recorded and posted on the student's area of the university website within a day, and previous years lectures are also available–with both the written and spoken information.

Overall, I would say these disruptions take up around 15 minutes of each 50 minute lecture.

It is probably useful to note here that I myself have learning difficulties–which means these are incredibly distracting and disruptive to me personally, more so than my classmates–although in conversations I have gathered that several others are also feeling this is impacting negatively on their education.

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    The constraints of having learning difficulties are nowadays often handled by specialised units in the university. In case of - as in yours - contradictory requirements, you probably should discuss this with them first, and then, with their advice, with your lecturer (or even better, if they could give guidelines to the lecturer how to handle such obviously conflicting needs). Have you talked to them? – Captain Emacs Nov 12 '18 at 14:28
  • I have spoken to other staff members briefly- but not my lecturer. I will do that next, thank you! – Emma Nov 12 '18 at 14:42
  • Might this student also have learning difficulties to which this was the agreed upon response? – Benjamin Nov 13 '18 at 12:12
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    I would be interested in answers to this question when learning disabilities aren't a factor. I've had very capable classmates in graduate courses act as though they're being lectured 1-1 and interrupt the professor with questions at a very dense rate, or try to go off on tangents related to their own research. – Alex Reinking Nov 13 '18 at 20:27
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    It doesn't seem like learning disability to me. I would guess it is rather something like autism or ADHD, having very unstructured and wild associations – mathreadler Nov 15 '18 at 12:43

You would handle this the same way you would handle anything in class that impacts your ability to learn. You contact the instructor, and suggest that there is something disruptive going on.

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    +1, yes. This isn't something a student can handle directly. Work through the professor or a dedicated office. – Buffy Nov 12 '18 at 15:20
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    +1 as this is a good solution regardless of disability status. I have personally experienced such disruptions far more frequently from able students. – Alex Reinking Nov 13 '18 at 20:30
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    And you think the instructor is unaware of this? :-( ... -1. – einpoklum Nov 15 '18 at 13:48
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    @einpoklum -- the instructor may or may not be aware the degree to which students find the issue to be disruptive, or how many students find the situation unacceptable. Having student complaints in hand might also empower the instructor, opening more tools. Regardless, the point stands, however, that there is very little action that the student can take that does not route through the instructor, and that absent a report from the OP that the instructor has been contacted about this, this is the FIRST appropriate action. – Scott Seidman Nov 15 '18 at 13:58
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    @einpoklum -- I did. The answer given is the appropriate response for both cases. – Scott Seidman Nov 15 '18 at 15:38

I've unfortunately been on the other end of this as a lecturer in a very similar situation. In that case, I had a perception that it might be creating problems for the other students, but couldn't really do much about it since no students actively said it was an issue. If they had, I could have likely then sat down with the disabilities service coordinators and hashed something out. A few students finally did come forward at the end of the semester but by then there was only a short amount of time left in the semester so there wasn't enough time to deal with it. In that context, you should talk to both the instructor and the service coordinator (or equivalent) especially since you have needs yourself. And make sure to do it sooner rather than later.

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    Just out of curiosity, is there a reason you couldn't pre-emptively talk with disability services before students came forth and commented about it? – user76284 Nov 12 '18 at 20:27
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    @user76284 , There are a lot of concerns about instructors discriminating against students with disabilities or interfering with their accommodations (and some of those concerns are definitely valid), so going to talk to them without some sort of evidence that students actually had an issue would likely not have gone over well. This was partially a judgment call based on the school and the fact that I didn't have much job security at the position in question. At a previous positions, I had interacted a lot with the disabilities office people, and would have had less qualms bringing it up. – JoshuaZ Nov 12 '18 at 21:13
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    I don't know your exact situation but there is no way I would allow one student to derail approximately 30% of the lecture for any reason. That clearly impacts every other student. – Kimball Nov 12 '18 at 21:32
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    @Kimball My situation wasn't as extreme as that in the OP. – JoshuaZ Nov 12 '18 at 22:02
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    @JeffreyJWeimer In OP's situation, it's another student making that assumption. They are not privy to what Disability Services has to say. – TRiG Nov 13 '18 at 17:04

As a classmate and a student I would strongly suggest you try connect and talk to your colleague. I am often amazed by the amount of issues people have which were completely left untreated with the directly concerned person. How would you feel if all of a sudden you are getting called out by some high authority because of something you did over and over again, but never though to be a problem? It may sound harsh at first, but people with a minimal level of maturity know that is better to respond well to a peer criticism than to an authority's warning.

That being said, such conversation should be conducted with care, patience and an open mind. You may find out he has reasons to behave as he does, and you may choose yourself to tolerate it. Truth be told, you'll likely just conclude that you fulfilled my "professional courtesy" recommendation.

Then you should talk to some authority, in a regular school this could be the Principal or vice-Principal, your university could have some teaching supervisor. Ideally this should be some one with authority over the teachers and with some responsibility level over the quality of the course you are taking.

I'll suggest you rehearse that conversation in front of a mirror. It will help scrapping argument parts which would sound like whining, and also avoids sounding emotional during the explanation. You should make it clear that some measures have already been taken, that the problems are recurring, and even if up to some point his situation may be understandable, it is poor practice to allow one student's behavior to severely penalize other students quality of learning. Be open-minded again, since in this case the authority may have better information on why the student behaves as described, and may not be ethically allowed to share it with you. You do not need the authority to commit to solve the issue, you need to make sure that a person with the proper tools to address the issue has knowledge of it. Try as well to give hint and suggestions on how this person could look into the issue and observe it first-hand.

That being said, and depending on the tools available, actions might only be taken by the authority if the complaint comes from some independent source. So try to influence other people into complaining to said authority as well. The point is, if any kind of measure that may be understood as a punishment would need to be taken, no authority figure should do it over a single person's word alone. You would be lucky enough if this authority conducted any investigation to sanity-check your complaint, hence why I suggested giving hint on how to do so.

Then wait, and try to be satisfied with any sign of improvement, these things may improve gradually rather than abruptly.

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    I totally understand where you are coming from how it would be nice to go to the student and have a small chat with them. However, this is very sensitive especially if they are disabled. It could be seen as students ganging up / targeting them and you may end up front page news after this person goes home and tells their parents that a student told them to stop asking so many questions. A teacher is trained to handle this situation, the liability falls on the school to mediate these things and they have the training to do so. – ggiaquin16 Nov 14 '18 at 17:43
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    I would advise not going over your lecturer straight to a higher authority as suggested here, the first port of call for a issue with a lecture should be the lecturer handling the lecture. Only if they ignore the issue without explanation do you then go to higher authorities. Another note is I am not sure that punishment is needed for anyone involved here or should be suggested or expected. – J.Doe Nov 15 '18 at 10:19
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    @J.Doe raises valid points. I should clarify that going to a higher authority might still be preferable if you have several different lecturers, and many shared classes with the said student. Someone who oversees it all is best suited to deal with issues whose actors change often. Also, I never suggested that any punishment should be applied, but rather that some actions that may be taken, might be understood as punishment, and if that were the case, they should not be justified by a single person's word. – Mefitico Nov 15 '18 at 16:09
  • I'm usually in favor of dealing with problems directly, but in this case I don't see it. If the student has a learning disability, going to the instructor will allow them to loop in the appropriate offices -- indeed, they may have info that OP doesn't. If the student does not have a learning disability, then they are (most likely) just a jerk, and engaging directly is likely to be stressful and unproductive. – cag51 Nov 16 '18 at 14:17

I've Been in a similar situation when I was in college. We had a student that clearly had autistic traits and blurted out just as you describe and often interrupting as you described. Every answer he provided or shouted out in class referred to a Star Trek episode (which he would even quote the episode title and number) or he would talk about BBQ food. It was fairly hard to concentrate and it was clearly annoying most of the students.

Myself and a few others approached the teacher about this but he said there was not much he could do since the student was not technically under learning disabilities. The teacher then went on to inform us that he was the son of a local politician who did not want to officially list his son as handicap out of fear of his political career. So there was little the teacher could do to find accommodations without it being made official.

I would definitely recommend talking to the teacher though. That is absolutely the right path. Talking to the student in this situation will likely get no where as they probably don't understand how their actions are distracting. If the teacher is unable to help, I would then go talk to the dean's office about any accommodations that could be made. It's possible, though unlikely that you may be able to get a transfer to a different class/time slot or the Dean may be capable of working a solution with the student that the teacher may not have the ability to do.

Either way, definitely talk to the teacher!


We have a saying here: Don't throw out the baby with the bath water. I don't want to minimize the problem here and do accept that the student is, perhaps unknowingly, going beyond acceptable bounds, but students in general, who ask a lot of questions can be an asset to a course.

I was one of those students, in fact, but didn't just blurt out questions or behave in a disruptive manner. But I did have my hand up quite a lot of the time. When I was a kid, my mother though I was a pain in the butt because I asked so many questions: Why ... Why ...

But when I was a graduate student, my fellow students thought I was a lot smarter than I really am because I asked so many questions in graduate level math classes (Measure Theory, Topology, ...). In fact, those other students were often too reticent to actually ask the questions that they, like myself, needed answering. I found later, when teaching, that very few students are willing to interrupt you when you make a mistake, or ask a question when you have made an unwarranted assumption. The students that are willing can actually be an asset, provided that the flow isn't unnecessarily interrupted - unlike the description given by the OP.

But occasionally the flow needs to be interrupted because the instructor has taken a wrong turn or made an invalid leap - or just one that the students don't have the level of knowledge to follow.

The required balance here is normally manageable if class sizes are reasonable. But when they reach a hundred it is pretty disruptive to ask questions or do much of anything at the moment. Hopefully in those cases students can learn to record and save their questions and issues for a smaller "recitation" section. I strongly disfavor such large classes because in these sorts of situations it is all too possible for a student with a serious question to not have it answered at all. Maybe worse is when that individual student gets and answer and other students don't, when all needed the extra information. That can be managed, I've found, but it takes attention to process to assure that bringing everyone up to speed actually happens.

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    I don't understand what you're trying to address here. That OP should move to a smaller class? Apparently this is a situation that more than OP finds annoying so it doesn't seem to fit with your experience about someone helping other students by asking, either. – pipe Nov 12 '18 at 20:31
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    @pipe, no, I'm only warning against "solutions" that forbid all interruptions. As I said a couple of places, the situation described is abnormal, but not all solutions are appropriate. Read it for what it is, not for a specific solution to the question asked. – Buffy Nov 12 '18 at 20:37
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    This is more of a personal opinion on a tangetial subject, rather than an answer to OP's question. OP did not hint that the distruptive person asks questions that others might have as well. It seems that he mostly asks things that others are not interested (anymore). – problemofficer Nov 12 '18 at 22:53
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    @Buffy Who suggested any kind of "'solution' that forbids all interruptions"? That seems like a straw man, to me. – David Richerby Nov 13 '18 at 0:18
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    If the person posting an answer says it's not intended to be an answer and instructs commenters to not read it as an answer, maybe it shouldn't be an answer? – Meelah Nov 14 '18 at 14:35

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