About once a year, I end up with a section with a student who is well ahead of others in the course. Often, these are students auditing the course, but sometimes are senior students attending 100-level courses or students majoring in the subject attending a course for non-majors in a made-simpler-for-non-majors course.

Such students are often eager to learn, quick to volunteer to come to the board or volunteer their work for peers to check (e.g. in a writing course), active in discussions, and they tend to take charge of group work. This does not seem like behavior I should discourage. Yet, in such sections, I notice significantly reduced confidence, participation, and engagement among other students, who seem uncomfortable with having a strong student constantly outdo them. Other sections tend to have active lessons, with many students eager to volunteer or join in a discussion, but in these sections, the class atmosphere is quiet and I'm reduced to calling on names and getting unwilling participants to carry the course along.

What can I do to turn this situation around?

  • 17
    I think it varies a lot by level. I see this behavior a lot for undergrads. In graduate school, I've seen people rise to the challenge of a stronger student.
    – geometrian
    Commented Oct 12, 2014 at 23:26
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    Wow, does someone care for their students!
    – 0fnt
    Commented Oct 13, 2014 at 10:53
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    What to do when top athletes make others lose confidence? What to do when top musicians make others lose confidence? That said, why require students to participate verbally? Some kids don't want to stand out regardless of their skill level. Commented Oct 14, 2014 at 11:27
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    @CarlWitthoft Students are not in direct competition with one another. Everyone can succeed in learning the material and earning a passing grade. Since there are no trophies or first chairs up for grabs, I don't see any similarities between the OP's question and your sardonic questions.
    – Jeff
    Commented Oct 14, 2014 at 16:58
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    @Village I don't really have an answer, but a suggestion. Don't rely on in-class dialogue to gauge student understanding. We have better tools now, and many of them are free (e.g. clicker systems, smartphone enabled interactive presentation software, even just paper cards the students hold up for multiple choice). Dialogue only samples from the talkative students anyway, which is not representative of the class as a whole. Using a better systen also alleviates the problem with the strong student: you will not need to call on them, because you ordinarily won't need to call on anyone directly. Commented Oct 14, 2014 at 21:07

9 Answers 9


When I was a TA, I always found these types of students the most difficult to handle. You don't want to crush their enthusiasm, but you also don't want to let them dominate and make it harder for other students to learn. It's also important to remember that just being way out ahead of other students doesn't cause this phenomenon: you're dealing with somebody who is both ahead and feels a need either to show off or to receive affirmation from you the instructor.

Some tactics that I found effective were:

  1. Establishing clear ground rules that people had to raise their hands to be acknowledged, rather than just shouting out. Then you need to become comfortable waiting long enough for other students to raise their hands too.
  2. Saying things like "Everybody needs a chance to learn, so I'm going to make sure that we get some folks up to the board who haven't been there very often."
  3. Rather than asking for volunteers, actively calling on students who have been silent. It's embarrassing for them, but if you do it kindly and make it into a guided learning experience at the board rather than a test of their abilities, it can be a very good thing.
  4. Privately discussing with the enthusiastic student, something like: "I'm very pleased at how well you're mastering the material, and I need to make sure other students have a chance to have the same learning opportunities, so I'm going to call on you less often."
  5. Giving "extra credit" work that the enthusiastic student can be working on to occupy themselves.

In all cases, what you want to emphasize is the importance of active learning by participation, and how it's important for all students to have those opportunities.

Addendum: I was talking about this with my wife and she told me about a tactic that she uses that I think is another excellent addition to the toolkit:

  1. Divide the class up into rough geographic zones and call on zones round robin, e.g. "Left side answered the last question. Let's get an answer from the middle now."
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    +1 for number 4. Conspiring with the enthusiastic student in order to create a better learning experience for the rest will make him feel important. You can for example ask him to count to 10 in his head before raising his hand. Or you can even ask him to ask a clarifying question if he feels the rest of the group is stuck. Asking a good unsticking question can be a real challenge. Commented Oct 13, 2014 at 7:07
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    I like 1,2 and 5. I've been on both sides as a student ("top" and "bottom"). I can confidently say that 3 would really make me nervous. I had a class where the teacher called people up randomly and I was constantly uneasy, lacking the confidence to come in front of many people. If you must do this, at least make it very clear from the beginning of the course so students know what to expect, or even better make up a schedule so they can prepare. On the other side, 4 would really bum me out, and I would see it as a sort of punishment for trying to learn.
    – Svalorzen
    Commented Oct 13, 2014 at 15:19
  • +1 for #4. I've had a professor tell me that before and it's not disappointing to hear - in fact, it's reassuring knowing that the professor appreciates the work and effort. I don't fully agree with #3 though. I don't think this tactic practically (and effectively) applies to enough situations to be a useful solution. Also, unless everyone is getting the extra credit opportunity, in its current wording #5 seems a bit like favoritism and even though the 'top' students deserve the opportunity, is unfair to other students if only offered to those who are already doing better than everyone else. Commented Oct 15, 2014 at 3:35
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    Careful on the "conspiring" angle. You want everything you say to that student to be acceptable to any other stakeholder. It may be better to be said without eavesdroppers, but it should be said as if the entire class were listening. I agree with concerns raised by @ChrisCirefice; see my answer.
    – Aaron Hall
    Commented Oct 16, 2014 at 14:01
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    I always have disliked #3. Either I know the answer, so it feels like a waste of time, or I don't, which means I feel embarrassed being up there. It doesn't help me learn either because all I can think is.. "Can I sit down now?" Commented Oct 28, 2014 at 21:19

I'll offer two ideas; perhaps you can use them both:

One thing you can do is augment your class with on-line discussions, as a form of blended learning.

One advantage of asynchronous on-line discussions is that it's not as easy for one person to dominate the conversation. Also, if everyone is required to contribute to the discussion, no one can sit back and let the guru do the heavy lifting for them.

If your class is too big for all the students to answer the same question, the class can be put into groups, and each group can have their own shot at analyzing and answering the question.

During class time, when I've had a "resident expert" answering a lot of my in-class discussion questions, I've often let that person answer a question or two at the beginning. If they try to keep answering questions, though, I'll sometimes say something along the lines of, "Wait, you've had a turn; we need to get some of your classmates into the discussion now, too." Said in a friendly, pleasant and encouraging tone, it hasn't seemed to alienate the smart guy, and other students pick up on the cue that it's time for them to get involved.

I've also had some after-class discussions with these hard-chargers, to let them know I appreciate their enthusiasm, but it's best for everyone if they don't overdo it. That's usually been well-received.


I remember being that smartarse, and yes, they can be looking for approval or to show off but it depends.

If they're first year undergrads near the start of the year they may not be generally good at a lot of things outside the course, it can be a case of "Finally! finally something I can understand and really be good at." And they may be revelling in that unique experience. I wouldn't be too tough on that.

Further into the course if they're far ahead I'd suggest giving them something tougher to think about. They've read through all the sections you're covering in their own time, they're listening attentively but they're thinking about how it links up to something 3 chapters ahead. This is not going to help the other members of the class when that person asks questions that leave them lost.

My suggestion: Quietly give them something tough to chew on. Really tough. They're probably completing the assignments with ease, give them a challenge. It doesn't have to get them marks. If they're looking for approval or confirmation that they know what they're doing that will give it to them and it has the advantage that it keeps them advancing. If they're putting off other students actually talk to them quietly after class and tell them something similar to what you just said in this stackoverflow question and ask them to consciously avoid things which intimidate other students. They're not babies, they can understand.

Hell, give them a job tutoring undergrads in lower years.


Ideally, such a student wouldn't be in your course, they would be in an honors section or a senior/graduate level course that meets the requirements they are attempting to fulfil with your course while still being challenged. If you have an opportunity to identify such a student before the end of the add/drop period, you may recommend they make a change, or work with their advisor to give them an honors section while limiting their participation (so that others can contribute). I did such an honors course while sitting in on stadium hall sized lectures in my first year physics course at FSU, and my extra work consisted mostly of writing an on-topic paper graded by the same professor.

If it is too late for them to switch to a more challenging course, there's not much you can do, except to act fairly towards all of the students. You'll need to work harder at getting the others to participate. You could also give this student the attention they need outside of lectures, perhaps suggest to show up for your office hours, or speak to them before or after class.

Perhaps you could give the class, as an optional assignment, an opportunity to do a minor literature review of seminal works in the field, and you might communicate to your special student your expectations that they would want to do this. However, you can't force the student to do the optional assignment. But another possible upside for the optional assignment is that some of the others might surprise you with their self-motivation and thus build more confidence in their own abilities.

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    +1 for "give this student the attention outside of lectures" and "optional assignment". A lecturer who is interested enough to look for a solution that benefits everybody should definitely consider this option.
    – penelope
    Commented Oct 13, 2014 at 14:58

I was Adjunct Lecturer for some time in a technical field/institution and yes, I came across such type of students and situations.

What I've found out was that not strong students were feared to answer because they maybe say something "stupid" or "wrong" or anything that could be accompanied by a synonym of the previous adjectives. And, just by "luck", in such classes there always was a really good student who always knew the right answer

What I did to overcome such situations was to organize the lecture or the lab in order to actually looking for wrong answers in order to, on one hand, prove my point, and in other, motivate and make students to think about why I actually saying what I was saying in the lecture, i.e. what problem was solved with what they were going to learn in the lecture. So, if I was to point out the problem then I needed the problem and the problem was found in the wrong answers.

Thus, if the good student yield out the correct answer I accepted it. Actually, I was saying that this was the correct answer. But, just afterwards I asked "Although that this is correct, why is correct? What someone else would do? Why is wrong something else?" and trying to take answers from students that were not active in the lecture/lab. If the non-active students were not saying anything, then I asked "Why you do not say just what it comes to your mind", which most probably followed by "Because I do not want to say anything wrong". Such answer gave me the opportunity to "change the game" by pointing out really hard that "everyone is born without knowing and there are not wrong/stupid/etc answers from people that learning". When (finally) I got my wrong answer, I tried to: a) justify the student that gave that answer (because was a common answer, or an answer that was first came to mind), and b) start revealing the flaws of the wrong approach (and provide the path to the correct answer) with consecutive simple questions.

Although that such a strategy may took away some valuable time from a lecture, dialogs like the above were only held once or twice in the semester. Afterwards, most people were active and the good students were trying to actually go "deeper" in the problem than before. But, because "going deeper" required to find out what were the wrong approaches their "learning difference" from other students was diminished. This diminishing was happening because good students were actually waiting to listen my counter argument in the not-so-correct answers of their colleagues. By doing so (i.e. waiting for my counter argument), they do not yield out correct answers, they do not discouraging their colleagues and they learned to think one step ahead.


Students learn in different ways. Some like to talk out an explanation or answer and others like to reflectively think through their understanding. Sharing in a class of your peers (people who you want to think positively about you) can be difficult for many students, especially in a class larger than 20. One approach that has been documented as helpful for many students (and I use it as a staple approach) is the Think/Pair/Share structure. Ask the question, then have students write down on paper their ideas/thoughts/explanations. After a quiet minute, invite them to turn to someone nearby and together construct a stronger answer. After the students talk in pairs for 2-3 minutes, invite a couple of pairs to share their collective answer with the whole class. This is a structure with increasing risk (share with self, share with one other, then pair shares with whole class). I have found that after I carefully require the structure (e.g. keep everyone quiet during the reflective minute) several times, the students can execute the structure well and more students participate. I also am careful to explain why I want to use this structure often, rather than open questioning.


I think that the biggest detriment to isolating or adopting teaching policies that ostracize the enthusiastic student is that it demonstrates to the quieter students that enthusiasm is discouraged. The best case scenario is that instead of quieting down the top performer, is to discover additional top performers. That way, it's not just one or two very enthusiastic students, but a whole majority. That way, it becomes easier to single out quieter students and approach them outside of class.

From my own experience, I was in awe of a classmate who knew the course and the text very well. It made me look at my study habits and try new ones. I figure, if he wasn't as active, or if he kept his abilities to himself, I would have been less enthusiastic with my studies.

And, as a matter of definition or etymology the definition of student (technically study, however the definition of student refers to the definition of study) is

early 12c., "to strive toward, devote oneself to, cultivate" (translating Latin >occupatur), from Old French estudiier "to study, apply oneself, show zeal for; examine" (13c., Modern French étudier), from Medieval Latin studiare, from Latin studium "study, application," originally "eagerness," from studere "to be diligent" ("to be pressing forward"), from PIE *(s)teu- (1) "to push, stick, knock, beat" (see steep (adj.)).

Martha swanc and becarcade to geforðigene þan Hælende and his þeowen þa lichamlice behefðen. Seo studdede emb þa uterlice þing. [Homily for the Feast of the Virgin Mary, c.1125]

From c.1300 as "apply oneself to the acquisition of learning, pursue a formal course of study," also "read a book or writings intently or meditatively." From mid-14c. as "reflect, muse, think, ponder." Meaning "regard attentively" is from 1660s.

(All bold is emphasis on my part)



I am not an educator, so please take these suggestions with a grain of salt:

I think existing answers are off the mark, as they're focusing on altering the environment in a very artificial way for the quieter students. College is about learning life skills (not just academic ones) that will allow students to thrive in the real world, and they will need to deal with groups/teams of varying skill levels eventually. Meanwhile, existing answers all focus on punishing (in some way) the most successful students.

Instead I would focus on the root problem. There will always be someone better than us, and someone worse than us. We should see the latter as an opportunity to help another while taking pride in our own skills, and we should see the former as an opportunity to challenge ourselves against a superior opponent, all within a safe and comfortable atmosphere. Look for ways to encourage this sort of approach in the quieter students.

Specific suggestions:

  • Perhaps you could do more group work, pairing stronger students with weaker ones so that the former can help the latter. Perhaps even formalize it with a 'peer mentoring' program.
  • Observe interactions and insure stronger students are getting and using the opportunity to increase their own confidence by helping struggling peers, not by overpowering them.
  • Give all experts the experience of failing safely, even yourself. Creating an accepting environment for mistakes can help reduce the fear of making them; the classroom should accept excellence as well as those at a lower standing, without it impacting their valuation of self.
  • If you have the time, find specific skills that the weaker students are strong in, then give them the chance to shine in front of the class; use this to build confidence; consider making a point that everyone is strong in some areas and weak in others, a valuable life lesson.
  • As an extension of the former, and alternative to the first, find pairings that allow each student to use their strengths to shore up the weaknesses of the other, and assign group work based on those pairings allowing both to shine.
  • 2
    Maybe it depends on the institution, but the first, fourth and fifth suggestion seem impractical for a 100-level class as mentioned in the original post, since these tend to be pretty large at most schools. Even if the professor had time to get to know every student per term, there's also the issue of finding out what they're individually strong/weak in. I can also see people resenting a system as presented in the first suggestion--getting pigeonholed as a "weaker student" early on and being assigned a "stronger" peer certainly wouldn't help anyone's confidence or desire to learn.
    – Milo P
    Commented Oct 13, 2014 at 21:26
  • @MiloPrice Good points. I went to a small university so my classes were never larger than 30 students; I don't have much experience with larger classes. Regarding your concerns about suggestion one you're right that it would need to be handled very carefully; merging it with suggestion five may be more practical. In truth none of us are strong or weak, we're a mix of both depending on what topic is in question. I think the best approach is to find some way to use that truth to build confidence for all students.
    – Nicholas
    Commented Oct 13, 2014 at 23:16
  • @MiloPrice As I think about it more, I'm not sure I agree with you on the demotivating in number one. Many professions still work on a mentoring system; in fact it's been pushed more and more. We are all beginners and weak in a subject at some point, and we all become experts in our chosen fields at some point. And we definitely all learn at different rates. By college age I think these students should be mature enough to understand and be comfortable with that, and if they're not that's a lesson well worth trying to teach.
    – Nicholas
    Commented Oct 13, 2014 at 23:40
  • I'm not sure how other answers here focus on "punishing" anyone; they seem to be about ways to achieve a more balanced in-class discussion forum.
    – J.R.
    Commented Oct 14, 2014 at 0:31
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    College is about learning life skills — [citation needed]
    – JeffE
    Commented Oct 14, 2014 at 1:26

College students realize that there will always be someone more knowledgeable out there. They know there are going to be people that are majors, retakers, old serious adults, or students with genius parents. If you want to get your other students to participate then just randomly call on people whether they raise their hands or not. Tell them to pick group leaders by rock paper scissors.

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    I have edited this answer because it was unnecessarily rude and disparaging toward "teachers" and other users who answered the question, in violation of site guidelines on expected behavior. Please familiarize yourself with these site guidelines.
    – ff524
    Commented Oct 12, 2014 at 7:50
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    While in academia (from bachelors to after the PhD) we most certainly do realize there is usually someone more knowledgeable out there, it still causes a lot of discouragement (see e.g. this question). And, while randomly calling on students will get them to participate, the OP is asking for advice to motivate the students to want to participate, and your suggestions are not very helpful there.
    – penelope
    Commented Oct 13, 2014 at 12:31
  • This answer makes close to no sense. Yes, there are people who are more talented than others in everything. What does that have to do with the question?
    – xLeitix
    Commented Oct 13, 2014 at 13:36

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