51

I have read this question, where the OP asked how to handle silly questions. In the excellent answer of Irwin, the 6th point attracted my attention:

If it's a matter of the student talking on and wasting time with questions, then you can ask the student politely to keep questions for after the class. If the student is trolling you with questions and is otherwise being a nuisance this option usually works as well.

I am a TA in mathematics at a university in continental Europe and I organized a weekly question time (one hour) where I answer questions of undergraduate mathematics students. Usually, these hours are very well visited so I struggle a lot to answer all questions in my limited amount of time. However, there is one student who constantly tries to prevent me from answering other student's questions. He first wants his questions answered. But most of the time his questions are not useful at all:

  • He wants to show the other students how much he knows. He uses a lot of mathematical terminology, sometimes even terminology which was not yet introduced in the lecture (and sometimes will not be introduced in the lecture). For example, if derivatives are the content of the lecture, he asks something about weak derivatives. My advice that he should first understand the special case and not the more general one is ignored. However, he also asks questions about the specific course (which fall into the category of the next two bullet points.)
  • He has a very tiring way of asking questions. If you answer his question, he often accuses you of "not understanding his question". If you answer his question and politely tell him why his question does not make sense, he usually changes the topic (if the question was about topic A, he says "But I was talking about topic B all the time, you did not understand my question"). Telling him that he has to ask more precisely is ignored, he thinks that the TA is not able to answer his questions, because they are too difficult to answer.
  • He always wants his questions to be answered first. This is very bad for the other students, because the other students have more or less useful questions which deserve to be answered well. Hence, this student is just wasting time, which could be used in a better way to answer more useful questions. Of course, the other students are annoyed by him, too. I think that it is just a question of time until one of the other students tells him that the question times cannot stay like this.

Now my question is: How do I deal with such a student? The cited advice above does not quite apply here. He does come to my question time and also to the question time of other TAs (who have the same impression of him). If you ask him to keep his questions, he just does not stop asking and disturbs you in the process of answering other questions. For example, if you answer a question, he just interrupts you and says "But isn't it like that? (...)", saying this with a tone which expresses that you are wrong and he is right.

I also offered him to come to my office to discuss his mathematical problems, but he apparently does not want to, because he has never appeared in my office (and I think he won't in the future). My impression (and also the impression of the other TAs plus the professor's) is that he just wants to ask questions publicly to express how much he knows and to demonstrate that he is very intelligent.

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  • Thank you ff524, I'll have a read. But the difference is that he does not only ask questions which are beyond the scope of the course, also questions about the course. But anyway, I think that this will help me. +1. However, I noticed that this point is not made very clear in my original question, so I'll edit it. – KKL Nov 13 '15 at 14:48
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    @ff524: Helpful link, but I don't think that's the same problem. OP's situation sounds like they are stuck with one of the infamous "But does this hold w/o assuming the axiom of choice?" types. They tend to be good not great, typically relying on prior knowledge to shine, and end up flaming out. But along the way, they are a major nuisance. – gnometorule Nov 13 '15 at 15:13
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    It is indeed very difficult for a professional to satisfy the needs of every customer. Sometimes very specific technical expertise is needed, and I believe for this case the technocrat that could be of help is called, in some corners, "shrink". – Alecos Papadopoulos Nov 13 '15 at 23:33
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    Why not refer the student to math.stackexchange.com ? – Count Iblis Nov 14 '15 at 5:13
52

If the student is just overexcited and more advanced than others, then the question linked above by ff524 has an excellent answer. However, that does not seem to be the case. By all appearances, the student talks to talk, and drops references to superior knowledge - real or imagined - to show it off. I've studied with plenty of students whose knowledge exceeded even advanced classes they were forced to take, and - in my experience - the common reaction of a true talent is boredom or eventually failing to show up, not jumping on stage. The closest case similar to yours failed his qualifying.

Hence, I think your problem is one of learning to assert yourself in a challenging situation. Here are some suggestions for what you might want to try:

  1. Be an authority figure, not a friend. When I was a squad leader at the army, I was an unkissed geek-kid; my soldiers included a drug dealer, coal miners, and someone 10 years older, divorced, 2 children. I've found that, absent natural charisma which I don't have, acting somewhat reserved and distant, while always having an open ear for feedback, was the best way to get through this. When later TAing, I resisted the urge to fraternize and acted similarly, which worked very well for me (in both cases, I was top rated among my peers.)

  2. Create a system of taking questions, and stick to it. This might be simple ideas such as one day taking questions front to back, the next left to right, etc. which - as students tend to gravitate towards seats in a particular part of a classroom - means your problem student will only get to lead a discussion every now and then.

  3. Be professional, but honest about your frustration. If the student interrupts others, or you, first follow the advice of the linked question. I expect it to fail though as your student isn't interested in talking after class when no one witnesses their awesomeness. If it fails, tell them "I'm sorry, there are many questions others have, too, and I need to address theirs as well.(meet me after)" If you can't shut them up, keep eye contact, and say, more seriously but calmly, "I really have to move on. Please allow others to talk", etc.

  4. Seek advice from your professor, as needed. If the person becomes disruptive and unresponsive to your hints mentioned in 3., discuss with your professor, and ask if you can kick them out of a TA session when that happens. Express your concern about preparing the other students properly.

  5. Assume good intentions, and talk with your student. This should probably be point 0. Ask the student if you can talk after your session. Be a bit flattering - interested student, knows much - then point out that others don't, and you really need to focus on them, and their more basic questions, while handling his in 1-on-1s, as necessary. This might clarify if they are acting in good faith and just get overexcited, or not.

  6. Mention that TA sessions are optional, and that no one already having the knowledge taught is judged for not showing up. One of my TAs, stuck in a basic linear algebra II class with a 4-time math Olympics participant (b/s/g/g) who had gone through the entire Bourbaki already did this, and it was the last time the student was seen. If it works as in this case, you might also get a chuckle out of the other students who probably understand what you mean.

There is an additional informal way to address this as well. The next time you catch them being wrong in their aggressive ways, talk them into a corner. If they change topic, say so - "That's interesting, but let's not change topic. I'm really curious to understand what you meant when you said (X - the wrong statement)." Be calm, friendly and insistent, and keep this up until an error is admitted, or they shut up. As their interruption is only to show them in a gleaming light, it might help greatly in making it stop. I would only use this as a last resort though.

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    I'm interested to hear why the last paragraph is reserved for Europe. I'm not saying you're right or wrong, but why does that seem like something that wouldn't be used in the U.S.? – JPhi1618 Nov 13 '15 at 18:50
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    @JPhi1618: I guess it isn't. You can just get away with more in Europe than in the U.S., where you always face the risk of an overprotective parent filing a complaint over the terrible mis-treatment of their special child. But you're right, if you do this properly (friendly, but insistent), there isn't anything others could reasonably object to. I removed the unnecessary qualification. – gnometorule Nov 13 '15 at 19:18
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    Boredom, and following the desire to show off because there is nothing more gratifying to do, go hand in hand :) I would suggest you involve that student in tasks that help the class (e.g. helping other students, preparing parts of a more complex class project that you do not want everyone doing) - gives him/her their stage and helps your teaching. – rackandboneman Nov 13 '15 at 20:20
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    @rackandboneman: for the first 5 minutes, possibly. Then it's just easier to sit out and read ahead of the textbook :) – Tobia Tesan Nov 15 '15 at 8:38
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    Very good answer. I was going to recommend more laconically, "kick his butt." – PatrickT Nov 15 '15 at 15:56
35

After you've answered his question to your satisfaction, move on to someone else's question, whether he likes it or not. If he talks over the other student, or you, to try to ask another question, politely but firmly tell him that he has to wait. "You had your turn, now it's Steve's turn to ask a question." If he refuses to shut up and wait his turn, ask him to leave. You're in charge of the room; don't be afraid to manage it.

And be fair about it: after Steve's question, move on to Jane's question, and come back to the problematic student in his proper time. This would be a good policy even if one student were monopolizing the Q&A session with useful questions.

You can also flat-out refuse to answer off-topic questions. "That's outside the scope of this course. I'll only talk about that if no one has any on-topic questions." Be a broken record if you have to.

31

You, the TA, are currently in a situation where the students are running the Question period. That's all fine and good, until you get one of "those" students.

What you need to do is turn it around so that YOU are the one "asking the questions." How? By establishing a sign-up sheet, and questions should come in on paper. This is how music open-mic nights are organized. You don't just show up to an open mic and walk right up on stage, you have to "run the gauntlet" of the moderator.

Then, YOU, the TA, ask the submitted questions, without naming who's question it is. This strips the questions of any personalization or attribution, and there is only one person in the room that will find this unsufferable, and that's your precious pearl student who will feel himself to be neutered, and will lose interest in the process...because his opportunity to control the dialog has been blocked.

The best thing that can happen from this scheme is that the problem student exercises his "awesome-sauce-ness" by actually answering other's questions correctly and being genuinely helpful, and at worst he loses interest in the process because he has no way to establish himself as center of attention.

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    This is certainly the right answer. You could have students submit questions after they arrive and then choose from them, or you could have them submit questions before they even arrive. The second option may be even more useful: you can see which questions are most common. – Joseph Hansen Nov 13 '15 at 22:42
  • Problem arises in this form: "Yes, this is actually my question, and (...)" – Weckar E. Feb 13 '17 at 10:38
  • Nice solution +1, this removes the problem and will force the "know it all who is sometimes right" to assist his friends in class on a personal level to achieve the fame he seeks. – bobbym Feb 15 '17 at 2:18
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One trick I use in situations like this is that sometimes I put questions up for a vote of all the students present. "Let's make sure that we're helping as many people as we can," I'll say, "Raise your hand if you'd like to see this problem worked out?" Generally if I get at least 3 hands up then I'll follow through; but if absolutely no one seconds the strange question, then I'll say, "Maybe you and I can talk about this after class" (and it's probably a minority of the time that the student follows up with it).

This makes it rather explicit when no one else in the room is interested in the oddball question, and effectively creates buy-in from everyone else that skipping it is good. A few times I've escalated this (say, reviewing for a final exam when everyone wants all the exercises covered in one hour) by putting all the proposed questions on the board, recording vote tallies for each, and then using the available time from top-votes to least.

  • I find your second solution more friendly than the first, which might make students in general afraid of being humiliated by asking a question no one else wants the answer to. They're less likely to withhold potentially "stupid" questions (that might or might not turn out to be shared by others) if the questions can be submitted anonymously. Of course, it's possible that going over the top-voted question might make the next two unnecessary.... – Charles Staats Nov 14 '15 at 21:41
  • @Charles Staats: I don't think that happens in practice because of how very rarely the vote gets triggered. Usually only if one student is asking multiple loopy questions (like, after one student asks 3 screwball questions in a row), or if one student is asking for a whole do-over of basic material that they missed due to being absent. Anonymous (paper) submissions would take too much class time to collate and stymie follow-ups and back-and-forth discussion, in my opinion. – Daniel R. Collins Nov 14 '15 at 22:47
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My solution is a partial solution.

This student seems very reluctant to change his behavior. Maybe you could introduce a new procedure for everyone that will block him most of the time.

Since you don't have the time to answer all questions, students interested in asking questions could put their name in a bowl. During the period, you draw name, the student ask the question and you answer (any other method of having a random attribution of who can ask questions could work).

If the disturbing student don't want to respect the procedure and keeps interrupting you, I would suggest asking him to leave:

"Sorry, I will answer your question when your name is draw. If you do not agree with that, I would ask you to leave as you are disturbing the other students."

  • Why is this a partial solution? Kills the problem while being fair to everyone. Now, I would avoid letting the problem student putting his name several times in the jar. – Mindwin Nov 13 '15 at 18:27
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    This is a complete solution, because you can simply lie about the name you draw and call whomever you like. – vadim123 Nov 14 '15 at 4:37
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    @vadim123 No, don't be a jerk. If you say you're going to draw a name out of the bowl, then draw a name out of the bowl. – JeffE Nov 15 '15 at 19:43
3

Why not asking for the doubts beforehand by email, and answering to the more interesting or pertinent to the program in question? That way, the more interesting questions would be selected, the students would benefit more, you would have more time to think beforehand about the validity of the questions, and further valid questions that would not fit on the program or time, could be answered by email or privately.

2

As a TA, part of your job is managing your time with students to ensure that every student with a class related question is helped. Part of this is learning how to deal with difficult students like the one you mention.

First, put any student with a question about a homework, quiz or test at the front of the line. Keep this focused. If your problem student tries to interrupt, or get off topic, simply say.

I want to make sure everyone understand the material that was covered in the assignment. I'd be happy to discuss this if there is time after.

Second, limit the amount of time the student can ask questions. Next time he takes a long time talking with you, simply say.

I've got several other students, and can only give you X amount of time (10, 15 minutes). Once his time is up, enforce it, and make sure all the students have a chance to get a question answered.

Thirdly, if he is good, suggest him for an unpaid undergrad research or TA position if appropriate. This will give him the respect of the other students, which he wants, and will teach him how annoying he is being to you.

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