Disruptive Students

We can all remember being in a class where there was the typical disruptive student. The one who made the jokes, the noises … generally the pain the … But when it comes to teaching adult students, disruption and disruptive behavior takes on a different and more subtle form. More often than not the disruption is not even malicious but can still have some negative consequences.

Students who know nothing are sometimes the best ones. Untarnished, uncorrupted … enthusiastic students who know very little about a subject are like gold. But this is not always the case.

This piece isn’t about students who are disruptive (with malice), but more to do with understanding what type of disruptions instructors face, as well as the origins of the trouble. In general, with regards to Adult students, I personally have never once dealt with a majorly disruptive person. Generally speaking disruptive personalities will choose to ‘opt out’ long before training takes place let alone attend and then become difficult to work with.

As instructors we’re far more likely to deal with keen and overly enthusiastic students who end up being a source of trouble within your class.

As far as opening advice goes, when you’re exposed to these students simply try to understand that they have the best of intentions.

So why do we get disruptive students and where do they come from? How do we get them? When it comes to non-malicious disruptive adult students the root cause comes from … good intentions.

Pre Learning Baggage

There is no such thing as being able to ‘unlearn’ something. You can only ever correct or ‘overwrite’ bad information with updated information. Unfortunately super-keen overly enthusiastic students can turn out to be some of the hardest to teach. Why?

Good intentions. Highly motivated students tend to go past the ‘learning’ sweet spot and will start researching a subject before they get to formal or direct instruction. Now under any normal circumstance this is good! As instructors the more a student knows the fewer gaps there are in their knowledge and under the right circumstances we can spend more time focusing on the gaps.

However there are students who in a well intentioned effort to get ahead of the curve, can also end up reading and watching material which can lead them down the wrong path. The incorrect interpretation of correct information or the exposure of poor quality or incomplete information gives the student enough time ‘accept’ what they have seen, heard and then treat it as gospel.

At best at the time of direct instruction the student can then end up confused due to conflicting details. They can suffer from a ‘closed mind’ when they begin to doubt what they are being taught due to what they’ve exposed themselves to and at worst can end up undermining the instructor during instruction by asking questions to validate what they’ve learnt elsewhere … even if it’s wrong.

As an instructor these cases can prove the most difficult because of the need to provide ‘super validation’ not only to prove why the taught content is correct, but also to prove that the material the student has ‘learnt’ from, is wrong!

Undermining the Instructor

Remembering back during my military career there was a singular (almost unforgettable) case where a student undermined the instructor of the class being given.

The lesson being given was highly technical with a long list of sequential procedures. These needed to be executed in order to calibrate a specific piece of optical equipment. This was not something we could afford to get wrong. After all getting it wrong put lives on the line … literally.

Understanding the importance of this lesson my best friend and I spent time the night going through the procedure in order to give ourselves a baseline understanding of what would be delivered the next morning.

Within the training establishment we were in, this was not only normal, but expected of the students.

The next morning was where things started to go bad. Being an important procedure we were told to have the reference material with us. Check! The procedure being so long and detailed actually states that the manual must be available before the practice can be conducted. As students we had the manual on hand. We’d also gone through it the night before.

… The instructor didn’t. Instead they chose to rely on memory and experience to run the class. This worked for a few minutes until … it didn’t. The instructor at the time (not having the manual) had explained the procedure incorrectly.

My friend knew it, I knew it, others knew it. The question was; What to do about it?

The dilemma

  1. To let the explanation go on and get taught incorrectly or;
  2. Identify the error during the class.

Here as a student there was no good choice. But the rest of the students came first. My friend got the instructors attention to ask the question. This was when bad went to outright catastrophic.

A student (my best friend) in the middle of a class, made reference to the manual, pointed out the incorrect instruction and then asked the question of whether the manual was wrong.

The pause was deafening and 12 students swapped looks between the instructor and the questioning student wondering who was right.

You don’t need to know the rest of how this all panned out, but you can imagine what happens when a student questions and undermines the instructor.

Even when its for the right reasons, being undermined can not only kill a single lesson, but it can kill an entire course.

How did this all get fixed? Material was looked at, double checked, independently reviewed, and the lesson was corrected. Life as we knew it carried on.

Off Topic Questioning.

One other major source of disruption is when students ask questions outside of the scope of the subject being taught. Curious students are good … they want to learn, but they risk breaking the rhythm of instruction and disrupting the flow of the lesson and the attention of the other students.

Students of other schools.

Right or wrong most disruptive students come from ‘other schools.’ From a strictly educational point of view this is something that should be encouraged. After all everyone’s skill set is slightly different, so if a student learns from many instructors they should be setting themselves up for ultimate success by making themselves educationally robust!

Once again there is a downside, particularly when they learn from instructors who have polarizing or opposing philosophies.

Putting this into something which is easy to relate to, imagine a student who goes to a ‘make money fast class.’ This class teaches students how to make money using crypto-currencies. A Key message in this class is that’s the fastest way to make money.

The same student then attends a ‘make money quick class‘ which talks about how to correctly trade on the foreign exchange market. The philosophy here is where the crypto-currency market is all about gambling and that you should never touch it.

This student despite having good intentions of wanting robust and conditional knowledge is now exposed to competing messages, at high risk of closed mindedness and also becoming severely disruptive, especially when philosophies from an opposing school of thought are introduced.

The Impacts

The true irony with disruptive students is that the threat that comes from a student such as this is not to you ‘the instructor.’ The threat and the biggest impact that come from disruptive students is to others in the class.

When a students who is not afraid to asks complex questions (ahead of the training plan), question the instructor (due to motivated research or prior learning elsewhere) emerges within a class, they naturally become the ‘dominant’ student within the audience.

When they ask advanced questions, they run the risk of suppressing other students in the audience who can end up feeling like they’re not getting it. When they challenge the instructor they run the risk of creating fear, doubt and confusion within the rest of the audience. When they ask questions outside of the training, they risk distracting the audience from what needs to be presented.

Is there an easy solution?

Unfortunately no, but when these students do surface … for the good of the rest of your paying audience, control needs to be taken swiftly and with authority. Remember these students are more than likely simply really keen to learn, but the rest of the audience sometimes needs some protection … even when it means working with the ‘alpha’ on their own.

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