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Every teacher knows that some students are more likely than others to talk in class. But what can you do when some monopolize the conversation while others stare off into space? Experts offer the following suggestions to handle such situations.

  • Students who talk too much. Draw the conversation away by saying "I'd like to hear from someone who hasn't spoken," or narrow it even further, such as by saying "Is there someone in the second row who wants to address this question?" advises Neil Lutsky, PhD, a psychology professor at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn.

  • Shy students. Lutsky pulls quieter students aside individually after class and encourages them to speak in every class. He then reinforces that behavior by calling on them when they raise their hand or providing them with encouraging feedback. John Carroll University adjunct instructor Lisa Damour, PhD, says she's more likely to call on quieter students when they have prepared materials, such as an assignment or handout, in front of them.

Thomas Kramer, PhD, chair of graduate education for the University of West Florida, may turn to a quieter student during a class discussion and ask, "Do you have any thoughts?" If they say "no," he accepts that and moves on.

"That sends a message to the student that I expect him to have some input," Kramer says. "I created a chance for him to speak, but I didn't punish him because he didn't."

  • Disinterested students. University of Akron associate psychology professor Loreto Prieto, PhD, acknowledges that some students may be quiet learners. "Some clean up on exams, but they may not be very vocal in class," he says. "I've learned to not immediately determine a student is not paying attention because they are not participating."

In these cases, making the class discussions relevant to students' lives may help draw them in, Prieto says, adding that, for example, a lesson on child development may be an opportunity to ask students to share their encounters with children that relate to the content.

  • Students who debate or conflict. Debates are OK during class discussions, Damour says.

"If they are having an academic disagreement, stand back and say nothing," Damour advises. "That means you did a really good job setting up a discussion because you got them responding to each other, not the instructor."

But if the discussion turns into a personal attack on another student, the instructor may need to step in, Damour says.

"When I see students in a heated disagreement, I try to slow things down and defuse it," Kramer says. For example, he may ask each student to summarize their main points and ensure they both understand the other's view. Another tactic, Kramer suggests: Ask students to identify the areas of agreement, not disagreement.