Dealing with the Know-it-Alls (aka, the Hermione Monsters)

We all know this student.  They are both the savior and bane of our classroom–the student we can count on to participate and break the dreaded silence from the sea of confused or uncertain faces….and the student who we can count on to participate at just the wrong moment, or speaks constantly and at length, or dominate any discussion or activity without regard for the opinions or ideas of their peers.

I know this particular breed of student quite well, as I used to look at her in the mirror all the time. Of course, back when I was a student, I thought of myself as the savior, not the bane.  It was only upon great reflection, particularly once I started studying teaching, that I recognized the monster I had been.  Traits of this particular example of the breed included:

–trying to answer the teacher’s question before it was even fully expressed;

–speaking anywhere from 3-5x as often as any other student in the room;

–not understanding when the professor would ignore a raised hand or call on students who raised their hands after mine;

–seeing oneself as the valiant knight, rescuing the teacher from the ignorance and stupidity (always those, never shyness or uncertainty or boredom) of one’s fellow classmates;

–going to office hours not to clear up matters of confusion but to prove to the professor how smart I was.

I really should write a formal apology to all of my college professors.  I was what I now call a “Hermione Monster”–taken of course from that most beloved of know-it-alls, Hermione Granger of Harry Potter fame*.  And while I would not describe myself as cured, my self-awareness at least allows me to attempt to control my behavior–I can restrain my tendencies to talk a lot and at great length in meetings–and I can try to spot the HMs in my classroom, contain them, and help them build a tolerance and respect for the process and contributions of their peers. This is not an easy thing to do.  Any attempt to dampen their enthusiasm for speaking can result in them feeling like they or their contributions are not valued, that the professor ‘hates’ them, or that they are being punished.  The goal is to preserve the HMs as valuable members of the class while constraining them and showing the other students that you are acting on what is frequently an upspoken problem in the classroom.

I’m eager to hear of how others approach this problem.  Here are a few of my tips:

–Use a formal system of acknowledgement for discussion.  HMs can easily dominate discussion when its a free-for-all. Insist that everyone raise hands or placards, or take a speaker’s list.  You can use the conch rule from Lord of the Flies, with students passing it to each other to talk, or adopt the inquiry/query finger rule, or require time limits on participants like a 60 second rule/5 minutes before speaking again.  The key is to have a system, and not to leave it entirely up to the HM to self-regulate.

–Adopt think-pair-share type activities regularly in the classroom.  The HM is often a quick processor, and thus is the first to have an answer ready to a question.  Many other students need a few moments to think and reflect on the question before feeling ready to offer their opinion.  Using an activity that requires every student to put their thoughts down on paper and share them before returning to the large group means that you should be able to call on the opinions of anyone in the class without them feeling singled out.

–Talk to the student directly, and run with the narrative of savior.  After class, pull the HM aside and tell them that you’ve noticed how quick they are with answers, and what a boon that is to the class.  Acknowledge that their peers are not as quick to respond–they’ve already noticed this–and ask for their cooperation in helping the rest of the class by giving their peers the opportunity to think of the answer before the HM voices it.  You can even work out a signal of kinds–the HM raises their hand, you acknowledge it but with a gesture tell them to put their hand down to wait for others to start the conversation.  This lets the HM know that you see their desire to contribute, and moreover, that they know the answer, while giving the class the opportunity to think through the question without someone doing the work for them.

–Identify the other students in the class that generally know the answers but for whatever reason don’t feel the need or desire to jump into the discussion quickly or regularly.  Usually the first exam or paper or online discussion forums (if used) will reveal these students.  Try to cultivate these students so that you have others to call on when the HM’s hand shoots up.  In groupwork or activities, try to put some of these people on the same team/group as the HM to balance them out, particularly if the HM is of the loud but incorrect type.  If roles get assigned, try to have someone other than the HM be the spokesperson.

–Use your words.  Gently correct the behavior as it happens with phrases like “Thanks, HM.  I see your hand, but we just heard from you, so let’s try to round up some other thoughts before we check in with you again.”  Also try: “Does everyone agree with HM on that point?  Yes?  Okay–Student, tell me what you think was the best part of HM’s argument.”

What do you do to control the Hermione Monsters in your classes?

*Unlike many HMs, Hermione Granger’s behavior is ultimately exonerated by the author, as her esoteric and frequently offered knowledge base becomes essential to Harry Potter’s fight against Voldemort.  Few of our students will have the same opportunity to validate their HM tendencies in front of all their peers and professors, but that does not mean they won’t try.