How To Deal With Difficult Learners

Hands raised in a classroom

No two people are the same and this applies especially to learners. All of us teachers and trainers have had learners who are more difficult to work with than others. In this article we'll examine some of the strategies for dealing with more difficult learners.

So what is a "difficult" learner?

I'm not proud to admit this but in my first year of secondary teaching I wrote on a kid's report: "Trying to get work out of Daryl is like trying to get blood out of a stone." I pondered over this sentence for days, months, and even years. Eventually I realised that the problem wasn't with Daryl, it was with me – no matter what I did I just couldn't find that magic moment in teaching where you get through to another person.

So let's begin by getting rid of that horrible word – "difficult". We all use it. But in reality there is no such thing as a "difficult" learner or in fact an "easy" learner. What we really mean is that these learners are more challenging to us than others. The sooner you see them as a challenge rather than as a problem or difficulty, the sooner you'll be on the road to dealing with them.

Paul Clothier in his excellent book The Complete Computer Trainer (McGraw-Hill, 1996) writes:

"By difficult learner, I mean one or more individuals who interrupt the flow of an instructor-led class and demands special attention; people whose skills or attitudes become a real challenge for the trainer... Perhaps more accurately, they should be described as "challenging" learners – the difficulty is with the trainer, not them."

And I think he's bang on the money here. From a technology training perspective Clothier suggests that learners can be challenging either because of their skills or because of their attitudes.

Learners with challenging skills

Learners in this category usually want to be in the class but present problems because they are either slow or fast to learn, do not have appropriate keyboard or mouse skills, or fail to adequately meet the prerequisites of the course.

Some trainers, including Clothier, advocate having these learners reschedule to a more appropriate course. In today's environment this is not always practical. Many classes are run only on reaching the minimum number of "posteriors on the seat" and taking one or more people out could jeopardise the economic viability of the course. There also may not be more appropriate courses for the learner to attend. Some learners have trouble getting away from work to attend a course – asking them to reschedule could place an unwanted burden on them and their organisation.

There are a number of ways for dealing with learners who are challenging because of their skills:

  • Constantly ask slow learners (discreetly) how they are coping and spend time during breaks or when the rest of the class is working on an exercise to reinforce concepts with them.
  • Have an alternate, easier set of exercises for slow learners that may be easier for them to work through.
  • If other class members are willing set up a buddy system where a slow learner and a competent learner work together through an exercise. You will need to treat this with great sensitivity.
  • Have a set of catchup-files on hand for slow typists that they can load up to catch up with the rest of the class. Reassure them that this is not a typing class. (Blatant plug – many of our courseware titles have catch up files that the trainer can use in these circumstances).
  • Keep fast learners and/or typists busy with either an additional challenging task or spend some time with them and show them extra tips and tricks. Get them to experiment with other features – but don't let them get too far ahead of the class.

There are a number of definite no-nos when it comes to skills challenges:

  • Don't let slow or fast learners dictate the speed of the course – pander to the average but make sure you are prepared for extremes.
  • Never do the typing or use the mouse of the slow learner – and don't let anyone else do it either.
  • Avoid sitting slow learners next to one another.
  • Avoid having fast learners sitting there twiddling their thumbs – always keep them occupied.

Learners with challenging attitudes

These types of learners can cause you the most heartache and grief. Mostly these people are well-meaning such as the compulsive answerer and the know-it-all, or unaware of their behaviour such as the constant talker. But sometimes they can be downright hostile and aggressive especially if they don't want to be there, or can't see the value in what you're doing.

Clothier recommends that you focus on the behaviour of these people and that you avoid judging them:

"In order to deal effectively with anyone's difficult attitude, remember that the person generally has no idea he or she is a problem. Relate to that person as you would anyone else, with respect and consideration, while at the same time addressing the behaviour that is affecting the learning."

Speaking from personal experience, sometimes this is done through gritted teeth. Again there are many strategies available to you:

  • Ask the talkative person whether what you have just said makes sense to them – don't embarrass them by asking them to repeat what you've said. Chances are they'll reply with "oh yeah, that's great." They probably haven't paid attention but will in future rather than be caught out again.
  • A great technique is to stand next to or behind a talkative person as you are teaching – they soon get the message.
  • If you have a compulsive answerer in class specifically direct your question at another learner.
  • If a compulsive answerer pipes up with an answer ask other people what they think – don't confirm the answer until others have had a chance to have a say.
  • Always let a know-it-all have their say because all they really want to do is display their knowledge. Compliment them on their knowledge. If they are mistaken do not challenge them but rather deflect their comment with "I didn't know that – can you show me during the break" or something similar. If they are not too obnoxious to the group solicit their help assisting others during exercises.
  • Ask learners who obviously don't want to be on the course what they expect to get out of the course. Listen to what they say, then later on a one-on-one basis try to find something that you will cover that will be of interest to them, or perhaps even adapt something to their needs. You can also involve these people by regularly asking them questions or perhaps helping other learners.
  • Quiet learners present a problem because you really don't know what their level of understanding is without feedback. Try and draw them in by asking simple questions.
  • Angry or aggressive people are complex and there may be many reasons why they exhibit this type of behaviour. It is important for you to listen to them and not confront them directly – let them vent their spleen.
  • No matter what the issue take an interest in the person. People with attitudinal issues often just want to be heard or to be made to feel special.

Of course there are also no-nos when it comes to dealing with attitude issues:

  • Never take things personally. Focus your attention on the behaviour not the individual.
  • Never confront a person with an attitude problem in front of a class or other people – listen to them, try and placate and calm the situation then address the behaviour on a one-on-one in the next break. But remember to talk about the behaviour: "Pete, you obviously know the stuff well, but I'd like you to give others a chance to answer a question."
  • Never raise your voice at another person – it is a sign of failure.

Understanding your learners

There is only one real way to understand your learners, both their skills and their attitudes. And that is to engage with them not confront them.

And then there are times where all things fail. In one of my early spreadsheet classes I had a man and woman from the same company attend. This was an eight week course with a lesson held every Wednesday night. They sat next to one another. He would help her during the exercises while she would help him with the typing tasks. They chatted incessantly. They didn't seem to really pay attention to much or show much interest in what was going on. After three weeks they no longer attended the class. I anguished over what I'd done wrong.

Several months later a man from the same company attended one of my classes so I enquired about the other two attendees that had dropped out. It turned out both were married and were using "going to class" as an excuse to have an extra-marital fling! I'd failed to understand what had motivated them to attend the course. Could I have done anything to address this? Probably not!

Oh, and then there's Daryl. I hadn't managed that magical breakthrough in my first teaching year. In the second year we had a one-on-one session where he completely broke down and burst into tears. He was the year level bully and no longer wanted that reputation. All he wanted was to knuckle down and not be labelled by others because of his attitude. He turned out to be a model student after this – I'm glad I listened to him and avoided judgement. I don't know what happened to him after leaving school but I certainly do wish him well in whatever he's done in life. He taught me far more than I ever taught him.