Taming the Discussion Board Bully

sweep the leg

One bad influence can ruin a good thing, from the respectable time-honored traditions of the Karate dojo, to the equally-impressive discussion board of a graduate-level college course.

So what do you do when an adult (yes, a grown person who should know better by now), begins dominating his classmates with discussion board posts that range from meticulously planned responses that nail a topic down and leave no room for input (trying to “win the topic”), to browbeating classmates with the same personal theories and biases that rear up with every new issue (“the bully pulpit”), to the extreme case of “the mutineer,” who knows more than the instructor and wants his classmates to join in revolt over the inadequacy of the course?  With a dominating enough personality, this person can spoil his entire cohort’s learning experience.  (If you noticed all of the male pronouns, yes, this most likely a male student.  Sorry guys.)

“You win battles by knowing the enemy’s timing and using a timing which the enemy does not expect.” ~Musashi Miyamoto

miyamoto musashi

Hopefully “enemy” is an exaggeration (Please excuse my attempt at a running theme here.), but if you have this student more than once, it may not seem that far off the mark.  By understanding how these students work, you can make efforts to prevent their know-it-all tendancies from becoming a problem.  The strange thing about these bullies is that most cases don’t fit the established definition of an “online bully”:

“a socially aggressive student who makes posts… that are designed to intimidate or personally offend another student or the instructor” (Rosemary Riegle)

That is more commonly known as being a “troll”.  Your class bully probably doesn’t intend to intimidate or offend, but his desire to be helpful to the instructor and his classmates, fuelled by his ego and hampered by his lack of tact, creates the same side-effects of intimidation and personal offense.  But because of that grand ego and the obliviously helpful intent, the bully either doesn’t realize that there is a problem or feels justified in his impolite quest to convice everyone of what he KNOWS is the correct way to view the world.

“Meet the situation without tenseness yet not recklessly, your spirit settled yet unbiased. An elevated spirit is weak and a low spirit is weak.” ~MM

The best solution is not a swift kick in the rear or the verbal equivalent of that, or even censoring the bully’s posts.  These measures will likely reinforce the bully’s opinion that you are an inferior teacher who is intimidated by his expertise and are trying to shut him up to save your reputation.  Overtly pulling rank as the instructor will dig a deeper divide.  Instead, an egotistical bully will respond better to a little bit of praise and the feeling that you are on his side.  A great example is explained by Randy Pausch in his “Last Lecture” (should start at minute 58):

Or, as Musashi Miyamoto put it,

“Arrogant, boastful displays of our skills reflect low self-confidence and insecurity and reduce the level of esteem in which others hold us.”

Rather than saying, “You are obnoxious,” say, “You have so much to offer, but people think you are obnoxious.”  It might be tricky to show your sympathetic concern adequately in writing, so a 1-on-1 video chat or a phone call might be needed to communicate effectively.  Plus, you get to show him that you are an actual person with real feelings, rather than just text on a computer screen.

“Do nothing which is of no use.” ~MM

As an instructor who wants to curtail bad behavior before it requires such indepth intervention, discussion board guidelines need to be set up in a way that emphasizes the importance of what is being accomplished.  The classic, “Read the chapter.  Respond.  Reply to 3 other students’ responses.” may only go so far to direct student learning behavior.  It easily allows students to fall into the non-educational online habits (exhibited below every YouTube video ever made), that are high on opinion and low on building knowledge.  Make sure that students know what they are accomplishing with these responses and replies, and emphasize how they will help them learn.  Especially with adult learners, “How will this information immediately be useful to the students’ lives?” is a question that you should ask yourself with each task assigned, because that is what they are asking themselves, and that’s why they are taking graduate courses.  “This isn’t relevant,” is one major battle-cry of the mutinous class bully.

“We respect and value the friendship and support of our classmates and instructor and are loyal to the principles upon which our training is based.” ~National Karate Academy tenets

If the end result is for students to apply your course’s content in their professional lives, let them build the course discussions from that vantage point.  One successful discussion board strategy is to have students, not the instructor, post the deep, probing questions about a given topic, and require them to pull in not just their own experiences, but outside resources to investigate these questions.  If each student is in charge of facilitating one discussion topic, it will do a few beneficial things for the class:

  • Students will build a greater sense of ownership of the class, being able to mold it around their experiences and needs.  A sense of ownership leads to a more protective attitude against anyone who is trying to take it over.  They are less likely to become followers of one disgruntled student.
  • The bully is able to display his intellectual prowess within his topic and will hopefully lessen his need to control all topic discussions.  We get it.  You’re smart.
  • When the teacher is in charge, mutinous bullies may try to create an “us against them (you)” feeling.  By putting the facilitation of the discussions in the students’ hands, there is no “them.”  A bully may be less likely to go against the rest of the class, and you wouldn’t have to see posts like this example from a MOOC that I was taking recently:

bully discussion board

Thanks, Anonymous, if that is your real name.  The members of this student-led discussion forum politely, of course, informed this gentleman that his opinion was that of the vast minority and was quite rude and unreasonable.  Student ownership = positive peer pressure.  (For more info on the theory and examples of this type of discussion board in action, see this earlier blog post featuring the great work of Bill Pelz, or this Expert Down the Hall post featuring our very own Rajesh Singh.)

While we’re on the topic of vengeful student rants, do you provide students a place to vent?  If this type of student feels that his reasonable course expectations, or even his unreasonable ones, aren’t being met, then he will demand satisfaction.  Make sure there is a private way to make this demand.  Frequent, anonymous surveys, conveniently posted with each unit test, can let students give you feedback on how the assignments are going, whether your strategies are working for them, etc.  The fancy name for this is Continuous Course Improvement, which really should be its own blog post one of these days.  I’ll just say here that to be effective, the instructor needs to make it clear that students’ opinions matter.  If you decide to change something about the course, thank them for their input.  If you decide not to, thank them for their input and explain why you are leaving the course the way it is.  Either way, they will like you and the course more.

A humble attitude earns true respect and admiration. ~NKA

As strange as it sounds, you may still need to post a set of instructions for people on how not to be an online jerk.  It’s sad, I know.  These can range from informing them that WRITING IN ALL CAPS IS SEEN AS RUDE, to deeper philosophies of work ethic and cooperation.  Do a Google search and find what you like.  And feel free to borrow something from an unusual resource, like, say, the tenets of a karate academy or quotes from a 14th century samurai warrior.

One thing to keep in mind with dealing with a belligerent, know-it-all student is this simple fact:

Learning changes you.  If you never change your mind, you’re probably not trying to learn.


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