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Handling problems or difficult situations

‘If you haven’t got problems in your group, then something is wrong’ (Jacques, 2000).

McCrorie summarises a list of common problems encountered by small group teachers and suggests that the best strategy is to let the group sort out its own problems. This is more effective in the long term, and if a group is to remain together for some time then it is worthwhile to do so. If the group is very new or working together for a very short time (e.g. a workshop) or has a complex and essential task to perform with a short deadline, then tutor intervention will help keep the group task focused.  

Challenging learners
  • The dominant learner
  • The arrogant learner – the know-it-all
  • The learner who wants to be the centre of attention at all times
  • The aggressive or argumentative learner
  • The offensive and rude learner
  • The politically incorrect learner
  • The flirtatious learner
  • The joke-a-minute learner
  • The garrulous learner
  • The disengaged learner
  • The bored learner
  • The learner who relies on everyone else to do the work
  • The lazy learner
  • The shy learner
  • The delicate, tearful learner
  • The over-dependent learner
  • The constantly late learner
  • The frequently ill learner
  • The mentally disturbed learner  

(McCrorie, 2006, p. 20)

Understanding a little about the internal dynamics of the group and how to manage different learners will make group working more effective. There are some common problems with communications that can be helped by active facilitation by the teacher.

The persistent talker

  • Monopolising group discussions – summarise their main points and divert the discussion to others; interrupt with a yes/no question and ask someone else to comment; give them a specific task (e.g. taking notes, writing on a flipchart) so that they have to listen to others; divide the group into sub-groups for specific tasks and ask them to chair or act as scribe so their focus is on others’ contributions.
  • Rambling and diverting the discussion – break in and bring the discussion back to the point; be direct; indicate pressure of time and the need to get on with the task; ask questions of other people in the group.
  • Always tries to answer every question – acknowledge their help but suggest you seek out several ideas/answers; direct questions to other people in the group.
  • Talking to others nearby and not joining in with the whole group – directly address them and ask them to contribute to the whole group; stop talking until they realise others are listening.

Quiet people

  • Shy and timid – they may speak quietly or cannot find the words to say what they mean. You can help them by allowing time for them to respond; asking ‘easy’ questions of them; asking the same question of different trainees with them safely in the middle; protecting them from mockery or teasing; acknowledging their contribution; putting the group into pairs on a task to increase confidence.
  • Reticent – often has a valid contribution but is unwilling to participate. You can draw them into the discussion by name; invite them to comment about something you know they have experience of; motivate by focusing on something they find interesting; positively reinforce any contribution.

Negative attitude

These people may like to talk but have a negative attitude that can affect others.

  • Superior – they appear to know everything. Flatter a little by indicating how others can learn from their experience; ask for specific examples, ask the group to comment, then ask the person to summarise the rest of the group’s points; indicate to the group that they will learn more if everyone shares experience and knowledge.
  • Complainer – blames others and finds fault. Get them to be specific about the problem and invite the group to think of positive solutions; be direct and say that the group has to get on with the task.
  • Clown – ridicules discussion by joking or making irritating remarks. Ask them for a serious contribution; acknowledge any valid contribution; be direct and say that although this was amusing, the group must move on to complete its task.
  • Arguer – is often aggressive, hostile and antagonistic. Rephrase the point in milder terms; acknowledge that they feel strongly about the issue and invite the group for their comments; avoid lengthy debates by saying you can discuss this after the session; defuse the ‘heat’ and then move on; as a last resort, ask them to leave the group.

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