Over the years I have conducted numerous professional training programs, including: Project Management, Enterprise Engineering, Systems Engineering, Information Resource Management, etc. These courses are either held at the customer's site or our own premises. Unlike a school setting with long semesters, a professional instructor has a limited amount of time to convey his points to the students, usually just a few days at most. This can be a daunting task if you happen to have a "mule" as a student. I use the term "mule" to refer to a person who stubbornly refuses to participate in a course for a variety of reasons, mostly arrogance. Such people ignore the instructor and either sleep during the class, work on something unrelated, or wants to frequently take breaks usually to call someone on the phone or disappear from class settings. "Mules" can have an adverse effect on the class by becoming a distraction, particularly if it is a senior person. Nonetheless, as instructor you are being paid to teach specific lessons to a whole group of people, not just a few.
To overcome the "mule" problem, there are a few things you can do. First, you want to avoid alienating the mule if possible. Instead, you want to get his/her support and participation. This is why introductions are so important to any class. A firm handshake and good eye contact can help establish a rapport between students and their instructor. I also ask each person to describe their title, background, and what they hope to learn from the course. This tips me off as to where their interests reside and who the potential mules might be. I also ask the students to turn off communication devices as I want to eliminate potential distractions. In addition, I tell the class what the schedule will be, how I will run the class, what kind of questions they can ask and when, and other introductory comments. I also prefer a classroom where the chairs are hard and the room is cold, thereby causing people to sit up and pay attention.
Aside from these basics, there are three ways to engage a "Mule" student:
1. Repetition - repeating key concepts, preferably with a catchy slogan and/or graphic, helps ingrain the concept in the person's mind through association. School teachers have understood this technique for a long time, as well as political brain washers. By simply repeating something over and over again, and relating it to something simple they can associate with, a person is inclined to remember it, even the most stubborn of "Mules."
2. Keep the "Mule" active in the course. In my courses I typically assign each student with a slide from my presentation. Near the end of the class, I have each student give a five minute presentation on the subject matter referred to on the slide and take questions from the class. I do this in a precise sequence so it will serve as a summary recap of the course. This also encourages students to ask questions where they might feel intimidated to ask the instructor. As for "Mules," it forces them to pay attention as they know the other students will be critiquing their presentation. Basically, I am applying peer pressure on the "Mule."
3. Openly challenge the "Mule" and put him/her on the spot. However, I only do this as a last resort. Here I will openly criticize the "Mule" for his/her behavior and try to shame them into participating. Such action may be drastic, and may invoke the hostility of the student, but sometimes you have to hit a mule over the head with a 2 X 4 just to get his attention. Some companies are actually hoping you, the outsider, will tackle this sticky problem for them. Some people will rise to the occasion only if you openly challenge them. There will be others who will feel threatened and become despondent if you go too far, which is why, as instructor, you have to be careful. Confronting a person privately during break time can also prove effective.
We commonly say a person is as "stubborn as a mule" when he will not listen to other people's advice and change their way of doing things. In a professional training class, we are trying to introduce some new ideas and change some habits. The instructor is charged with indoctrinating the students with the concepts, but it will be up to management to follow-up to assure the students are implementing what they are taught. In other words, the instructor can only go so far.
One last piece of advice, in a professional training situation, instructors are not paid to be in a popularity contest. Instead, they must be resourceful and results oriented. Most of your students will follow you if you express confidence in the subject matter, but there will always be at least one "Mule" who will openly defy you. If left unchecked, their attitude can be detrimental to the class overall and you will fail in your mission. One thing is for certain, you cannot simply ignore the "Mule" as he/she will not go away. If you fail to address the problem properly, you will fail as an instructor.
Keep the Faith!
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Tim Bryce is a writer and the Managing Director of M. Bryce & Associates (MBA) of Palm Harbor, Florida and has over 30 years of experience in the management consulting field. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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