Arrogance: What to do When Your Students Know Everything

I recently ran across three examples of adults who’ve encountered arrogance in their students. One high school teacher smiled when she told me the most popular statement her students say to her every week is: “I know.”

One athletic coach told me when he gave instructions on how to do a drill at practice, one of his student athletes corrected him, suggesting he was wrong and offering his own idea. Then, a teammate corrected him. The students obviously had better ideas.

One father recently told me he argued with his young adult son for hours about a tiny issue of semantics. This dad had said something his son found slightly inaccurate; an innuendo that didn’t meet his criteria, and he bickered over it until he was beating a dead horse. Clearly, this young man did not want to lose the argument.

One of the reasons we see less respect between students and adults today than in generations past is—our students are exposed to so much information. Even when they don’t know the answer, they think they do.

I believe, however, their knowledge does not have to become arrogance.

What’s the Deal with Arrogance?

When we step back to reflect, arrogance is something our society actually values and rewards, especially in business, sports and politics. It’s about more customers, more points and more votes. We frequently think of successful people as ones who can push themselves forward in front of others. Now that social media is in play, students see arrogance on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook—from people who have lots of followers. In short, arrogance seems to be the right path if you want influence today.

But what’s really happening inside of an arrogant student?

Susan Krauss Whitborne, PhD, states, “In an innovative series of studies, psychologist Adam Fetterman of the Knowledge Media Research Center (Tuebingen, Germany) and colleagues investigated the behavior of people high and low in arrogance in response to stimuli that were high and low in power motivation. Their reasoning was that arrogance reflects an interpersonal quality…a desire to overpower others. The opposite of arrogance is affiliation, or the desire to get along with others.”

To put it bluntly, arrogant students (and arrogant people in general) need to feel dominant and superior.

Steps to Help Students Subdue Their Arrogance

Personally, I believe there is a fine line between confidence and arrogance. I love confident students; I am repulsed by arrogance. So let me suggest steps to beat it:

1. Put them in situations where they must utilize their knowledge.

Arrogance prevails in armchair quarterbacks. It’s easy to know everything when you don’t actually have to do anything about what you know. One of the quickest ways to cultivate humility is to make students apply their knowledge in real life contexts. A friend of mine who’s an accounting professor had a student last year who excelled in his class. Unfortunately, she knew he was good; she was extremely cocky. So what did my friend do? He got a local non-profit organization that was struggling with their bookkeeping process to agree to let this student review their books and see if she could solve the problem. Suddenly the principles had to become a practice. It took her days to diagnose the problem, and weeks to fix it. Afterward, this student had learned what real success felt like—and was humbled in the process.

2. Expose them to contexts and questions that unveil what they don’t know.

Sometimes arrogance exists because a person has had limited exposure and consequently, limited perspective. It’s like the man who complained about having no shoes until he met someone who had no feet. Without being cruel, why not ask them questions for which you know they do not know the correct answer? I remember mentoring a college student who assumed he had all the answers to the problem of homelessness in our city. He had little empathy for those deadbeats on the streets, and had some policy ideas that were naïve. So, what did we do? He and I spent the night on the streets with homeless men. We stayed up talking to them, listening to them and even slept on the sidewalk next to them with a newspaper as our blanket. The next morning, this student and I had an eye-opening conversation about the issue—because his eyes had been opened. Experience really is a good teacher.

3. Give them a project that requires collaboration with others.

Since arrogance loves to feel superior, one great way to fix it is to give students a project they cannot complete alone. “In daily life, part of the arrogant picture involves this desire to dominate, but also a kind of overconfidence in one’s abilities actually to win,” Whitborne says. “Yale University’s Kristi Lockhart and colleagues (2017) found that young children (5-to-7-year-olds) displayed a form of arrogance in believing they’d gain more knowledge as adults than adults themselves believed that they had. The arrogant, similarly, are primed not only to win, but to see themselves as deserving of winning.” The best antidote is to reveal through experience how much they need other people to succeed. The project must be very important and almost impossible in their eyes.

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Arrogance: What to do When Your Students Know Everything