problems with teaching

An anonymous correspondent asks me to post the following:

I need feedback on a course that’s not going very well this semester. I have a small class of young, very quiet students. Some of them spend the entire class fidgeting and apparently thinking about something else; my perception of their states of mind might be distorted, but I’m put off by the fact that they don’t make a lot of eye contact. Rather than ask questions about the content of the course, engaging with the subject matter, they are always (take “always” with a grain of salt) asking the same sorts of questions about assignments: “I’m confused. What are we supposed to do again? I don’t understand what you want. Why are we doing this?” I’ve taught this course a half-dozen times, and I’ve never had this much difficulty teaching it before. The assignments are explained in detailed handouts and by me in class discussion.

Yesterday, my buttons got pushed towards the end of class when I was trying to talk about one of the projects they’re working on, and and a couple of students chimed in with “I’m confused. Why are we doing this? What do we get out of completing this?” I was quiet for a bit, looking down at my hands and then said, with ten minutes left until the end of class, “Okay, I think that’s enough for today.” I knew I was either going to dismiss them early or I was going to say something I’d regret.

Is there any way to salvage this course? Do I address what happened yesterday at the end of class? We have about 5 weeks left. I’ve tried to address their engagement (or lack thereof) with the course material before but without success. They’re not surly or anti-intellectual, just more obsessed with grades than with actually learning. I’d appreciate any advice.

So…any thoughts?

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7 thoughts on “problems with teaching

  1. Sometimes you just get a class where the group chemistry is kind of negative. There may not be a whole lot you can do to turn them around at this point. But…sometimes I’ve had success with creating an assignment or an in-class activity (1 or 2 days worth) where they have to teach each other something about the material (in groups — mini research topics, or assigning them a piece of a text to be responsible for). Sometimes I’ve even walked into class, frustrated by lack of participation etc, and said “you guys are teaching the class today, I’m sitting in the back.” It shakes them up and also forces them to care about what’s going on. Especially with grade-conscious students, if you give them group presentations with a group grade attached, they will work hard.

  2. In the past, I’ve used the following technique with great success: give air time to students to present their understanding to each other. The “confused” student gets to pick who will respond to their query. It’s one way of tapping into the discomfort…

  3. One: I spend a moment expressing a shift about what is valued in education: “Are you in this class for the education or for the piece of paper that you get at the end? What is of value? Which message about your values do you want to send?”
    I talk about this explicitly–it is always an uncomfortable moment, but it has had an impact in small but measurable ways.
    Incidentally, I think this is a signal of the neo-liberal shift of the university: corporatization is moving us from preparing students to participate in a democracy towards preparing students to become human capital/ laborers/ consumers in the free market. Their subjectivity is so constrained by market economies and lexicons that they are increasingly having trouble imagining the value of education outside of those economies.
    Two: When a students asks that question, simply turn it around, and ask the class (This is a simpler version of Francois’ excellent suggestion). I often simply pause, shrug, gesture outwardly to the class, and ask “I don’t know. What do you all think?” It’s supposed to make them create the value out of their education.

  4. Thought you might want the point of view of someone who sits among the eye-contact-avoiders – an undergraduate. (I’m hoping to join the ranks of academia as well, but for the moment, I am lowly.)
    To go along with Ryan’s comment, it’s always good to ask what students think. Sometimes, though, it might take you making some insanely ridiculous comment about the material that is clearly false. If at least one of them doesn’t argue with you, all hope is presumably lost.
    I’ve also found that forcing participation seems to work well in some of my classes – such as assigning material to certain students and expecting them to come to class prepared with questions about it. Even if the questions aren’t what you’re looking for, at least they’ll be exploring things in their own way.
    Also, as far as assignments go, if your assignment sheets pretty much lay it all out for them, you might give them five minutes after it reaches their hands and they’ve had some time to peruse it to ask questions and then insist that they discuss the course material after that. Suggest that if they have more questions, they are welcome to e-mail you about it, and you’ll be able to give a more thorough answer that way anyway, as well as respond to follow-ups if they have them.
    Even the young, quiet ones have something running through their heads about the material – some just need to be prodded more than others.

  5. I like all the advice above. Let them teach the class or brainstorm and collaborate with them to come up with assignment guidelines.
    Would your class benefit from more journaling or in-class reflection writing? Sometimes asking them to write — even if it’s “How do you see this class helping your career?” — gets them to make the connections on their own.
    For radical shifts that generate interactivity among groups, try moving to a different classroom where the chairs are aligned differently or host class outside or someplace where the dynamic between them will inevitably change.

  6. Oh, I know this feeling all too well. If they are stare-into-space people, I think Michael’s idea works: have them write. Then they can get into groups and discuss what they wrote, or read parts of their writing to the class.
    It also helps if you have a way for them to post comments in advance, either through a discussion board (like WebCT or Blackboard, or even a Yahoo group) or through a blog. Some people who won’t talk in class will demonstrate their mastery of the material much better in writing. Also, you can use this discussion board material to launch class participation, with comments like, “So-and-so, I liked your comment about this on the discussion board. Could you elaborate?” Similarly, you could print out good posts and hand them out to the class. This way, they can get an idea of what their classmates are thinking and help each other out, AND they benefit from a model of what you are looking for in an ideal post/assignment.

  7. Hey–all the above comments are fine, but really, why not just ask them what’s going on? Are you making eye contact? You don’t mention the subject of the course–is it relevant? I teach undergrads, too, and sometimes they just don’t talk. I think you need to ask them–and then be prepared to wait–really wait–for an answer. Be ready to feel uncomfortable. I’m a bit confused as to why you just ended class–and your comment about saying something you might regret seemed hostile to me. I understand your frustration, but maybe you need to take a step back. My frustration comes often when students feel as if they have nothing to say, so they say nothing. Instead of trying to figure out what’s wrong with them, I try to figure out what I need to do to facilitate their experience. I actually do occasionally enter the class and turn it over to them–you’d be amazed how they respond.

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