When you’re unprepared for class

4 hours of seminar discussion? No problem!

Amanda’s post prompts me to do a bit more reflecting on us, the instructor.

It’s really easy to focus on students as the source of problems, but as Amanda rightly underlines, that’s not the most productive of frames.

As a less-experienced lecturer, one of the most useful lessons I got in my training was that we go through different stages in our understanding of what’s happening in a classroom.

You start out by thinking it’s all about yourself, then you move to thinking it’s all about the students, before finally understanding that it’s actually about the situation you and they are in.

So part of that is recognising that you matter, but you’re not the only thing that matters.

And, frankly, sometimes we’re not at the top of our game.

Either that means we’ve not prepared enough, or we’ve not on the ball enough in the classroom.

I’ve done that – not often, but more than once – and I’m going to guess that you have too.

What’s the problem?

Clearly, there are lots of reasons why this happens and I’m not really so interested as to why, precisely because of that diversity. I know it happens to me when I teach straight after landing from an international flight, but that’s scarcely useful.

The more interesting point is to explore what impact this lack of prep has on your class and what you can do about it.

In the broadest of terms, this is a problem because of the signal it sends to your students. Just as you know full-well when they’re not concentrating in class, so too do they know when you’re not.

Just think back to when you were getting taught and you’ll recall the occasions you were on the receiving end.

If we ask students to be ‘in the room’, then we have do the same. That’s why I always laugh at academic conferences when everyone sits at the back of the room, doing other stuff on their laptops, despite what they say to their students back home.

(It’s also why I don’t say those things to my students)

What’s the solution?

Three steps suggest themselves.

First, acknowledge what you’re falling short on. This doesn’t have to be a big mea culpa, but just a simple recognition that you know what’s (not) happening and not trying to bluff your way out.

If not else, it’s better to get out in front of it and own it, before someone else does that for you.

Second, adapt what you’re doing in class to minimise the impact on student learning. If you could only prep 2/3rds of a lecture, focus on that part rather than winging the last part. If you’re supposed to be providing feedback, try using peer evaluation to replace a block of it.

That’s not always possible: if you forgot the key piece of equipment, then you should sort out getting ASAP. But you need to demonstrate your intention to make the session still work, either in a slightly different way or with a bit of delay. What’s critical is that you don’t just notice you’re not firing on all cylinders, but that you also act on it.

Third, after the session is done, you take action to make up any shortfall in the class and to avoid it happening again. That might mean some jiggling of content for next week’s class, or some additional materials on the online environment.

The longer-term redressing needs you to be reflexive and honest about what went wrong (which you should be doing in any case) and finding ways to deal with it.

So now when I fly I either do it so I can rest afterwards, or I move classes.

For you that might mean changing your schedules, or changing what you do in class, or getting a big orange sign to point to the key piece of equipment, so you don’t forget it.

Taken together, I can’t promise you’ll never have this problem again (especially if you’ve not yet had this problem), but I can tell you that it’ll become much more manageable and much less likely to happen again.

When students are unprepared for class

In line with Simon’s musings on whether or not he matters, I’ve been wrestling with whether all of my ideas about how to structure classes to get particular results actually work.  Do they matter?  

In one of my classes, only a handful of students were able to answer a pretty basic question: what is the main claim in this reading?  I’m sure many of us have experienced this before, but in line with my strategies on ensuring students do the reading, I thought I was well inoculated against the steady silence of puzzlement, for two reasons:

  1. Students have to write on all the readings each week.  Those papers include an annotated bibliographic entry for each reading, where in 1-2 sentences they must state the main claim of each reading.  Since about half the students wrote last week, they should know this.
  2. In this particular case I was asking about last week’s readings, which we had already discussed.  This was review!  I had mentioned these main points at least once before during our previous classes.

And yet, silence.

That’s not strictly fair.  A handful of students were able to answer my question for each of the readings.  But the bulk of the students just sat there, staring at me. First, let’s review Simon’s thoughts on getting students to talk, and then let’s consider the possible reasons for this, and how to solve them:

  1. They had not done the reading.  Since they only have to write 8 of the 12 papers, these students may have chosen not to write last week–and therefore didn’t bother to read.  
    • Solutions: require more papers. 8/12 was probably too generous, and it is clear that when students do not have to write, they don’t always do the readings very closely (often due to other legitimate commitments, such as work).
  2. They did the reading, but couldn’t remember it. Students may not take good notes when they read, and therefore can struggle with details.  They may also need training in how to identify key points so that they don’t miss the forest for the trees.
    • Solutions: teach students how to take notes on the reading.  Its an important skill, and we should not assume they already have it.
    • Continue to require the annotated bibliographies of the weekly readings so they build this skill over the course of the term.
  3. They did the readings, but were confused.  The readings I am assigning are a mix, but many of them are scholarly in nature.  Not all students in the class are majoring in the social sciences, and therefore may struggle with key terms. It was also a lot of reading–about 100 pages–and some of the chapters could have been split in two because they covered two widely different topics.  
    • Solutions: Review the syllabus to make sure that the mix of readings is appropriate in terms of amount and difficult.  
    • Take note of key terms and review them in class so that non-majors don’t feel lost.  
    • Continue to review the key point of each reading in class prior to discussion so that everyone is on the same page.  
  4. They may or may not have done the reading, but they did not make the connection between our discussions last week and the question of this week.  While I had mentioned the key points of the readings last week in passing, I didn’t make a point of it–I did not write them on the board, or encourage students to take notes of what I had said.  Often students don’t know how to recognize a key point that is made solely verbally.
    • Solution: anytime I mention a key point, make sure I put it on the whiteboard to signal to students that it is important.
  5. They may have known the answer, but chose not to speak up.  Even though I’ve encouraged my students to ‘fail’ in line with previous discussions on ALPS, many of them are afraid to say something wrong.
    • Solutions: whenever possible, use small groups to discuss the question first.  This allows students to check their answers with a small group of peers first, and then share them with the rest of the class if encouraged.  
    • Minute papers–where students take a minute to write down their thoughts–might also give them the time they need to choose the right wording for their responses.
    • Note who in their papers got the answer correct, and then cold call on those students to read their responses.  
    • Using encouraging language and thanking students for offering their response may also encourage quieter students to share their ideas in the future.  
    • Track and increase wait time.  What feels like an eternity to us in the silence is often mere moments, which might not be enough time to process the question and generate a response. There are plenty of strategies out there to do this effectively.

My takeaway: the students failure to answer my basic question is as much my failing as theirs.  We need to recognize the reasons WHY students can’t identify the key point of a reading, and exhaust all the structural and instructional tools and methods we have to get them to a point where they do the readings and are willing and able to talk about them.  Our job is provide the tools and training they need to succeed, and we should always make sure that any issues on the part of our students aren’t caused by a failing on ours.