Curing Midterm Torpor

Brian Taylor

March 06, 2013

Torpor is a strange phenomenon. When it happens in animals, everything—their metabolism, heart rate, body temperature—slows to a creep. It's a type of hibernation that, when I was a student, set in immediately after I got the midterm back and lasted until I began to cram for the final exam.

Now that I'm on the other side of the desk, I realize that while midterm torpor might be pleasant for students, it's decidedly unpleasant for teachers. It is like watching a child lose interest in her favorite toy, or a grown-up fall out of touch with an old friend—except your class is the toy, and you are the friend.

Highly unpleasant.

The most disturbing part of watching my students fall asleep halfway through the term was the unshakeable feeling that I was the ultimate cause of their boredom. I say ultimate cause because torpor does not really have a proximate one. The squirrel does not go into winter hiding because he finds a particular day too boring or too cold. No, he trundles off to bed because that is just what squirrels do when the leaves begin to fall. There are dozens of factors that lead squirrels to hibernate, so many factors that it's easiest, and perhaps most accurate, to say that it's "just that time of year."

So, too, for the midterm torpor. What you're witnessing is a systemic transition into inattention and therefore a systemic problem for you—and me.

I decided to take on the problem. Here was my plan of attack.

Don't lock down. Torpor is brought on by the heavy hand of habit. So I responded by trying to lighten up. If you're like me, your initial response to drowsy students (and many students have the curious ability to sleep with their eyes open) is to yell at them. As loudly as possible. That might make you feel better, but it's only a temporary fix, since it will do little to break up their academic hibernation.

Instead I've tried to surprise students by loosening up. We all have a "lecture voice" that's quite different from our normal conversational voice, which is typically quieter and more relaxed. So I use that quieter voice to speak with my drowsy crew. Rather than speak to them about the fact that they have tuned out, I speak with them about the most interesting part of the lecture. I speak quietly, so they have to strain to hear me. Straining to hear someone is also known as paying attention; hence the expression "all ears." And that is what we want, right? For them to pay attention?

Change yourself. Even the best teacher goes on autopilot for a few classes in the middle of the term. In short, we succumb to our own form of midterm torpor. Compared with changing our students' behavior, it's relatively easy to overcome the comfortably stultifying habits that define our classroom style. Sometimes, however, we have a blind spot about our own bad habits.

So I ask a colleague, my chair, or my students a personal and potentially awkward question: "What am I really like as a teacher?" I take their answers at face value and try not be offended. The point is not to change my general professorial style, but to mix it up. Students pay attention to what we might call superficial adjustments, like what we wear in the classroom or how we speak. While they are paying attention to superficial changes, they may also tune in again to what I am saying.

Change your class(room). Sometimes I come early to class and move the seats into a horseshoe instead of rows. Or I turn all of the seats 180 degrees so that I'm teaching at the back of the room for a few days.

In combating midterm torpor, we're looking for ways to shift our students' angle of intellectual vision. Forcing them, quite literally, to take in class from a new angle helps to bring about that objective. They will grumble a bit, since they've come to love the sleepy comfort of "their seat," but I've found that the most comfortable things in life are often the most counterproductive. So, here, too, mix it up.

"Going meta." A lot of us cold-call on students early in the semester because it's the most effective way to learn their names and establish accountability. But midterm is a good time to demand that students get to know one another. So I call on a student to answer a question, and when she's done, I turn to another student sitting four seats away and ask him to tell me the name of the first student. I've just used her name, and we're midway through the term, so the second student should know it if he was paying attention. What I've found: There is an 80-percent chance that he hasn't a clue. I repeat the process until students start to remember names. Their botching the names allows me to teach them about the process of teaching and learning.

Classes can and should be vibrant communities; learning something about their creation is part of the lesson of a great class, whether it's social work or an introduction to statistics. My goal is to help students realize that by encouraging them to get to know one another. I find that "going meta"—discussing the way that an intellectual discussion or community can develop—is also a good way of encouraging higher-level thinking in my students. In a tedious moment in a lecture, I might turn to a student and ask her how she would make this point interesting. I put her in my shoes for a minute. She might not have a good answer, but the seed has been sown.

Spring training for the rest of their lives. "Going meta" also allows me to underscore an important point about students' education—that being in a class, any class, is preparing them for the rest of their lives. The way that students behave in the classroom should be the precursor to how they will act as reflective adults, responsible citizens, keen employees, compassionate employers. That is often forgotten in our obsession with course content.

Let them act it out. Most professors are bookish. Most students are not. That explains why most students will not become professors, and why the modes of learning that worked well for us will not always work for them. We professors learn best, or so we think, from reading, writing, and listening. We eschew other activities as decidedly unintellectual or pathetically immature.

I can hear the skeptics now: "Real students, college students, don't need recess!" They might not need it, but in the midst of midterm torpor, they may desperately want it. So give it to them. Get them out of their seats and make them move. Go for a walking lecture if the class is small enough; visit a construction site on the campus if you are teaching about tensile strength; check out some actual trees if you are reading Walden.

Or take a few minutes in the middle of class to have a couple of students act out the lesson you are giving. It's surprisingly easy to do in a wide variety of disciplines; just make sure no one gets hurt or embarrassed. Or take another minute to do some yoga with your students. Even computer-science and philosophy majors secretly like doing the downward dog or the tree pose.

You might think of that as an inefficient way to spend class time, but it's more efficient than having your students sleep through an uninterrupted lecture.

Questions and synthetic reasoning. After the midterm, I was tired of calling on students and then answering my own questions. It seemed time to help them ask their own.

Encouraging students to ask good questions about a scholarly concept is an effective way of pushing them to think synthetically and creatively. Analytic approaches to a subject break it down into its discrete parts in order to understand it, and those approaches typically dominate the entirety of students' college experience. They get the mistaken impression that analysis is an end in itself instead of the necessary complement to, or foundation for, synthetic thinking. So help them see the forest for the trees.

When we get the feeling that we are about to lose our students, there is a good chance that we already have. We know where to find them—in midterm torpor—but rousing them is no easy matter. They have to want to wake up. My job is to make the waking life more appealing than sleep.

John Kaag is an assistant professor of philosophy at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell.