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Author Topic: Saving a bad class?  (Read 2996 times)
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« on: February 11, 2010, 1:54:46 am »

I'm a few weeks into the semester, and one of my classes is turning out to be the worst I've ever had.  The class is a difficult required course, but it's one I've had success with before particulary last semester when I had a group of students who were good sports about it and took the approach that they were going to at least make an effort to get something out of it given that they had to be there, and by and large they did and felt good about it at the end.   

This time though, I feel like I'm teaching high school.  I have students frequently b*tching in class, and the overall vibe seems to be that the vast majority don't really care about learning anything, they just want to get out of there with a minimum of worry.  Whenever they don't understand something right away, they tend to respond by getting defensive and pissy, rather than trying to get a better grasp of the material.  I really think what can swing the balance is who those few outspoken students are- last time they were asking probing questions and showing enthusiasm, this time they are b*tching and trying to argue all the time.

My question is, is there anything I can do in this situation?  Shoud I try to have a heart-to-heart with them, explain how I know this isn't everyone's favorite course but I try to make it as useful to them as I can, etc., and ask for their suggestions?  Should I point out that they are getting the same course that a lot of other students in the past have liked?  Or is this just a lost cause, and my best approach is to write it off and not waste any more time on it than I have to?
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« Reply #1 on: February 11, 2010, 2:22:50 am »

I think it's ok to "go meta" ie. have a frank talk about how the class is going, but not if it comes off as you begging them to care about the class.  Not sure how to calibrate the tone to ensure that it doesn't appear that way.

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Posts: 465

« Reply #2 on: February 11, 2010, 2:25:52 am »

I'm sorry you're having this experience; hopefully knowing that you've had positive experiences with this course before will help stave off any self-doubts that might creep in.

I'm also teaching a difficult required class, and have tried to counter any angst by just having the most fun with the class that I can. I know that might sound silly, but our students fear the methods class I'm teaching so even if I can't joke about the material and keep it light, I work to keep the class-vibe upbeat and optimistic. Getting there a few minutes early to mingle and shoot the breeze with our students has helped, and it also helps me relax and ease into the pain.

I think if there's kvetching in class, you need to stop that. Not wanting to be there is fine, heck we have days when we feel like that, but creating a toxic atmosphere that is going to get progressively more unpleasant isn't acceptable.

I'm not good at heart-to-hearts because I don't have the emotional control to avoid getting defensive. With that said, I think asking for suggestions is a good idea so long as (a) it's in writing, (b) it's in the context of setting parameters about what the course is required to accomplish, and (c) it's anonymous. Explaining that you appreciate that it's a tough course and a requirement is fine, and I think good-natured empathy would be appreciated. I wouldn't write it off yet though - it's often surprising how things can turn around. With that said, unless your future employment hinges on stellar evaluations from this group, I wouldn't let it consume you.

Sorry I don't have anything less rambly and more helpful - but sympathetic thoughts headed your way!
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« Reply #3 on: February 11, 2010, 2:35:18 am »

You might also check out some of the threads in which posters have discussed similar issues.  One recent one, with circumstances that are similar to yours in some respects is this one:


Note that the professor acknowledged the students' concerns without making the students feel defensive or humiliated, and that she pointed to specific examples of how the topics that were being covered in the class were directly related to the students' eventual goals for the course and their future academic and professional careers.  The main difference between your situation and hers is in the nature of the course, but the principles of how to deal with a bad class are probably applicable to what you've experienced.

Good luck, and keep us posted on what you decide to do.

...I can't help rooting for the underdog underbird.
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Running feminist prostitution rings since 1998

« Reply #4 on: February 11, 2010, 3:20:12 am »

There is no saving them. Kill them all. Don't you watch Lost? You don't want to let the infection spread!
« Last Edit: February 11, 2010, 3:20:42 am by scheherazade » Logged

You historians disturb me sometimes.
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Posts: 6

« Reply #5 on: February 11, 2010, 4:06:25 am »

I'm in the midst of this now.  (My post is super long so skip it if you don't want another anecdote of a class going to hell in a handbasket. I've bolded the gist)

I'm curious as to what others say for your particular case as I tried wading through a few of the pages on the linked thread but it is quite long and many of the posts were not on topic.

Here is what I'm doing and I'm posting it here because I want to warn you not because it worked.

I teach for a course that is one of many coordinated by an expert in the methodology and its basis and another coordinator who does all the hard work.  I "just" teach.  I was instructed to read aloud the syllabus carefully and slowly the first day.

I walk in chipper as can be. Wearing a fine lil' suit.
Start walking through the syllabus...and bam, first day, fifteen minutes in a student says she is confused by the plagiarism policy as she spent all of the previous semester doing on line quizzes with friends huddled around the computer helping each other. I could have been misreading the syllabus and departmental policy, and asked her to read aloud the sentence in question (which was behind me on the big screen as I was facing the class and had been weaving amongst the students and left my print copy on another desk). It was a sincere request. Not a trick question, no attitude...Her response, "Well, I feel you are patronizing me now and if you are going to be condescending then I am going to go talk to the dean of the department." ????!!!???  

I didn't flinch or let my mouth drop. "The Chair of the dept. You'll want to talk to the chair of the dept. Well, that's probably what we'll have to do because I'm not sure about your question. It sounds like you can't do quizzes with friends but I'll ask just to doublecheck. It is always good to study together but then again these sentences seem to discourage doing assignments. I'll ask and get back to you all about this."

At the end of the syllabus is a little portion that says they have read and understood and accepted the course as it is outlined. They are to turn that in as well as a document proving they are allowed to be in that level.  The coordinator sent out a mass email requesting this be brought on the first day.

I ask for the proof of level and a student says it is a document that contains his private information, what classes he had before and his grades and he didn't want to share that. It is a violation of his privacy. Again, first day of class????
So I tell him I don't need to see it, he can take it to the coordinator and show her the page or tell her he is reluctant to do so. It's not my onions.

Finally we launch into a wimpy warm up activity and the privacy violation student says he doesn't like the "instructional methodology" I am employing.  It's been 5 minutes! They're in pairs all of five minutes. He tries to get into a discussion and I tell him the methodology is the one that has been proven to work according to the studies and I can't discuss it during class time but he should drop by my office because I am very aware of the difficulties presented in a class like this.

Instead he writes to the chair to complain about "my" instructional methodology.  He set up an appointment with two coordinators and tried to convince them they should change their methodology!

The coordinator appeased  him, caved (much to my chagrin) telling him she would tell me to improve my methodology.  She doesn't know me. Or my methodological practices! I was following the packet of info she and the other coordinator gave which said, read the syllabus out loud and then do a break the ice activity.

It has been poison since the beginning getting worse and worse.  They simply refused to learn, the boy and his friends don't come to class on Fridays ever and also miss other days.  When they are there they grumble and b*tch. Just like the OP describes.
So last Friday, he wasn't there nor were the others of his posse.
One student comes in with another as I'm setting up.
Student 1: Gosh I really just don't get this grammar point.
Student 2: yeah, it's really confusing.
Student 1: It's just too hard. It's completely impossible.
Student 2: Well, it is hard and confusing but after I looked at the explanation a few times in the book it
sort of made sense. If you just read the book it isn't bad at all.
Student 1: Ugh, I DID read the book thank you very much !

And when class begins Student 1 is hostile from the start. It starts to spread. My cl*** ***** witty fella asks a question in English and I ask him to repeat the question in the target language and he says, "Bueno, que es ENGLISH ENGLISH same question" other kids snicker but also feel scared/uncomfortable.
I should have laughed and made light of it. I just answered the question. First in target language briefly then in English. Then I say let's look at the online discussion in English and tell me what the question or problem or difficulty is because I can't help if I don't know what the problem or question is.
Then Student 1 of yore just opens the floodgates: I just can't understand because you refuse to speak in English and blah blah blah. Then smart students of the class say they can't talk about the interesting things if we don't use English.
So we talk in English and don't get the lesson done.

My solution was to walk in Monday and say that I've explained, it was outlined on the syllabus and placed on blackboard by the coordinators, that the best way to learn a language is to have a class where only the target language and drawings and pantomiming on my part is used. According to the evidence, experts, studies and even my decade + of experience has demonstrated that this works. However, i recognize that it is difficult and I want them to be as comfortable as possible. I see that they have equated comfort with English (you could throw in whatever methodology or practice your class has been requesting-- rubrics on the other thread) but that isn't the only way to get comfy and I will and always do try to take all the pressure off them and carry it myself.

However, since there is so much displeasure being expressed I will teach today according to your desires, in English.  Reflect on what you want from this course and at some point before the end of the course write on a slip of paper whether you want the course conducted as studies have suggested allows you to arrive at success or in English which might make you feel better but really is only about feelings.

The class went nowhere because we spoke in English the whole time and the "bad" students just keep throwing out random questions about "how do you say this unrelated thing?" and the "intellectually driven" students ask questions about pedagogy and methodology and philosophy of life--- one even said, "See, if we talk in English then we get to talk about how the culture makes the language different." Maybe, but that isn't going to help you ask where the bathroom is. Grrrr.

I fully expected it would be a tight race.
Instead over 20 students wanted to continue class in English despite not learning the language(and so failing the course) while 2 students wished the course to be taught in the target language.

I attempted the heart to heart.
I think that might have been ok. BUT then I took a gamble and turned what is supposed to be a dictatorship into a democracy.  I have training in lanuage acquisition theory, methodology, and pedagogy practices as well as experience both as an educator and as a language learner.  These students are about 18 and have neither.

That happened Monday, our next meeting is Friday and I have to figure out what to do.

So, it seems that doing a heart to heart is good.
LarryC has a great spiel and even handout I wish I'd known about before gambling with my little secret ballot vote.
The vote was a fiasco. (I know, I know, anyone could have told me that but my Friday class had me so frustrated I wasn't thinking straight. I was willing to try anything. And I thought for sure learning vs not learning i.e., passing vs. failing would force them to make the right choice and so remove the right to whine).

Good luck to you, good luck to me, good luck to all of us with these rare but devastating to the ego classes.
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« Reply #6 on: February 11, 2010, 8:10:18 am »

It's always a bad idea to let the inmates run the asylum.

You've got to shut down the yobs early.  "It's easy to make the mistake that 'learning about language X' is the same as 'learning language X.' I see you registered for this course thinking it was the former, when it's actually the latter.  Again, that's an easy mistake to make, but that's why you're allowed to drop a course at the beginning of the semester without penalty.  You're welcome to stay for the rest of this class if you want."

What is this larryc handout one doth speaketh of?

a.k.a. gum-chewing monkey in a Tufts University jacket

"There are no bad ideas, only great ideas that go horribly wrong."

"Please do not force people who are exhausted to take medication for hallucinations." -- Memo from the Chair, Department of White Privilege Studies, Fiork University
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« Reply #7 on: February 11, 2010, 9:51:35 am »

I'm not necessarily recommending this, just saying this is what I did.

I had a developmental writing class like the two described above. They'd whine for more time to revise a work, and then turn in an unrevised draft as their final copy. They b*tched, whined, said they didn't really need the class, threatened to go to the chair--the works. There's a long story with the previous instructor many of them had, but let's keep this short.

Finally, around midterm or so, I divided and conquered. I assigned them conference times and met with each of them one-on-one. The good students (both of them) received love, happiness, and the offer of a free bunny. The others received a thorough, detailed discussion of why their half-a$$ed attempts at an essay represented writing somewhere around the junior high school level and therefore a failing grade (and they would not be allowed to revise any morefor a better grade--we were moving on), that the chair would say the same thing about their work if I were to show him the copy of their drivel I retained, and that if they didn't want to be in the class to just drop. I told them I was there to teach, and I hoped they decided to stay and learn; but if they weren't jiggy with it to get out of the way so the people who wanted to learn could do so. I was calm and measured about it. Almost mechanical.

All of them except one came back. It wasn't a pleasant class after that, and I received plenty of glaring. No group hug on the last day with that class. But they learned to write better and they all passed the exit writing test.

And my-oh-my did they stick a stake in my fat, black heart in the evals. But, as I pointed out to the chair, their derisive comments were well-written.

And I need to point out that I have one of the best division chairs in the business.



"Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to reform."  ~ Mark Twain
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« Reply #8 on: February 11, 2010, 10:54:27 am »

Chosette, your students sound like pigs, but I also don't understand you and your role in this situation.  It sounds like you kind of refused (or failed) from the start to take ownership of how the class would go.  Are you a TA or something?  For instance

I teach for a course that is one of many coordinated by an expert in the methodology and its basis and another coordinator who does all the hard work.  I "just" teach.  I was instructed to read aloud the syllabus carefully and slowly the first day.

Why would you read a syllabus aloud?  Are you required to do that?  Is the syllabus itself in the target language?  It seems really boring.

I didn't flinch or let my mouth drop. "The Chair of the dept. You'll want to talk to the chair of the dept. Well, that's probably what we'll have to do because I'm not sure about your question. It sounds like you can't do quizzes with friends but I'll ask just to doublecheck. It is always good to study together but then again these sentences seem to discourage doing assignments. I'll ask and get back to you all about this."

It seems like you're saying both that you were mind-boggled by the question and the information that the students had been cheating on quizzes and that you didn't understand the syllabus yourself.  Or were you being sarcastic?

So I tell him I don't need to see it, he can take it to the coordinator and show her the page or tell her he is reluctant to do so. It's not my onions.

Why are you so uninvested?  With "not my onions" it sounds like you're hostile to teaching the course at all.  

I'm an undergrad, and I would be really frustrated with a professor who acted like this, taking no ownership of the course, not seeming to understand the syllabus, and letting us vote for things that are obviously not good.  (I always want classes to be harder, not easier, so I would doubtless have been on the "right" side of the debate here.)  I don't think any of this excuses the behavior you're getting from your students, but I think I'd be annoyed with you if I were in your class.  Some of us inmates want the real doctors to run the asylum.
« Last Edit: February 11, 2010, 10:56:14 am by ptarmigan » Logged

He's on my roster, but if I've taught him anything, it isn't math.
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« Reply #9 on: February 11, 2010, 11:42:18 am »

Of course you can save your class.  The resistant-learner "save my class" thread posted earlier by Barred Owl should give you ideas.

If you are teaching a required class, of course most students in it will be there because of the requirement, not by choice.  In that situation, it is rational to want to find ways to get the most (grade) with the least (effort).  Why make it into a moral issue?  If students are continually defensive, something is wrong with understanding and communication.  It's not simply bad attitude.  If you give a mid-term evaluation or daily/weekly "how are they doing with their comprehension" evaluation, you have to focus on the job you were hired to do--teach them the material--not what they might like you to do.

I have students very similar to the average American college student that we hear so many complaints about in threads like this.  My students don't whine.  I don't allow it.  It is very easy to cheerfully redirect the discussion back to what they will need to know for the next test.  I had one student this semester who gave me unending teaching tips to make my style fit his wishes.  After a week of this, I followed LarryC's advice of saying "It sounds as if you might find someone else a better fit for the way you want to learn this material.  The drop period is still open and I will understand if you make that choice."  And he dropped!   You don't need students to be happy, enthusiastic, or self-motivated to run a pleasant, civil, productive class.

Chosette, even if you do not intend teaching as a career, I recommend making some big changes to the way you see your role in the classroom (including continuing to "wade through" the entire thread linked above), if you want to finish out your current situation in a good way.
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Goes to 11

« Reply #10 on: February 11, 2010, 1:04:16 pm »

Chime, kedves. Chosette it's going to be a long, dreadful term if you don't put in the spade bit and pull up firmly on the reins. First, you go have a little chat with the coordinator. You get crystal clear on her/his expectations for you in the course and how much support you can count on. Then, assuming all goes well, here is the essence of your heart to heart with the horses students:

Vote?!? You get to vote once about a class. It's called "registration." Your butt in that seat is your assent to fulfill the expectations constituting the privilege of learning in this class. I regret I offered you an option that wasn't realistic or possible. It's not going to happen.

In this class, we learn by speaking the language. (Studies, schmudies.) You want to learn about "Spanish?" There's a great culture course in the history department. Drop this class and take that one, because learning about the culture is not our primary objective. Confused Cheater, I don't care if you cheated on a quiz last semester. I expect you to follow these guidelines on this syllabus, period. There is no discussion. If you don't like them, or me, or learning a language, here is your signed drop slip. If you disrupt the course, Bueno Dude, I will ask you to leave. These are the assignments you're expected to complete, in "Spanish." These are the scoring cutoffs. Any clarifying questions about course expectations? Let's proceed. Hola, como esta?

The, as much as possible, you follow LarryC's advice: make like a duck and let it roll off your back. Quack!

There are few things more liberating in this life than having your worst fear realized. -- Conan O'Brien
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Posts: 13

« Reply #11 on: February 11, 2010, 1:15:28 pm »

Yikes, Chosette, mine aren't that bad!

Thanks for the suggestions.  I generally do anonymous student feedback surveys a few times during the semester, so I think the thing to do is to tailor one of those to this situation as immigrant suggested and then try to frankly address the negative comments.  It's good to know that it doesn't necessarily have to be a lost cause! 

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« Reply #12 on: February 11, 2010, 1:42:46 pm »

Mwalimu, I think there are two things you can do at this point:

First, show that you recognize their frustrations and are empathetic to them, even if you're not going to relax standards. Some useful phrases:

      "What a shame!"
      "Gee, that's too bad."
      "I'm sorry you feel that way."
      "That must be frustrating."

Delivered with great empathy, it shows that you recognize the students are frustrated without obligating you to do anything about it. If any individuals persist, you can invite them to see you after class, repeat that you recognize their frustration, and invite them to come see you during office hours.

Second, how much formative assessment are you doing? When done properly, formative assessments that are low-stakes and designed to check for understanding can give students the confidence they need to realize that they really are learning the material. If you aren't already familiar with it, I would take a look at Cross and Angelo's Classroom Assessment Techniques, which is basically a how-to guide to formative assessments.

The key is not just to give formative assessments as "busy work," but to provide students with feedback from them, even if it's just in summary form. Two of my favorite formative assessments:

1. The one-minute paper at the end of class. It tells me what students learned/didn't learn in the lesson. I then pick four or five (good) responses to share (anonymously) with students in the next class period.

2. Directed paraphrasing. In this activity, you ask students to translate a difficult concept or reading passage into their own words. I often will ask them to translate it for a specific audience (ie, their parents, their boss, etc.). Again, I pick two or three good responses to share with students in the next class period.

I don't claim these methods are foolproof, but the students seem to be better-mannered when they realize that (a) I'm genuinely interested in their learning, and that (b) some of their peers are getting the material.

You may be manly, but you cannot handle all the mosquitoes.
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« Reply #13 on: February 11, 2010, 1:45:18 pm »

These students--who are not in the minority--don't want to learn the material, they just want to pass the course. No one has convinced them that it isn't a waste of their time. Indeed, I'm not exactly understanding why they are taking the course either.
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Goes to 11

« Reply #14 on: February 11, 2010, 2:52:23 pm »

mwalimu, I'm sorry...I had a bit typed, clicked Post, student knocked on door, dunno what happened.

Chime mountainguy! I did formative midterm assessments last semester in my ginormous sections and wrote about it in this thread, as did many other forumites. Students felt respected, we clarified expectations as a result, we got the train back on track.

Here's an online (e.g. superquick-accessible) resource where I pilfered the midterm formative assessment logistics.

Good luck, mwalimu, let us know how it goes!

There are few things more liberating in this life than having your worst fear realized. -- Conan O'Brien
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