Have you had one of these moments? Class went so-so, but it felt harder than it should. I used to call it a “dentist day.” Why? Because I felt like I was pulling teeth, trying to get them to talk, to think critically about the material, instead of having them engage actively with the content. What to do when one of these days happen? I have a checklist for you which can help.
-Write down your thoughts about how the class went—it may not have been all difficult. Were there certain concepts that seemed to go well? Or at least ok? Sometimes when we have one of these days, we forget the good moments and just recall the tough ones. Try to write as factually as you can, for example, “When I asked, only 10 percent admitted to doing the required readings,” or “no one volunteered during discussion time and several students refused to share when I called on them,” or “a third of the class did not turn in the required assessment which was due last night.” Only after you have the facts written down should you turn to how you felt teaching that day. If you are using a Teaching Diary (see earlier blog posts here and here), look back to other terms where you taught the same content. Maybe it is the difficulty of the concepts you are teaching and not you, not your students, nor your interactions. That can be very helpful to know.
-Look at your class calendar and the academic calendar of your institution. Is it the week where most classes are giving midterms? The week before a major break or vacation? Or the first few days back from a long break? Do you have a major assignment due in a few days, which may have captured student attention more than readings or in-class work? These are times when student engagement might dip. Put differently, it might not be “your class” but just the typical ebb and flow of the academic calendar. I’m not saying it makes it “okay” for students to be less engaged, but looking at the calendar might help you diagnose what is occurring.
-How are you doing? Are you feeling overwhelmed with grading or course preparations? Or committee work? How’s your research going (or not going)? Are you doing a lot of community service? Are you or a loved one sick or not sleeping through the night? What’s happening to each of us as a person inevitably can follow us into the classroom. Again, if you’re running on just a few hours of sleep because of a sick child—it’s okay to have an okay day of teaching. We’re human—be kind to yourself!
-Answer honestly, what percentage of class are you lecturing/talking versus students being directly engaged with the course material? Student engagement will rise with more use of active learning activities. Sometimes when it feels like the class dynamics are tense, taking charge/control feels like a way to turn things around, but actually that pedagogical strategy may backfire. Try giving students more responsibility. Ask a question and wait—for probably what feels like an excruciatingly long time—and students will start to talk.
-Is it time to do an impromptu evaluation by the class to gather (anonymously, of course) their perceptions of class dynamics, workload, etc.? As a few strategic questions and give them time to respond in writing. Some possible questions might be: What are they liking the most about recent classroom content and why? Liking the least and why? Is an upcoming assessment worrying them? If so, what is concerning? What’s the best thing about classroom dynamics and why? What’s the worst thing and why? Braver still, you could ask, “What is the one thing you wish I as the professor would stop doing and why? Would start doing and why?
-Bring in fresh eyes to help observe your class. Does your institution have a teaching and learning center? Does it do in-class pedagogical consultations? Or does your department or college have pedagogical mentors you could ask to do a classroom visit? Or if none of those resources are available to you, do you have a colleague you trust and feel is a strong teacher and observer who you could ask?
Typically, an in-class teaching observation typically happens in 5 steps.
Step 1: You and the observer meet to talk. Bring your syllabus with you, highlighting events to be observed. I suggest that you bring a copy of readings that are being covered (or send them to the observer once you both select a date for the observation. The observer will ask you to talk about how you feel the class is going and in this case, why you are feeling troubled about the classroom interactions. The goal of this meeting is to communicate effectively your worries so that the observer can give you feedback on them. Will he or she use a rubric already constructed? If so, ask to see it and talk about any concerns you might have about it. Be sure to talk about how to explain the observer’s presence in class—will you introduce the person or not? Say why the observer is there or not? Ask about if the observer things you should tell the class in advance of the day of the observation about the visit. Will the observer want time to talk with the students? You need to know this in order to shorten your activities for the class, for instance. The more specific you are in this step about your concerns, the better the outcome of the observation will be. And remember, the observation is to help you, so make sure you are comfortable during this pre-observation step.
Step 2: The observation. Try your best to have a “normal” classroom experience that day. Don’t try to be “different” or do different pedagogical strategies than you would normally.
Step 3: The observer will spend time thinking about the classroom visit, the issues you asked for specific feedback, and will write up a summary of observations and possible recommendations. Often this is sent to you as a written report for you to “digest” in advance of Step 4.
Step 4: You both meet again to discuss the report of the observer and the recommendations. If the report was sent to you in advance, be sure you have enough time to process it intellectually as well as emotionally before the meeting is scheduled. If you don’t see the report until the meeting, ask for enough time to read it thoroughly before continuing onto the pedagogical conversation.
Step 5: Begin to implement new pedagogical and classroom management strategies if they were recommended. Ideally, your observer will reach out to you in two or three weeks just to check how things are going. But remember, you can always contact them, too!
Note: if you are teaching online, Step 2 will likely change some. Usually the observer asks you to “admit” them to the class for a week or so. The observer should have all the access to assessments, discussion posts, readings, syllabus, etc., that your students have.
So if you are feeling that something’s “off” about how a class is going, and it seems deeper than “midterm week” or that you have a bad cold and have lower energy, etc., you have strategies to help you figure out what might be happening and how to make it better. You are not alone.
[Posted early because we are moving to our newly built home on Wednesday and won’t have Internet for few more days after that.]
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