Feed on

Maybe your class is scheduled mere hours before the freedom of Thanksgiving break.  Or maybe it’s a Friday afternoon right before a home football game and the sounds of the marching band drift through the windows.  Or maybe most of your students had a big exam in another class earlier this morning.

These distractions are not excuses for students to slack on their work, but even in our classes that are usually well-prepared, lively, and engaged, our students occasionally come to class inattentive or unprepared.  Especially if you are a TA or a guest lecturer in someone else’s classroom, you likely had no say in structuring the course optimally for student preparation and participation.

These tips can help you recover from those one-time situations when a normally energetic group of students falls short.  However, if your students are often unprepared or unwilling to participate, these quick fixes are no substitute for a thorough reconsideration of how you structure your course, conduct class daily, and reward work and participation.  (Contact the Kaneb Center for recommendations or to schedule a consultation.)


What can I do to salvage that class period?

  • If the problem is not already clear, try to understand why students are not engaging so that you can adapt your class accordingly. Your approach may differ if the students tried to read but genuinely did not understand the material, versus a situation in which they chose not to complete their work.
  • Give a mini-lecture if your students struggled to understand the material. A mini-lecture helps provide context, define the major points of a topic, and set up the class to begin more detailed analysis. Just be careful not to spend too much time talking yourself, or students will stop expecting to participate themselves.
  • Use an active learning activity such as think-pair-share or a mini class debate. These kinds of activities can 1) give students time to do a portion of the work, 2) help them articulate their answers or misunderstandings, 3) give shy students confidence to speak to the larger group, and 4) engage students by requiring them to take a position on the material.
  • Take a smaller bite of the material. Especially if your students have not done the work, you may still be able to teach the major points you want to cover by doing a close-reading, tackling a case study, or practicing with a concrete example problem.
  • Take a backup activity folder with you to every class. Keep on hand the materials for at least one activity that you can pull out at any point during the semester when a class just stops for whatever reason.  It might be a critical thinking activity, case study, or synthesis exercise.
  • But by no means do the work for the students.  Do not let one bad day of discussion or tutorial turn into a pattern by showing students it is okay to not do their work.


What can I do to avoid that situation altogether?

  • Plan ahead in the schedule. You know certain days will be more prone to distraction than others.  Take into account events at the university, the workload of other courses if many of your students are within the same major, and other assignments due in your own course.
  • Remember that it takes more effort to keep track of multiple assignments or readings. It’s easier for students to digest one 20-page reading than it is for them to keep track of four five-page readings.  In the same vein, do not expect students to complete a heavy reading load when they also have high-stakes exams or papers scheduled for the same day.
  • Reinvent the standby of showing a movie on the day an essay is due, but commit to using the film or clips for active learning.  Stop the film at key moments and ask students for their predictions or analysis. Give students a guided note-taking worksheet that will help them use the film in a subsequent assignment or discussion.
  • Make the work you assign important. Smart students will devote more time their most important work, so make homework required for students’ success in your course.  Tie readings concretely to assessments or structure the class so that students who have not read will be unable to participate or contribute effectively.


Additional Reading:

On designing meaningful assignments, see Walvoord, Barbara E., and Virginia Johnson Anderson. Effective Grading: A Tool for Learning and Assessment in College. 2 edition. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2009.

On conducting class and engaging students, see Bain, Ken. What the Best College Teachers Do. 1 edition. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2004.


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