When Things Don’t Go The Way You Plan….Have a Plan B

True Confessions Time…..

image from: www.investedcentral.com

Sometimes the great ideas and innovations we develop for our students don’t go according to plan.

I tried the “Learning By Answering Questions” in one of my intro Biology sessions, described in one of my previous posts, complete with tickets handed out and used to answer a question; it went quite well in the first class. All but three students answered questions (I know this because they turned in their tickets to me at the end of class, unused). It was a very interesting study in human behavior. The students who always participate of course couldn’t resist and used their tickets right away. They also made comments and asked additional questions after others used their tickets. It made for a lively first 20 minutes or so. Then, longer pauses developed as the more reticent students waited, hoping someone else would volunteer….then realized they were “it.” For those last three questions, no one answered. I couldn’t coax the remaining students (save for calling on them by name, which I really didn’t feel was the right approach with these shy students). So, we worked on those last three together. All in all, not bad.

So, I tried the format again in my other class,  a larger class where fewer of the students volunteer to answer questions or participate actively. I was pretty nervous about trying this approach with this group of students, so right before class I quickly jotted down a possible time-filler or Plan B just in case.

All kinds of things went wrong. The projector wasn’t working, so I couldn’t even show the slides I had worked so hard on. I tried to recreate the questions (many of which were data sets and figures to interpret) on the board. I drew some pretty horrific diagrams on the board: a US map that looked like one of those fairly shapeless cheap animal crackers, two graphs of a comparison of US population growth and US energy consumption that had the general shape, but lacked the detail that color-coding can provide. For some, I wrote lists rather than tried to draw. More students participated than usual, which was promising. But many just sat there, refusing to utter a word. Just stared. One’s contribution was to point out that I had misspelled something on the board. I segued a bit awkwardly to a sweeping integrative summary, my Plan B.

I asked if there were any questions. One student raised her hand languidly, her head resting on her other hand as though she’d just awakened from a mid-class nap, “Do we need to know this for the quiz?”

It was one of the longest class sessions I can remember.

At the end of class, one student approached me and said that she had never before seen how everything we’d been discussing relates to evolution. She really enjoyed that sweeping integrative summary. Three points for the quick little Plan B I had scribbled on a sheet of paper just before class.

What went wrong? Was it the technological problems with the slides? I really don’t think so. Maybe it was my behavior (I was pretty shaken by the problems with the projector). Again, I don’t think that was the biggest problem. It was that the class as a whole didn’t like that class format. They didn’t buy into it.

Teaching a class is a group enterprise. The students are equal partners in creating a successful class. If your students don’t buy into your ideas, they won’t work.

I’ve read so many blogs and pedagogy publications about the importance of getting students to be active participants in class. How to teach through student-driven inquiry, or through group work, or through independent investigations. These great ideas seem to just assume that, “If we build it, they will come.” What’s missing is a frank discussion of the need for your students to cooperate, to put forth the effort. And, let’s be honest, not all students want to learn from their peers. Not all students put forth the effort to prepare for every single class session. In fact, I’ve found, even here at an elite liberal arts college, that the majority of the students in the majority of my classes are trying to get by with minimal effort most of the time, particularly as the semester’s work load gets tougher. The best students of course put in the effort. Most of the time, there are the one or two who actively participate and on whom you can rely to answer questions or take the lead on a group assignment.

And there are those incredible, magical classes where everyone contributes to a supportive and rewarding group community. These are the experiences that find their way into the pedagogy literature. The outliers.

The rest…..they are actively practicing their “BS” skills. I can say from my own college days, that you can get pretty good at this. And, hey, those are valuable skills in the workplace.

I still use them today.