By Andrew Nurse
What do you do when a course goes wrong? This is not a title but a question. One that I am asking, perhaps, while treading on thin ice.
There is a chance that a student of mine (perhaps even a student in the course that is on my mind) will read this and wonder if I am talking out of turn. I do feel bad about that and I have thought fairly long and hard before writing these words; I write them, though, because problems keep magnifying and I think this is worth broader discussion, especially as many of us are shifting our pedagogies in response to emerging literature about teaching and learning.
What I want to do with this post is report on that course without, I hope, calling anyone out or intimating that it is all the students fault. Inspired, in part, by Andrea Eidinger’s recent post in Unwritten Histories on rejection, I want to talk about what sometimes seems like another form of rejection: a course that goes off the rails. More exactly, I want to ask:
- Is this my fault?
- What could or should I have done about it?
If you have taught even a little while (as a TA, tutorial instructor, lecturer, running an extra help session, LTA, faculty member), I’m going to gamble that you know the deal. If you don’t … well … good for you and I hope you don’t discover it. Most of the faculty I chat with, however, have had that course that has not gone well. Usually, though, our discussion about failure focuses on an individual class that did not work as intended: the discussion exercise elicited little discussion, the brainstorming session where the class sat in silence, the two-minute written summary which illustrated that just about no one had gotten your key point.
I’m used to individual classes that don’t work, where students are not (for whatever reason) prepared, where I have designed a poor exercise, where my lecture is actually not as logically cohesive as it was in my head before I delivered it, or any one in a series of other problems that bedevil the normal run of in-class instruction.
What has me confused is when an entire course seems to fall apart. To be clear: this is not just a bad class or two or three, but rafts of badness running the full slate of the semester with only periodic moments of respite.
Am I exaggerating?
Yes, but I hope it is to a point.
Without talking out of turn, and without trying to find blame, let me give an example: I recently taught such a course. It started poorly. Enrollment was about half what I expected. I had designed a course with a specific pedagogy (a specific approach to teaching and learning) that was organized around having a certain number of bodies in class. Without the expected number of students, I needed to change the course organization on the fly (an ill omen!). Following that, attendance was not good. There are a range of reasons for this. I know students skip, but I also know that there are a range of legitimate reasons students miss class and this particular course seemed to be a perfect storm of reasons (family problems, mental health, illness, fleeting opportunities). Could there have been some disinterest there too? As the class progressed, attendance was trending badly.
Compounding these issues, I had a classroom that was just not right for my pedagogy. If the class size had been what I expected, the room would have worked just fine. But, with less than half the number, and a sizeable number of absences each day, the room started to become a farce. I had a small lecture hall with, some days, at best half a dozen students sitting in it. What is more, the seats and desks were attached the floor so the furnishings were the way they were and could not be reorganized to a different effect. There were problems with board space and the PowerPoint projector. The board was the screen so one could use either the project or the board but not both. Despite some sleuthing, there was no other space available. I felt it and so did the students.
Over time the course began to spin out of control. It became apparent that, despite being on campus, students were choosing not to attend. Still odder, students started skipping presentations and taking the loss in points; some presentations were – for lack of a better word – subpar. In other words, students started to under-perform and I don’t think this was just my expectations. Discussion exercises elicited no responses and, one day, no one – seriously and literally no one – had completed the assigned reading. It appeared that I had lost them.
I will come back to this subject in a future blog post.
For now, by way of conclusion, I want to ask the question: how should I have responded to this situation?
I will confess that a small part of me wants to say “it is not my fault. It is their – the students’ – fault. They have let me down!” But, that seems more than a bit off the mark, doesn’t it?
By the end of this course we did not meet our learning objectives; there was little progress in terms of competencies, knowledge, skills, and there was little way to salvage student engagement.
Let me be crystal clear: I am not blaming the students. I think the course went off the rails for a variety of reasons that occurred simultaneously (my perfect teaching storm). But, I could not get it back and I don’t feel good about that. What can I, should I, have done? What experiences have you had? How did you respond? I would love to hear from you.
Andrew Nurse is an associate professor in the Canadian Studies program at Mount Allison University.