What do you do when a course goes wrong?

      6 Comments on What do you do when a course goes wrong?

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.

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6 thoughts on “What do you do when a course goes wrong?

  1. Adam Chapnick

    I’m curious as to whether you met personally with as many students as would meet with you and asked them individually what was going on in the class. This strategy isn’t perfect, but speaking to students individually gives them an equal voice and typically allows them to say things they wouldn’t otherwise. If the situation was as bad as you are suggesting, I might even go so far as to hold those meetings during class (i.e., replace one day of class with a series of 5 minute meetings with each student willing to show up).

  2. Michele Vindum

    How brave of you to openly ask these questions. I have not specifically been in your situation and I speak only through my running of groups and the odd public presentation. Most of my work has been within families.

    I wonder if speaking openly to the students as problems emerged; bringing the elephant into the room, might have been an opportunity to discuss the challenges, learn student hopes and expectations and have them be part of the solution. Of course, the premise is that the students indeed do want to genuinely learn the material. I have seen classes where the students have poor motivation and low interest but, are driven for some other reason to attend. Students ultimately are responsible for their own learning. Yours is to set the learning context and content. In my experience, if change in a difficult situation is possible, it only occurs through a compassionate, gentle, listening approach. And it has to go both ways. I’d recommend collaboration. Best wishes to you.

    I greatly appreciate your posts, bye the bye.

  3. Laura Carter

    Such a brave post – thank you. Looking forward to seeing supportive responses.

  4. tinaloo1124

    Thanks for sharing your experience Andrew. One way to deal I’ve tried to deal with the same situation is to name it; i.e. to just stop whatever I had planned and say to the students, ‘this doesn’t seem to be working, does it? Can we talk about why?’ I recognize that (a) this is a solution that comes with some risk to instructors, and is really only available to those who have some sort of authority (cis-men and older women who have some authority); (b) it might result in the same kind of silences you describe; and (c) it has to come at a certain point in the term when there’s still enough time to make a difference. With regard to the latter, lots of my colleagues (including me), do some sort of midterm, informal, anonymous evaluation to get a sense of students’ concerns. Maybe something like that could be worked into the “this doesn’t seem to be working, does it?” conversation. Anyway…thanks again for raising this: I’ll look forward to what others have to say.

  5. George Buri

    I think a large part of the problem is the pedagogy of “outcome based learning” that is being promoted both in public schools and Universities as part of a broader trend toward neoliberalism in education. This philosophy which is concerned entirely with “learning outcomes” encourages us to think of education as a transactional relationship in terms of “Money in, knowledge out”. It’s therefore the teacher’s responsibility to meet the prescribed outcomes by the end of the course. If those outcomes are not met the course is a “failure” and fault must be assigned. IMO this is not how education works. Focus must be placed upon the process rather than the goal. The teacher can give the students every opportunity to learn and to get the most out of a class. They can deliver the best lesson or lecture possible. But this does not happen in a vacuum. No lecturer will be at their best if the people they are lecturing to have no interest in the subject. Rather the relationship goes both ways. Curiousity and inquisitiveness on the part of students propels the teacher to greater heights. Although the teacher can and should do their best to stimulate interest in the subject on the part of students, they cannot make the student care about what is being taught. Nor should they be held responsible for doing so. Any teacher who tries to take responsibility for their teaching AND for their students’ learning will run themselves into the ground. Furthermore, teachers who try to do this end up damaging students in the long term by setting the dangerous precedent that all the student needs to do is show up and that any “good” teacher will cater to them. Students learn that if they are not succeeding it must be the teacher’s fault. Student initiative is lost. The transactional model encourages students to see education as something they are “paying for” and therefore must be provided “to” them. Instead education should be seen as a relationship between the student and the teacher in which the teacher guides the student along a journey started by the student whose destination is not known, much less set in stone via a stated outcome. From this point of view our classes are not failures of successes, they are journeys that lead to different destinations each time. I try to focus on being the sort of teacher who can convince students to invest in taking the journey with me and try not to worry as much as I used to about whether they make the choice to do so or not.

  6. Adele Perry

    One of the problems with the range of strategies that go under the rubric of active-learning is that they are super dependent on the variables you identify here, namely class size and spatial configuration, which instructors often have very little control over. lecturing, on the other hand, can just go on and on. Thanks for the discussion!

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