Crash and Burn

Your course plan looked great on paper. It passed departmental faculty review. Perhaps it even integrated some progressive pedagogical experimentations. In sum, the class held real promise.

But when it got to the classroom, your first-run of the course was received with far less enthusiasm than you anticipated. Really, it crashed and burned. You begin to doubt yourself, and your ability to “read” your students, and your skills at adapting to your students’ group dynamics, strengths, and weaknesses. After all, you thought you designed such a great class. How could it have failed to on its first test run? Should it be scrapped altogether?

To a certain degree, teaching the pilot semester of any class is a lot like piloting an airplane. Both involve patience and practice. Except in the event of an egregious catastrophe, a class should not necessarily be considered an outright failure after only one lackluster run. After all, both piloting experiences involve uncontrollable variables that impact the smoothness of their ascents, descents, and the ride in between. Perhaps the best thing that we can do as educators is learn to discern what we can and cannot control, and cut ourselves some slack where we deserve it – and our promising newly designed course does, too.

It’s All About Class Chemistry

Some students are naturally enthusiastic about course material, and are innately talkative and engaged. Others either hide their enthusiasm well, or lack it altogether. You can try to limit overly talkative students’ contributions to create a space for others to join the conversation. (One of my former colleagues gave each student a certain number of M&Ms candies at the start of class. Every time a student spoke, they were allowed to eat one piece of candy. When a student’s candies were gone, they no longer could make comments in class. This enabled other students the opportunity to get a word in edgewise.) You can call on quiet students, or offer them caffeinated treats for that extra jolt. Or ask the class to work in groups to encourage small-group interaction and make shy students more comfortable with their peers. Sometimes, pausing for a few moments of silence to allow students the time to brainstorm and write their ideas on paper before a discussion allows them the chance to gather their thoughts. (Some students are introverted. Just because they are not talking does not mean that they are not thinking – or interested.) Review sessions often are more lively when the material is presented as a Jeopardy-style review game ( or a game of Bingo ( Add the possibility of getting a point or two of extra credit, and students may just start preparing for the gamified review sessions in advance. Indeed, we go to great lengths as professors to bring students out of their “shells” to conjure engagement when it might be lacking.

But we only can do so much to make your students talk and actively engage. Some combinations of students naturally make for a robust pilot-class reception than others. You will not transform personalities, and make a classroom full of introverts into the gregarious, engaged students of your dreams – or teach a room full of loud and strongly opinionated students to tone it down. Some classroom dynamics are simply beyond your control.

Fortunately, what may fail pedagogically with one group may really resonate with a different combination of students the very next term. On the next run of your “crashed” pilot, the very same content presented to different students will be received anew. Perhaps the course will be received very favorably on its second run? It’s very possible, and worth another try. After all, we work very hard on developing new courses and are always designing creative ways to teach them. One less-than-enthusiastic reception is not enough to give up flying altogether. The weather changes by the moment, making some flights less bumpy than others.

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