It's not about bad students, it's about bad professors

From Slashdot today,

I'm working at a major university in the US, and have been charged with posting pod-casts of class lectures on the internet. The problem is whether or not posting the videos would allow students to skip class and just download the lecture, instead. I guess the problem is trying to strike the right balance between allowing good students to take advantage of this resource, but discourage bad students from staying at home all the time and watching all the lectures right before the exam.

Well, if the professor only lectures and does not invite any interaction from students, why would this make a student bad because they don't attend class and decide to watch or listen to the podcast at home??? I had and did not attend a few of these classes in college. Notes from another student were enough, particularly when the lecturer only worked from the book and did not provide any additional information on the topic beyond what could be read on one's own.

So I have to agree with a student who posted an insightful comment to the discussion of this post:

As a college student, I can only inform you about the conditions at my university, and in the classes I've taken. Also, IANAS (I am not a statistician) but I can say that a high percentage of the professors I've had, and the professors my friends have had, don't ask questions, or encourage any interaction from the audience at all. In fact, many I have frown upon it.

In stadium classes, for example, interaction has been deemed impractical. Most professors simply lecture, and people with questions are forced to wait until afterwards and scramble for the few moments the professor is cleaning up, or attempt to make office hours, which consist of a small hour or two hour window that usually falls during one of your other classes. In a class like this, what's the difference if the students are there or not? If they have questions, they just try to make office hours anyway.

In these large lectures it's not necessarily the professors who are bad, as the title of my post may suggest. This is an institutional practice problem. But there are many smaller classes, as the student suggests later in his comment, that are also the same format of the stadium class: no interaction. In these cases, I fault the professor. If you teach from the same PowerPoint each semester and don't involve students, it's an obvious problem with your teaching style if students don't want to come to class. Do your students a favor. Make your class sessions available as podcasts and don't complain when they don't attend.

I personally never formally prepare a lecture for my classes. PowerPoints don't work for me. I typically think about the session prior to class and might prepare an outline of sorts to make sure I don't forget to at least broach important subjects. Sometimes I make mental notes when reading their blogs prior to class to hit on particular issues which seem to be important to them or which they seem to be having difficulty writing about. But typically it's very off the cuff, tuned not only to questions from students and discussion among students, but their reactions (via facial cues and other indicators). If students seem engaged, I go deeper and spend more time (if possible). If they all have that glazed look in their eyes, I spend less time and move onto something else.

I think we could learn a lot if we did more to share our strategies for the "not" lecture. Anyone else want to comment on their teaching style?


The latest class for my graduate degree began last week. The professor began the class with a discussion of his thoughts. He explained that he brought quite a bit of knowledge about a particular time period in the larger history we would be discussing, but invited others to please speak up if they could contribute. That's right, the professor explained that he wanted this to be a graduate seminar with an emphasis on class participation. There would only be two assignments; papers that we would write and share with the group. Every learners dream...or at least mine. A chance to share and learn together by drawing from the information collective.

After class, two of the other students walked out into the hall and began complaining (rather loudly) to a friend that "the other students never shut up - they just kept talking and saying things back to the professor." So, in some cases, it is bad students. You can lead the students to a seminar...

Podcasts of the sort described sound like the new lecture notes. I remember econ 101 where I would buy lecture notes, rather than take my own notes, because then I could "listen" more attenatively and supposedly process what was being said rather than just scribble furiously. Didn't quite work out that way as I tended to miss the class more often and rely on the notes. This was a stadium type class, maybe 600 students. However, we also had twice weekly class sessions with graduate assistants where we did engage in discussion. True, I never talked to the prof, but we did get to talk about the issues at hand in these larger classes. Isn't this the norm for the large lecture classes?

Thankfully, teaching at a community college, we don't do these large lecture classes, which is what makes a two-year school an attractive option for the first two years of the undergrad experience. I 'm not up there blah-blah-blahing all the time, students get to talk to me and each other. I have to bring my expertise to the classroom as well, otherwise it's in danger of being a student gab-fest. Still, I wish students would talk more, but such is life.

To get back to the podcasts, I have to admit to seeing little value to them as part of my teaching. Yes, I lecture, but not the whole time, except when I get carried away in lit classes or when we have some boring crud to cover in a comp class that I want to be sure they are exposed to, but even then I do what I can to work in some exercise to reinforce an idea or to build on the troubles students are having with an assignment, making students into guinea pigs, or maybe case studies. Most of the lecture stuff isn't on any test anyway, particularly in comp classes, though students do occasionally quote me in their essays. If something is "test worthy" in a class lecture, usually some core concept, I tell students as much, though more to emphasize that this is an important bit of info when it comes to the material than anything else.

Like Charlie, I don't do formal lectures, but work from outlines, hating when I have to resort to reading something I've written or pulled from some source, but I admit to doing that on occasion, a couple of times a term maybe. When I do lecture, I try to bring in points students have touched on in their blogs, and then I usually end up with students in small groups to touch on some particular issue they or I have identified, then we report back and discuss the items in as much detail as I can pull from them. Yes, some students tend to dominate, but all I have to do is say, "thanks for the offer joe, but let's hear from sally this time because she wrote blah-blah in her blog and I think that's really interesting . . ." or some such thing.

bradley ||

To get back to the podcasts, I have to admit to seeing little value to them as part of my teaching.

That's a great point about podcasts. I know a lot of people in our field are interested in them, but I haven't been. Exactly what is the value if a class is highly interactive? I can see them being more useful in my distance education teaching, but not in my f2f classes.

Now that I think about it, before I would want to offer one of those large stadium classes where attendance is required, I'd rather turn it into a online class with some podcasts and discussion online among students.

Charlie | cyberdash

As the post and previous comments indicate, the real problem is not podcasting, rather outmoded teaching styles. Most of us in Composition have long since made the shift from the stand-and-deliver mode of teaching; we've embraced the student-centered classroom and have tended to emphasize process (driven that way in some measure by the territoriality of English faculty who want "content" for themselves). Harkening to Bloom's taxonomy and research on cognition, we've restructured our classes to engage students in a range of activities, singly and individually. Those of us with access to technology have pushed those activities beyond what's conventionally thought of as writing instruction.

We're not alone. In the sciences over the last decade, there have been initiatives to shift from Friere's banking form to a more systems-oriented approach. Take, for example, the work of analytical chemist David Gosser at City College of New York with Peer-Led Team Learning, or of atmospheric physicist Catherine Gautier at University of California, Santa Barbara. Gautier incorporates reading and writing in her freshman seminar, "What's Up with Global Climate Change?" and has students engage in an environmental summit in her Geography 135 course. A diverse group of faculty from Earth system science with whom I've worked has, for the last 15 years under the NASA-sponsored ESSE program, sought innovative ways of teaching by incorporating technology, fieldwork, and community-based activities meant to attract students who would not normally enter what is known inside the Beltway as the STEM pipeline (science, technology, engineering, mathematics).

In any field, some common factors that distinguish "new school" from "old school" would seem to be (a by no means comprehensive list):

  • mixing up class activities to appeal to students with different learning styles (visual, aural, hands-on, etc.)
  • thinking about learning outcomes and figuring out how to move students toward them
  • asking students to lead (group projects, individual presentations, mini-lessons)
  • conceiving the semester holistically, so that students build on skills and reflect on their learning as they go
  • employing technology where possible to amplify and complexify student involvement
  • engaging students in real world problem solving

After class, two of the other students walked out into the hall and began complaining (rather loudly) to a friend that "the other students never shut up - they just kept talking and saying things back to the professor." So, in some cases, it is bad students. You can lead the students to a seminar...

I think one of those students must've been me. :-)

Gee whiz, I reckon I've been in about 30 different seminar classes over the years, and every last one of them sucked like a Dyson. It was always the same. Two or three lame motormouths who just wouldn't stop dispensing their insights all over my face, and everybody else either pissed off about it or god-awful glad since they didn't read so much as a paragraph. Total waste of time. Would've learned more watching Maury. I just read the material and earned good grades on the papers. About the only time I got a chance to speak was when the prof asked me (in private) why I didn't speak up in class more. Just shy I guess. Sir.

And yeah, I know that it's probably my fault for not just forcing myself into those discussions and blasting everyone there with my half-baked opinions. Yeah...And it's a homeless person's fault for not "WORKING." Sigh.

Check out Barton's gaming blog at Armchair Arcade.

Geez, I reckon I've been in about 30 different seminar classes over the years, and every last one of them sucked. It was always the same. Two or three motormouths who just wouldn't shut up, and everybody else either pissed off about it or glad since they didn't read anyway.

So how does the instructor, as a good facilitator of class discussion in this type of scenario, make it work so that more students are involved? I know I've had to shut students down who have overmonopolized class conversation. But that seems pretty rare. It's more the case that it's hard to get some people talking initially.

Charlie | cyberdash

I don't think it is possible. About the only thing you can do is pray that the motormouths will be absent for at least a few classes so that everyone else can participate.

I guess a prof could offer the Alpha Mouth students a steaming hot cup of STFU, but that would probably just make everyone even more uncomfortable.

I knew one prof that would split his discussions into F2F and online discussions (we were in a lab). This seemed to work well, though the loudmouths would always complain savagely when they could no longer dominate. I, on the other hand, always rocked during the chats. ;-) I'm pretty sure the motormouths ended up giving the prof bad reviews or at least criticized him for taking away some of their limelight. Geez, like that's their fifty minutes of fame or whatever (oh, God, please deliver unto me a lump of paraffin.)

What I try to do in my classes is have each student make a presentation. This at least gives him or her a chance to speak up without fear of being interrupted. I've noticed that after their presentation is over, they tend to participate more than before.

One thing you should NEVER do is go around the room making every student introduce him or herself. The same goes for singling out shy students and asking them questions and the like (or the terrible "Well, Matt, we haven't heard from you tonight..." approach). This is embarrassing and absolutely traumatizing for shy people. You shouldn't try to force a shy person to speak up. You can only make sure the person has plenty of opportunities and try to make the situation as non-threatening and non-intimidating as possible.

Check out Barton's gaming blog at Armchair Arcade.

I think one thing that gets confused is that Friere here was criticizing what he (?) called the banking method, wasn't he? I don't think he was any proponent of the "sage on the stage and the fool on the stool" model. Or am I confusing him with Giroux?

bradley ||

Yes, Freire argued against banking--that is, "depositing" information in a student and then "withdrawing" it at a later date for a test or paper. He envisioned a more reciprocal and dynamic relationship between teachers and students.

As for facilitating discussions, I'm not sure I agree with Plat Matt about not calling on students or having them introduce themselves. I was one of those shy people who got heart palpitations and stuttered if I had to speak in class; on the other hand, it obviously didn't kill me to get called on, and it wasn't so traumatic that I have any particular negative memories of instructors who used that technique.

Teaching introductory composition to engineering students, I've found that having them do written reading responses--totally informal, in which they can riff on anything about the reading--helps equilibrate discussions, since everyone (or nearly everyone) has at least one thing he or she would like to say. A couple times, with students who have tended to dominate discussions, I've taken them aside to suggest that while they have plenty of good things to say, I want to hear what some of the other students think, so if I don't call on them [the talkative ones], it's not because I don't want to hear them, but because I'm trying to encourage the others. That approach has generally worked.