Lessons Learned When Classes Don’t Go As Planned

When things don’t go well in a class, it never generates good feelings. It takes courage to address the reasons why. What if the teacher discovers it’s her fault? It takes even more courage to explore with a colleague what happened and the most courage of all to share in print the tale of a class gone awry. I have a small but growing resource list of just such public disclosures—they attest to how much an instructor can learn by facing what happened and how much others can learn by reading these accounts. I have a new article to add to that collection.

It is especially disconcerting when you expect a class to go well and then it doesn’t. That’s what happened to Cheryl Albers, a sociology professor at Buffalo State College. The class in question was an upper-level honors social science seminar that Albers had volunteered to teach. “I spent months excitedly designing a course I believed would be both challenging and engaging for the most select students on campus.” (p. 270)

Her syllabus for the course is included in an appendix, and it looks like a course any of us would love to take or teach. She started the semester with 17 students. After the second week when the first graded essays were returned, two students dropped. By the third week Albers was concerned enough to initiate a discussion of how the course was going. “To my bewilderment a third of the class expressed dissatisfaction with the grounding of the class in student directed learning. They wanted a more teacher directed experience—clearly not the reaction I anticipated while I was enthusiastically designing the class.” (p. 270-271)

What Albers had planned for the course was “a classroom environment focused on knowledge creation rather than the transmission of information where students felt part of an intellectual community that balanced support and control.” (p. 270) More specifically, students wrote essays (that were graded) and wrote letters to classmates commenting on the essays of classmates (and those were graded). They participated in what Albers called “open-ended seminars” where students led the discussion and brought to it questions prepared in response to class material, as well as in research/writing groups, with each team determining the focus of their study and methods of analysis. Does any of this seem out of line for an upper-level honors seminar?

But the students continued to resist her approach. The article includes a variety of written comments provided by students. Albers sought to understand this response by using a variety of approaches, all explained in the article. Here’s what she concluded. First off, “I underestimated the power of normative student and teacher behaviors operating in the wider institutional context.” (p. 278) Students didn’t see this as an opportunity. Instead, they resented the need to comply with what looked to them like a set of idiosyncratic expectations. Students find great comfort in being able to predict what teachers will require them to do. “It is a lot of work and an inconvenience to students when what occurs in a single class is significantly out of step with the expectations encountered throughout the majority of the institution.” (p. 278)

Second, instead of being the most receptive to change, honors students may be the most resistant. “Honors students are granted that designation specifically because they are skilled at understanding and enacting/exploiting the institutional and normative student role.” (p. 278)

It would be easy to digress at this point into a discussion of bright students, honors programs, and self-directed learning. It does need to be pointed out that not all the students in Albers seminar resisted her approach. Some understood what she was trying to accomplish and valued the experience. But a significant portion did not. And from this experience Albers and the rest of us can learn.

Reference: Albers, C. (2009). Teaching: From disappointment to ecstasy. Teaching Sociology, 37 (July), 269-282.

Excerpted from “Learning from Classroom Experiences.” The Teaching Professor, 24.5 (2010): 3.