August 4th, 2008

Worst Class Ever? Depends Who You Ask


“College teaching is the strangest of jobs. At the end of a class session, we may not know how it went, or we may think we know exactly how it went. Yet there remains the possibility to wildly misdiagnose the brainwave and heartbeat of that day’s class.” (p. 96)

This quote is from a new book, Teaching Nonmajors: Advice for Liberal Arts Professors by P. Sven Arvidson. The observation concludes Arvidson’s recounting of an experience he had as a graduate teaching assistant. The professor he was assisting had just finished a class session during which students peppered him with questions about the nature of “freedom.” The questions kept coming despite the prof’s hesitancy and difficulty with some of the questions.

After class the prof admitted to Arvidson that he thought the class was a “disaster,” “one of the worst” he had in a long time. Arvidson’s conclusion was exactly the opposite. He told the prof he considered it the best class of the entire semester.

The anecdote illustrates a couple of important points. When class sessions end, most teachers can tell you how it went. That is, they can tell you how they think it went. As this example illustrates, those conclusions may not always be shared by others who experienced the session, especially those who experienced it as learners. But I don’t think most teachers question their conclusions about the day. They know how they experienced the day and for many that’s enough. However, they weren’t the only ones who experienced the event. Even though the experiences of others don’t deny the legitimacy of the teacher’s feelings, those other experiences should build perspective around the teacher’s reaction.

The point is not to soothe teachers’ feeling about a day in class—as in, “see, it wasn’t as bad as you thought.” It could be just the opposite. A day the teacher feels went well may not have prompted much learning from the students’ perspectives. The point is that judgments about success, failure, or something in between are most accurate when they include knowledge of how that day in class was experienced by everyone in attendance.

Reference: Arvidson, E. S. Teaching Nonmajors: Advice for Liberal Arts Professors. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2008. For additional information about this book, see For an interview with the author about this book see:

—Maryellen Weimer