Talk About Teaching
by Larry W. Hunter
All of my students attend every session of class, from the first day of the semester to the last. All do every assigned reading in advance of class. Each is prepared to discuss the authors' perspectives, and to ask questions about aspects of the readings they could not understand or with which they disagreed. All of my students are wide-awake in class--bright-eyed and well rested at 9 a.m., or alert at 1:30 p.m. after a morning Accounting exam followed by lunch at Beijing. Most of my students are strongly interested in the subject matter. The few who find my course less central to their education are easily reached by a carefully prepared lecture or guided discussion.
Preposterous? Absurd? Yes, and yes. But I've often prepared for the semester, and for individual classes, as if the above description were true--or, more accurately, prepared for the small number for whom it was true, while finding myself disappointed by the others. Reflecting on my folly, looking at my students' true behavior and at the ways in which reality falls short of my ideal, has eased my preparation, allowed me to use time spent with students outside of class more efficiently, and helped me to teach more to all my students.
By the third week of any term, it seems, I'll have a roster with ten or twenty students who did not attend the first day of class. The elaborate framework I once presented in the first week, providing structure for the semester, was completely lost on the latecomers. Now I set up the first two weeks so that students joining the class late can catch up by spending extra time reading and reviewing notes, and so that little in the first two weeks of classes requires the integration of material from earlier sessions. (After that, we can't stall any longer.) I still use my beloved organizing structure; I just make sure that I explain it to the students who weren't there the first few days.
The students know, after the drop-add smoke clears, that "a scheduled class takes precedence over any other engagement." That doesn't mean they actually show up. Acknowledging this has made my life easier. Some hard-working students miss class occasionally, for example, because they travel to compete in sports. I've heard criticism of such priorities, but I hesitate to join in: Cliff Bayer and Brandon Slay are now in Sydney as part of the U.S. Olympic team--would they really be better off had they skipped their biggest meets so as not to miss a session or two of Management 104? Rather than plowing through the term, wishing there were no such thing as absences while scrambling to accommodate students in cases of religious observance or illness, I now expect that some students will miss some classes. For students who inform me in advance, I attempt to be ready with assignments and suggestions for preparation. I am less accommodating when students do not give me advance notice; here, my goal is simply to save myself work by making sure that handouts and logistical information are easily available (a course Web site is wonderful in this regard).
I have also begun to reflect more explicitly on what the day's lecture or discussion will offer both to students who have done the assigned reading and those who have not. Do I want undergraduate students to come to class if they haven't read the material? I've decided that I do (though my answer is different for a Ph.D. seminar). Students rarely have good reasons for failing to do the readings, but rarely isn't never (and I note that I don't always read the paper that is distributed before a visiting colleague's seminar, either, despite my best intentions). I want to recognize and encourage the students who prepare for class, and to demonstrate clearly the advantages to such preparation, but I also want to offer something to the student who hasn't done the reading for that day. I search for a mix of discussion questions and themes, some of which rely on careful reading, and some of which do not. Where the readings will help students make sense of what we're talking about, I let them know explicitly. I feared that this might annoy well-prepared students, but the opposite is true. More distinction between good and poor preparation has enabled me to recognize well-prepared students. Students like being recognized, and recognition in turn motivates preparation for the next class.
Students do fall asleep in class. This used to distract and disturb me: what was wrong with them, I thought? What was wrong with me? Should I emulate Mr. Johnson, our 6th grade math teacher, notorious for hurling chalk at napping 12 year olds? Reflection has eased my anxiety. Is my class so boring that a well-rested person might fall asleep in it? If so, I should fix it, with the idea that a boring class is unlikely to serve my teaching goals, not because I need to keep students awake. If class isn't boring, why should I care if someone turns up and then falls asleep? (Sheepishly I admit that this realization required consideration of my own habits as an undergraduate. I attended class almost compulsively; I was not, however, equally obsessed with staying awake once I got there).
Some students are simply not interested in the material. There is clearly something wrong with them, since I've chosen study of the same for my life's work. Nevertheless, with my required courses I spend time throughout the term offering my perspective on why the subject is required, why I've chosen the topics that I have, and how the subject and syllabus fit into the overall curriculum. Where students remain uninterested, I don't go overboard in selling them on the relevance of the subject. I'm not the one who required it (and no one required them to come here to study). Just acknowledging that not everyone may find the course equally compelling is helpful; students appreciate the nod. Electives are different: if students are uninterested, I'll suggest they look for another course.
At first this approach troubled me: "allowing" students to skip class, or to show up unprepared, or to reject the subject matter, didn't feel right. Why take time to teach people who don't appear to care enough to attend, to prepare carefully, or to take an interest in the course? I therefore cling tightly to the maintenance of performance standards: for example, participation in class discussions makes up about a quarter of the grade in my courses, so that there are clear costs to sleeping through classes, missing them, or failing to do advance reading. I assess participation seriously, and my students know it. And I still find that a class full of alert, fully prepared students is a joy, perhaps even more so because I don't expect it.
Conscious reflection on the ways in which my students really behave, though, has benefits. First, it has reduced my workload. One size doesn't fit all students, and many of them care enough, about their grades, if nothing else, that they still find ways to make me teach them. They do this, via e-mail or during office hours, whether or not they have been coming to class fully prepared. At that point, I can either refuse to help them or I can accommodate them, and I am not likely to refuse them entirely (it might be legitimate to refuse, but I just can't). Second, reflection helps me to make better sense of those crude assessment devices known as teaching ratings. I feel better knowing that I've thought more thoroughly about the different perspectives from which my assessors might be coming (a more dubious benefit is the corresponding ease in rationalizing those low marks). Finally, I think all of my students--the diligent and the rest --have begun to learn more since I faced reality.
Dr. Hunter is assistant professor of management at the Wharton School and the recipient of numerous teaching awards.
His essay continues the Talk About Teaching Series into its seventh year as the joint creation of the
College of Arts and Sciences and the Lindback Society for Distinguished Teaching.
Almanac, Vol. 47, No. 4, September 19, 2000