There's always a course students don't want to take. Most likely it's a required course, maybe a general education option, probably dealing with content students are convinced they don't like (even though their exposure to it may be minimal) and requiring skills they're certain they can't develop. These can be difficult courses to teach. How these courses get launched plays an important role in determining the direction they take for the rest of the semester. Here's a rundown of some of the challenges and some potential responses that are more effective at the outset than later on.
It's a big course with students coming from a range of disciplines. Most don't know many or any others in the course.
Students are convinced the course content is of no interest to them.
- On the first day of class, do some meet-and-greet activities. Have the students stand up and introduce themselves to those nearby. Circle around the room introducing yourself. Conclude by asking, or gently pressuring, randomly selected students to introduce someone they met during these exchanges.
- Early on, use some short activities to get students working with two or three others.
- Share some things about yourself, and when you talk with a student, take time for a bit of small talk.
- Students tend to sit in the same seats every class. Give them a couple of minutes at the beginning of class to chat with those around them. Give a bonus point to any student who can name four people sitting nearby.
Students are anxious. Can they learn this material? Can they do well in this course? Will the course show them and everybody else how stupid they are?
- Show them they're wrong. Identify some aspect of the course content that is relevant to students. Provide examples of what knowing the content can do for them.
- Focus on the skills this content can be used to develop. “Learning this content will teach you how to ask better questions” or “You won't be analyzing evidence the same way after this course.”
- Shamelessly show how much the content interests you, how hopelessly in love you are with it.
Despite policies in the syllabus and your strongly worded statements about coming to class prepared, some students are going to come to class unprepared to see what happens. If nothing does, then prep before class isn't a prerequisite, is it?
- Design early encounters with the content that are challenging but doable. Give students a taste of success early in the course.
- Avoid messages about how easy the content is because if you do that and students struggle, they won't want to ask for help because it's supposed to be easy and they must be stupid because they can't figure it out.
- Avoid messages about how hard the content is, how much effort it will take to master, or how many students don't make it. That message sends anxiety levels through the roof and convinces some students there's really no point in trying.
- Identify study strategies and approaches other students found to have worked with this content.
Many students tend to be passive in courses they don't want to take. They like to hunker down, hide out, and have the education done unto them.
- Quizzes work to ensure preparedness, perhaps used daily in the beginning of the course and then less often.
- Use the assigned readings or homework problems in class. Have students find things in their texts. Point out sections with descriptions so good you don't have to take time to repeat them. Include a homework problem on the quiz.
- Challenge students to come to class prepared to see if that makes understanding what's presented in class easier.
- Conduct class assuming those present are prepared. Don't offer summaries of the reading or do the homework problems. Answer questions that come up, but remember that students are the ones who should be doing the work necessary to solve the problems.
- Be in the classroom space, both before class and during it. Talk directly to individual students, before class and during it.
- Use activities that engage students, ones that get them talking to each other and working on course content collaboratively.
- Play with questions, leaving some unanswered during class and between class sessions. “There was a question we didn't answer last question. I had you write it in your notes and asked you to think about it. Let's start with that.”
You want to be realistic about these courses—about any course, really. Your job is teaching; students are responsible for learning and there's no way you can do their job for them. At some point, your responsibility ends and it's up to them. But you don't want to end before you've done your very best to make learning the outcome of the time spent in your course.