ASEE Prism Magazine  - November 2002
The ABCs of Engineering
All Things Great and Small
Hard Act to Follow
On Politics
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- By Phillip Wankat and Frank Oreovicz    

Some mornings you would be better off staying in bed, but learning how to get through those bad times makes for a better teaching and learning experience.

Students have bad days for all kinds of reasons. They might have had a fight with a roommate or just broken up with a boyfriend or girlfriend. They are also unlikely to perform at their best after a big test—either in your class or someone else's. We all know how draining a physically or psychologically bad day can be, but pedagogically difficult days can be just as problematic. So how do you cope when you or your students are having one of those days?

First, control what you can. If you know ahead of time that you're not up for lecturing—for instance, you have a root canal scheduled two hours before class—either arrange for a substitute or plan something other than lecturing, like a group exercise that will take the full period.

Plan ahead for the pedagogically difficult days. Determine alternative approaches to explaining difficult material—role playing, modeling and simulations, and demonsrations. Be honest: Acknowledge to the students that the material is difficult, but encourage them to persist. If the lecture ends up being boring, stop talking and turn the learning over to the class.

Don't make your problem their problem. If you have a headache or hay fever, take some medicine. If you're feeling tense or anxious, talk to a friend. When you get to class, try plowing through your lecture. Sometimes simply going through the motions will get you over the hump. The adrenalin rush you get from pressing ahead may make you feel better. If you're comfortable with sharing, talk about the problem with the class. "I just returned on a 14-hour flight from Korea and the jet lag is killing me. I'll do the best I can, but would appreciate your help."

If lecturing isn't working, pull some learning tricks that don't require much preparation out of your hat. Do a one-minute quiz focusing on the material's muddiest points or ask the class to generate questions. Always have some dyad and triad problem-solving exercises on hand, since they usually require little input from you while the class works on them. If one is available, show an appropriate video or movie. Or even stop early. This is fine, particularly if you often run over.

Avoid scheduling tests, oral reports, or other grueling exercises during a heavy exam week or around vacation time. If students are clearly having a hard day, try asking them to grit their teeth and keep going. Recognize when most of the class is burned out, and suggest: "Let's go through this material without interruption and then I will let you go early." The occasional bad day is inevitable, but as professionals, we can learn how to muddle through them.


Phillip Wankat is head of interdisciplinary engineering and the Clifton L. Lovell Distinguished Professor of chemical engineering at Purdue University.
Frank Oreovicz is an education communications specialist at Purdue's chemical engineering school. They can be reached by e-mail at

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