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
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
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.