Symptoms of a Class Headed South

We wrote in an earlier chapter of Learning 102 about how poorly we often perceive our own work in classes—we and our students go through ups and downs, convinced one day that we are masters of the universe, and perfectly convinced on other days that, if we get out right now, there still may be something else in life for us to do.

What we would like to do is take you away from this mode of manic-depression, this catastrophic good and bad thinking, in which the world is either terrible or wonderful based essentially on feelings or on the success or lack thereof of a specific class meeting.  Instead, we want to help you to become good, rational diagnosticians of your own classrooms.  Below is a list of symptoms that need to be taken seriously.  Before you read this, don’t worry—remember that we believe that practically any class-gone-bad can be salvaged by both professors and students.  We’ll deal with solutions soon, but we first want you to get a sense of what to watch for.

Symptom 1:  Disengagement

The majority of the students are clearly not engaged in what is happening in the classroom.  A few students may be sleeping or on the verge.  The class lacks a spark, a sense among students and the professor that “that was a great class.”  The symptoms of a lack of engagement might be that you find yourself in significant competition with smart phones and computer screens.  A number of students in the class might be holding quiet (or not so quiet) conversations during your lectures or when others are speaking that demonstrate their interest is elsewhere.  Not more than a predictable core group of students are talking; as a rule of thumb, you would like to see about one half of the students in the class participating voluntarily on a regular basis.

Symptom 2:  Attrition

Students drop early or in a slow trickle during the semester. While the former can denote a basic misunderstanding of what the class was to be about, more commonly early drops are a judgment on the students’ desire to commit to a professor and a subject matter.  Significant attrition clearly should be seen as a problem symptom—it is something that David and I have looked for as program directors or as department chairs, and it usually is a call for intervention before things get ugly.  During tight enrollment times, attrition should be seen as an alarming sign.

Symptom 3:  Absences and Tardiness

Attendance problems and tardiness problems are often not only symptoms of a lack of student engagement with the subject matter, but can point to an atmosphere established in which students believe that absenteeism and tardiness are acceptable behaviors.  Of more concern is what we call a ballet of non-attendance—not difficulties with a few students, but different students not attending from class to class, almost as if students are choreographing tardiness and absences.  When this is happening, students may be sending the signal that either what is happening in class is not to be taken seriously, or that they have no hope of understanding the material.  A pattern of tardiness by many members of the class can attest to student schedules, but more likely this behavior is a sign of the lack of a respectful relationship between students and professor.

Symptom 4:  “Alone, Together”

The class has not established a sense of community.  Students clearly do not know each other and seem in no hurry to interact.  Students do not know even each other’s names, or the professor has not learned the students’ names.  Why is this a problem? Unless we are natural salespeople, name learning is a process that takes place through interaction and engagement.  If you do not know someone’s name, chances are you do not really want to know it.  (Of course, if you are Daniel’s brother-in-law who really does want to learn names but ends up calling everyone “buddy,” then we might have a different problem.)  A class that has built community shows enthusiasm when asked to engage in small group assignments or when it responds to student presentations.

Symptom 5:  “I Sense Tension”

One of our favorite memories from Star Trek, the Next Generation was the empathic Lt. Troy’s task of sitting on the bridge and uttering this remark whenever Romulans were blasting the ship to smithereens.  Students may not be doing well with the other students in the class.  There may be tension between students, or a history of inappropriate statements made.  This is a management issue for the professor, who is looked at by students as the person responsible for setting and maintaining a responsible tone in the classroom.  It may also indicate that students are reflecting a professor’s attitude that not all students in the class are worthy of respect.

Symptom 6:  Poor Grades

As a group, students are not performing well on assessments (tests, papers, and projects).  Contrary to some professors’ views, this is not necessarily a sign of rigor.  This can be a sign that the class is being pitched well above the level of the students’ capabilities, or that the assessments themselves are not clearly written and explained.

Symptom 7:  Lack of Respect

An open lack of respect towards the professor is a serious warning signal.  Even if the behavior is limited to one student who does not reflect the greater attitude of the class, this situation can become viral—it can hijack the tone for the class.  More than one student acting in this manner usually denotes a passive-aggressive attitude that is masking more serious problems of authority, credibility, and student frustration.

Symptom 8:  The “Temperature” of the Room

How do you feel when you walk into the room? A professor’s attitude towards his or her class may negatively change as the semester goes on.  Sometimes this is easier to hear in others than in yourself.  You may not have the enthusiasm for the class you hoped you would have; you may be looking forward to the class coming to an end.  Your stress may increase before the class is scheduled to meet.

Symptom 9:  Disruption

Students can become disruptive in class.  We usually think of this as unhappy or discourteous behavior, but disruptive students can be happy or angry.  Whichever is the case, students are no longer connecting to the class, and the behavior masks deeper problems about how worthwhile the students believe the class really is.

Symptom 10:  The Worst-Case Scenario

Students might actually tell the professor that the class is not working.  The instances of students getting up the nerve to do this are rare.  David tells a story of a professor who had taken over a class at mid-term and of a student sitting in the front row who, at the beginning of a class period, leaned forward and whispered, “Professor, you need to know that everyone in here hates you right now.”


Copyright ©2013 The Student Caring Project. All rights reserved. Unless otherwise indicated, all materials on these pages are copyrighted by Dr. Daniel de Roulet and Prof. David Pecoraro, C0-Founders of The Student Caring Project. All rights reserved. No part of these pages, either text or image may be used for any purpose other than personal use. Therefore, reproduction, modification, storage in a retrieval system or retransmission, in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical or otherwise, for reasons other than personal use, is strictly prohibited without prior written permission.


Daniel and David discuss this topic.


We recorded this podcast on Friday, November 1, 2013

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Via LinkedIn: Alexandra Barcus, Ph.D.

Educator and Academic Administrator, Humanities and Sciences

David, I believe that many of the problems you describe could be handled by a teacher with a bit of self-confidence, a modicum of empathy, and an outgoing personality. Things should never have to progress to the point where students won’t interact, they should know each others names because you address them that way every time you speak to them. Knowing names can also allow a teacher to play devil’s advocate and find someone just bursting to tell him he is a dodo. Don’t wait for the kids with bad grades to leave the building. Nab them at the end of class, and suggest a sit-down conversation. If you approach the situation with an open mind rather than hostility, the student will likely respond to your interest rather than you belittling him or her. Time does nor permit of other observations, but it troubles me that personality is not a factor in choosing most teachers, evidently. It matters so much.
I think what you have been doing with the Student Caring Project is magnificent, and look forward to its emergence as a finished work. Cheers, Alexandra


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