This morning we had a DNA extraction exercise in my Introductory Biology course. I asked my students where DNA is located in our cells (answer: the nucleus). They stared at me blankly. We are more than halfway through the semester and my students cannot answer that very basic question. Clearly there is something wrong with my teaching strategy. Or, there is something wrong with them. Or, maybe it was because it was 9am and nobody wanted to be the one to speak up, but this is a prime example of the frustration that I have encountered this semester.
For all of the effort that I put into this class, I feel like I should have better results. Over and over again I have tried to encourage them to study. I had mid-term meetings with each student to talk about study strategies. I give them homework assignments to re-enforce lecture material. I give them study guides and keep my office door open so they can get help when they need it. They don’t come. I’m not sure what else I can do to help them to be successful. Some days I feel like I am teaching in an empty lecture hall.
So what am I to do when faced with this sort of frustration? Here are some things that I do when grades are down and I feel like the worst teacher in the world:
1) Reevaluate. Take time after an exam or a major assessment and reflect on what went well and what did not. Sometimes just breaking it down can help you to figure out where you might need to use a new strategy. This can be hard in the middle of the semester where you’ve already established your syllabus and grading policies, but it is important to maintain some flexibility and be willing to make minor changes. There is no sense in doing the same thing over and over when it just isn’t working.
2) Change things up. Variety is the spice of life right? Sometimes we can get stuck in a rut. If we teach the same thing over and over it can get very monotonous. What can you do to change your routine? For me, this means that I am not teaching introductory biology next semester. Instead I will be teaching an upper level course in cells and molecular biology. I am looking forward to the change in pace. I love teaching the non-majors, but I think I’m getting a little burnt out. I hope to return to the course in the Fall with fresh ideas and renewed enthusiasm.
3) Trust in the process. Sometimes you can do everything possible and your students just won’t learn. If you are confident in your teaching strategy, then you have to accept that some students just aren’t going to be successful. There are more reasons for this than I can count. You are not the center of their universe. Students have lives outside the classroom and sometimes those lives get in the way. Unfortunately, many students are at your school to get a degree, but not to learn. Just as you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink. You can lead a student to knowledge, but you can’t make them think.
What sort of encouragement can you give me? I am open to suggestions!