However experienced you are in the classroom, certain teaching situations fill you with fear. Even the most confident teacher can find themselves in difficulties when in front of a room full of students. This short article will explore three of the most common problems and suggests how to deal with them.
1. Technology failure
Problem: you arrive at a classroom expecting to show a film or Powerpoint slides only to find that the equipment you had anticipated was not there or was broken.
Solution: The key here is thinking ahead. Don’t let yourself get into this situation in the first place! Always have a back-up plan: something else to occupy your class if technology fails. If Powerpoint slides are integral to your lecture, have a printed copy that you can pass round or photocopy for your students. When showing a film think laterally. If the DVD/video player is broken, might the same thing be available on You Tube? If not, why not set the students the task of watching the film as homework.
It is crucial not to waste a long time trying to fix a piece of equipment. Far better is to do something else rather let your students get bored.
2. Unresponsive students
Problem: in a seminar context, you ask them if they’ve done any reading, or ask them a content-based question and noone speaks.
Solution: Many seminar tutors respond to this by talking more themselves to cover the embarrassing silences. Their assumption is that if students haven’t done the preparatory work or don’t know the answer then they need to be given another mini-lecture to provide that information. However, this will just exacerbate the problem because the students learn that they can get away without contributing.
A better solution is to be honest with them. Say that you hoped they might know the answer to this or that they had done this reading. Ask why they are unable to contribute. Keep your tone friendly and non-combative. You may find that they have been busy with assignments, or that there’s a bug going round, or, more likely, that they had a late night at the student union last night! Break down your requirements into bite-sized chunks. Instead of asking ‘have you read so-and-so? What does this author think about our topic’, ask ‘what do you think are the key debates in this area’ or ‘what interested you most about the lecture’. Once you’ve got them talking, they will relax and feel happier to speak up.
3. Overly talkative students.
Problem: this is less common but can really hamper your progress. Some students are more confident than others and it’s easy to fall into a pattern where only a few are engaging in discussion. However, it’s important to find ways of allowing the other students to contribute so that they don’t become disengaged.
Solution: Some tutors challenge quieter students directly saying ‘we haven’t heard from you for a while; what do you think?’ For shy students this approach is likely to alienate or embarrass them. Using small group work allows everyone to speak, if only to their peers. You can circulate round the groups to ensure that the quieter students are involved. Assigning a quieter class member to the role of spokesperson to report their group’s discussion back to others is less daunting than challenging them directly because they have a chance to write something down and to check with the friends that the answer is ‘right’.