What Dropping a Class Taught Me About Teaching

This week, for the first time in my life, I dropped a class, and I did so after the first few days of the course. I struggled with this decision, in part because I had carefully scheduled the next few months of my life with this class in mind, and also because this class was the final course in a program leading to a graduate certificate. I really wanted to take and complete this course, and yet you already know from my title where this story leads. (Yes, I totally dropped that class.)

I felt let down by the program and the instructor, and I was upset and angry about it. As I was reflecting on this experience (more details in a moment), I began to wonder how I could take this negativity and channel it into a more positive outcome. So I asked myself how my experience as a student might inform my own practice as an instructor. Through this process, several important implications for teaching practices emerged. My take on these implications follows.

Takeaway #1: Expectations impact the way students approach a learning experience.

My expectations for this class were shaped both by the program itself and by my experiences in the previous courses. For example, the program information stated that all courses would be eight weeks long, so I planned for this final class to match that pattern. Unfortunately, I discovered on the first day of class that the schedule for this course had changed, and it was now ten weeks long, yet this had not been communicated to me. This was a problem.

Additionally, the previous courses had allowed students (in this case, adult learners) to bring their own strengths, experiences, and interests to the class, providing enough flexibility for each of us to explore projects that were relevant to us and our own contexts. If you know something about me, you won’t be surprised to hear that I focused on information literacy, and I found the assignments and projects quite helpful for my work and my development as an information literacy librarian. In this final course, however, the entire class was being assigned a “real world” scenario, yet that scenario didn’t reflect MY real world at all, and I found this disconcerting. Learning outside of my own context wasn’t the issue here (how can we really learn and grow if we never leave our own comfort zones, after all?), but I was disoriented by the discovery that my expectations were not holding true for this course. Having taught in a required first-year seminar for a number of years, I recognized this response because I had seen it often in my students on the first day of class.

As instructors, we have little control over the expectations that our students may bring to their learning experiences. Yet by exploring those expectations, instructors can help students recognize those expectations and understand why those expectations might or might not be reasonable for this particular experience. So in my case, for example, if the instructor had explained that the course had previously been eight weeks long, but that students really struggled to get the work done in that amount of time, and so the course was lengthened to create a lense intense experience, I would have at least understood why the course length was changed. Instead, I felt like, wait…what just happened?!? Similarly, when I was teaching the first-year course, our first day began with a request for students to share all the things they had heard about this class (and wow, had they heard a lot!). They were polite Midwesterners at first, but after I asked them, “Okay, now what have you really heard,” we were able to dig into their perceptions and expectations, and discuss, on day one, how and why this course might be similar to or different from those perceptions. Students appreciated this conversation and felt that it helped remove some of their anxieties about this particular class; they appreciated the transparency. As instructors, we need to be transparent about the pedagogical choices we are making and why we are making them, because those choices impact our students.

Takeaway #2: Motivation matters!

Knowing something about motivational theories can help instructors understand some of the potential impact of those pedagogical decisions, and intentional motivational design can support learners as they reshape their expectations and work through the course content. Looking to Keller’s ARCS model (Attention, Relevance, Confidence, and Satisfaction), for example, I was struggling to see the relevance of the material, questioning my confidence over the case study scenario, and experiencing decreased satisfaction with the course overall. So yes, this too was a problem. I had very little motivation to work through these issues and the course itself.

As an instructor myself, I knew full well that my instructor couldn’t read my mind and thus probably had no idea how I was feeling about the class. So I took a deep breath, and asked a question. Which leads to my next point…

Takeaway #3: Treat students and their lived experiences with respect

I’m going to say that again, for emphasis. Treat students and their lived experiences with respect. The most disturbing part of this whole experience was not actually dropping the class, but rather the way in which the instructor responded to the concerns and questions of myself and another classmate. This response was made in a public discussion forum, and it belittled both our concerns and our professions. A recent piece in the Chronicle (and many of the subsequent comments) highlighted the ways in which some instructors seem to view their students as adversaries (you can read responses to this piece on ChronicleVitae and Tenure, She Wrote, and more here on ACRLog). The outrage on Twitter and in other venues makes it apparent that not all instructors view their students this way, and yet clearly these attitudes still exist and are expressed in public. As instructors, we need to treat our students with understanding, compassion, and respect for their dignity as whole persons, not mock them and their experiences in public forums. There can be no exception to this.

You don’t have to take my word for any of this, though. If you teach, you should try being a learner for a little while. I’d enjoy hearing what your takeaways are!