And here it is again, like every semester. The phenomenon that is, to me, the biggest mystery of higher education. It's not the matter of why the student lounge has better vending machines than the faculty lounge - that one is easy. And, no, it's not the question of whether admins have souls. It's not even the enigma that is our IT department.
It's the "dead room."
I had two sections of the same class today, back-to-back. This rarely happens to me, but it gave an excellent opportunity to observe just how much responses can vary to the exact same material and presentation from one class to the next. I pretty well gave identical experiences: classroom business, a little "getting to know you" thing, and the set-up lecture for the semester. I kept my energy level high for both classes. Even the little jokes were basically the same.
One class ate it up, and the other just sat there staring at me.
I have seen it before, but never so starkly illustrated. The classes were of almost identical size, gender-balance, and age range. They were essentially indistinguishable. If it hadn't been for the gal in the back with the extensive tattoos and the outrageous highlights, I would not have had any easy visual signpost to use for telling the two groups apart (she is, for the record, in the first class). Exactly ten minutes separated the end of one class and the beginning of the next.
And yet. One class was all over it: responding to questions, laughing at my jokes, apparently really into the material. The other? Zip. Zilch. Zero. Nil nada nothing. Like zombies, these kids, just sitting there, staring at me, glassy eyed.
You know what my take-home from this has always been?
It's not me, it's them.
I have colleagues who freak out when the kids don't seem to be responding. They obsess over whether the material is uninteresting, whether their presentation is bad. They are constantly trying to fine-tune their classroom personas, to tweak the balances between "fun" and "informative," "authoritative" and "accessible," trying to find that sweet spot where everyone will love them and become majors.
Fuck 'em. You can have one class in the palm of your hand, and another one that is only barely aware of your existence, with the exact same material and presentation. I got the proof right here, baby. I do my thing, and most of 'em like it well enough. And even if they don't - they still gotta take the tests.
I've had the very same experience. Teaching two sections of the same course (soph-level diff eqns), doing everything exactly the same. One section responds, shows some life. The other: lumps of coal sitting there. Not just on the first day, but the whole semester. And the student evaluations, of course, are just as disparate.ReplyDelete
It's not us, it's them. And sometimes it is a minor difference: it only takes three or four students (of, say twenty) willing to engage with the lecture to pull some of the others (grudgingly) along. But sometimes there isn't even one . All mentally dead.
It's the best argument I know for having a single large section, instead of many small ones. Stay away from statistical fluctuations.
"And the student evaluations, of course, are just as disparate."Delete
The last time the two-section split problem happened to me so markedly, it was the dullards who ended up giving me significantly better numbers!! Go figure.
I had the same experience: two identical classes back to back, one lively and engaged and the other zombified, and the zombies gave me great evals while the lively ones griped. Who can explain it?Delete
You know what? Same here, the zombified section often gives better evaluations than the awake one. I wonder what the school-of-ed trained people who are all about "student engagement to improve learning" would say, if given this data.Delete
I used to be involved in our fall orientation. (I would post about it but my therapist says there is some shit you really shouldn't talk about.) I would give the same rah-rah talk from 9 am to 11 am for three separate days. All it would take was one student to laugh at my lame joke or one student at the end to begin clapping, and they would all follow suite. Let's face it, freshmen are not exactly immune to peer pressure.ReplyDelete
I do two sections of the same survey (two different surveys, alternating semesters) and every time I've try to come up with hypotheses. The earlier vs the later group? (disproven the next term) That one broad, shallow classroom with the crappy projector? (nope) AM having the same experience this term. I've reached the same conclusion-- it's not me. Something very delicate about the mix of demographics/ herd-like behavior. I think if a section has one or two alpha-optimists, the rest go along with it and enjoy the material, while if it has a couple of alpha pessimists everyone's just as willing to be bored and sullen.ReplyDelete
I teach a lot of intro classes, the sorts that have fifteen sections. I teach the same exact course back-to-back very frequently, and I have almost never had two classes that were similar in levels of enthusiasm and attention. There's always a "good" one and a "bad" one, or nearly always. This has puzzled me for a long time. One thing I thought might be that I'm not offering the same level of enthusiasm the second time around, but I am nearly manic about my topic and don't think I slack off. Plus, the second one is not always the "bad" one. I think Dr. Lemurpants is on the right track; you can manipulate a whole class just by identifying the alphas and manipulating them.ReplyDelete
No one wants to blame Student Services, advisors in particular?ReplyDelete
And I was all prepared to accept responsibility for this phenomenon because "we" don't have anything better to do.
Everybody concerned with enrollments at my institution is too busy doing everything possible to pack them in like sardines for such shenanigans.Delete
I think I once had a class that was almost entirely drawn from the second half of the alphabet, but I believe that had something to do with a huge waitlist and the creation of a new section (somebody else presumably got the first half of the alphabet).
Also, a registrar at my school would have to search far and wide (or be able to translate the meanings of last names derived from several dozen languages) to pull off that trick. That's a very Anglophone (or at least European) list.Delete
Everybody concerned with enrollments at my institution is too busy... (discretionary use of ellipsis) for such shenanigans.Delete
My point exactly. I don't have the time, power, or energy to steer all the Flat-Affect Phils and Disinterested Donnas into one section while putting all the Engaged Ednas and Participating Pauls into another. But it might be fun if I did.
When one of my jokes fails in one class, I always think I fluffed the delivery. Of course, then, it's me and not them. Comedy is ti-MING.ReplyDelete
It's happened to me, too, both in-person and online (it's always interesting to see how different the evals from two online sections are when you've combined the sections, so they really had an identical experience, except for any differences due to the online groups in which they were placed, which, at least in my case, are based on major).ReplyDelete
I too have had back-to-back classes where one was totally engaged, the other was 'deer in headlights.' I finally told the zombie class that they bored me to death and that they were to give the presentations. Got them out of their shells...FAST!ReplyDelete
I have since threatened all of my other classes with them having to give the lectures, including the ones today.