Yale Center for Teaching and Learning

Running Class

In the preceding pages we mentioned a five-stage scheme that serves as a useful framework for designing and running sections. We’re going to use that very framework here to guide our discussion about running class. That’s wicked mise-en-abîme. A Lovecraftian glance into the very abyss of teaching itself.

WHAT ARE THE FIVE STAGES OF RUNNING A CLASS?

This section deals with the nitty-gritty of running a class: what to do when you’re actually up in front of Yale undergrads who sit wide-eyed with wonder and anticipation, awaiting your magisterial display of erudition and eloquence. Actually, all they really want—all any of us really want, actually—is a class session that makes them feel like it was worth attending. You’re off to a really good start if you walk into the classroom knowing what the goals of the section are and having prepared the material.

Running the class itself, though, usually requires a healthy dose of flexibility, since the dynamic and unpredictable nature of any discussion means that all of the participants, and especially you, acting as the moderator, need to be able to roll with the punches. Rarely will you have the luxury of presenting material without being interrupted by a question or comment (and that’s a good thing!), and it’s just as unlikely that a discussion proceed without needing some form of intervention on your part. It’s all one big fantastic circus, friends, so step on up.

Stage 1: Getting Students Ready to Learn

Make Expectations Clear

Getting your students ready to learn is something that occurs repeatedly throughout the semester. At the start of the term you need to make your students aware of what’s going to happen during section and what, specifically, is required of them. This includes guidelines and due dates not only for assignments but also such things as attendance, tardiness, and so on. Be as concrete and specific as possible: “be prepared to discuss each week’s readings” can mean vastly different things to different people, while “write a concise, lucid one-page paper responding to one of the week’s readings” is far less open to interpretation. Your personal expectations and requirements must be reasonable, of course—you cannot require a ten-page paper from your section that other sections do not have to write.

Above all, students should have a clear sense of what they need to do to make section successful. It’s their time too, after all.

The Right Thing at the Right Time

The order in which you do the various tasks planned for each section is important. Making administrative announcements (a change in your office hours, the format for the midterm, etc.) at the beginning of the class prevents students from missing the info in their rush to get out of class and head to lunch, so say what you need to at the beginning and quickly reiterate it at the end in case anyone was late or missed it the first time. If you return graded work at the beginning of class, your students will spend ten minutes looking over the test or paper, either trying to contain their disdain like a talent scout at an a cappella concert or squealing with glee like a Ph.D. with a one-year adjunct job. Furthermore, 90% of the class will want to speak to you about grades immediately after section. So leave two minutes at the end of class to return the work; they’ll read your comments on the way to Toad’s and email you later.

State the Agenda

At the start of each section you should reiterate in some manner the larger goals of the course while paying particular attention to the particular goals of that specific section. What do you hope the section will have achieved after fifty minutes?

Stage 2: Presenting (New) Material

The way you present each week’s material will depend on what it is, how difficult students find it, and so on. Presumably, however, you’ll have to present something new or challenging at least some of the time, even if it’s only to review complex material or to clarify something that was explained poorly in lecture. Be aware that, depending on the class you’re teaching, students could have disparate backgrounds and varied degrees of familiarity with the material.

Know When to Hold ’Em, Know When to Fold ’Em

Perhaps the trickiest and most crucial skill required to lead a good section is learning how to balance the desire to facilitate a good discussion with the necessity of conveying certain information to the students, or the need to open students up to different arguments or ideas that might not arise in the course of normal discussion. This battle is pretty well summed up as follows: sometimes you need to talk, and sometimes you need to shut up. That is, most of the learning that goes on in a classroom happens when the teacher isn’t talking: it happens when students are thinking and reflecting, responding to your and others’ viewpoints, assimilating new information with what they already know, critiquing, evaluating, synthesizing. Teaching, which is something you do in the classroom, is not the same as learning, which is something the students do.

You thus need to walk a fine line between talking and listening, lecturing and facilitating discussion, giving information to students and leading them to their own discoveries. You need to keep students awake and engaged for fifty minutes or more, and to make each of those fifty minutes worthwhile for each of your students. Alas, there aren’t any simple tricks to make this happen—like anything good, it just takes a lot of practice. Just be aware that you’re presumably teaching a subject that interests you and about which you know quite a bit: for that reason, you might be apt to talk a lot about it. There are several terms for this behavior, the most polite of which involve words like “pedantry” and “narcissism.” Bear in mind that lecturing is among the least effective means of teaching. So give it a rest, for Pete’s sake.

Repeat Important Points

Many teachers use the Dale Carnegie method of “tell what you’re going to say; say it; then tell them that you said it.” Remember: repetition is not the same thing as redundancy–it can be quite valuable to say the same thing in a different way as long as you’re not just mindlessly repeating yourself like a peanut salesman at a baseball game. Remember: repetition is not the same thing as redundancy.

Avoid Jargon

Define basic terms. It can be very easy, especially in introductory classes, to use terms that are familiar to you and completely foreign to your students. Make sure your students feel that they can interrupt you if you say something that needs immediate clarification.

The Hidden Dangers of Student Questions

It’s easy to get sidetracked by questions about what you know to be minor details while the major conceptual issues float by. At the same time, don’t assume that the silence after your “Any questions?” means that everyone is on board—ask some easy questions about the larger issues just to make sure.

Don’t Focus on Lecture Material

Be wary of taking an entire class period to clarify lecture. Needing to do this might indicate that the students really are having trouble with the material, but it might also mean that they’re not attending lectures. Rather than rehashing all of the content, outline the major points of the previous lecture(s) and show them how they fit into the larger picture of the entire course. You should probably have a chat with whoever is giving those lectures if it appears that students consistently don’t understand them.

Put on a Performance

This doesn’t mean that you should run class like it’s high tragedy (“O that this too too solid vanadium would melt, thaw and resolve itself into a dew!”), but think of each class as a little performance. Be 110% of yourself; being a little bit over-the-top plays well when you’re in the classroom limelight. Maintain eye contact. Speak firmly at a controlled, leisurely pace. You should be easily heard but not forceful. Speak up and out, looking at your audience as much as possible; don’t bury your face in notes (or something worse). Don’t be afraid of silence—what might seem like an eternity to you is really only a few seconds.

Move around, but not too much. Occasionally moving into parts of the room where you wouldn’t normally walk can be a good way to mix up the pedagogical energy, since a change in focal direction often helps students redirect their attention. At the same time, though, don’t prowl around like a lion in a cage— that’s distracting.

Sound like this might take practice? It sure does, amigo. Achieving a good classroom persona may require some rehearsal on your part, especially if you’ve never had need of one before. Speak in front of a mirror. Lecture to your spouse, partner, roommate, friend, pet, or plant.

Once you feel comfortable in front of a class, you might consider taking stock of the more subtle aspects of your own body language, the signals and speech acts we aren’t normally aware of giving off but often pick up subconsciously from other people. Some of these are obvious: facing the class is much more open and welcoming than showing them your hindquarters. But everyone has a wealth of tiny gestures that manifest themselves under various conditions, nervousness being perhaps the biggest catalyst. Who hasn’t seen public speakers stabbing at the air with a finger, chopping up their speeches with “ums” and “ers,” or rattling coins in their pockets? These types of behavior are the ultimate distraction.

If you’ve never taught before, get someone to watch you. Better yet, get a CTL consultant to observe (and record, if you choose) your class. The resulting DVD will reveal habits you never knew you had. You will undoubtedly cringe when you see yourself—everyone does; it’s like hearing a recording of your own voice—but you’ll be glad you did it. And you need share your shame with no one.

Know Your Audience

This goes hand-in-hand with the performative aspect of teaching. Be aware of the body language of your students. Most won’t be so brutally honest as to tell you straight-out that they think this particular section is as interesting as a jar of mayonnaise, but their non-verbal cues will be pretty clear. If a majority of the class seems to think that the ceiling is significantly more fascinating than whatever learning is supposed to be taking place, then something probably needs to change, and right quick. Have you been talking non-stop for twenty minutes? Are you speaking too quickly? Are you staring out the window?

Getting Engaged

It’s not often that you’ll be free to lecture at length during a discussion section, but the mood might strike you from time to time (especially if the sujet du jour is something you know well). It’s okay to lecture a little bit, but keep it to a minimum. Why? Various studies have shown over and over again that even the most motivated students—even (gasp!) graduate students— tend to zone out after only ten or fifteen minutes if it’s a single person who’s doing the talking. The Zone is good for daydreaming, writing poetry, and losing fifteen pounds in only ten days, but it’s nicht so gut for the classroom.

Lecture is among the least effective means of promoting real learning, so try to avoid it. Mix it up. This goes for just about everything from the pitch of your voice to your position in the room. If student interest seems to be waning, you may feel compelled to fall back on the “this will be on the test!” strategy. There are times when that’s appropriate. You don’t want your students to develop the habit of focusing only on what might be on the test, and let’s face it, sometimes you have to ring the dinner bell of anxiety in order to get the learning saliva flowing. Nevertheless, if you are regularly resorting to the test threat to get students to pay attention, it probably means that you’ve lost them. It does happen, but you need to do something about it.

If none of the tips on this website help you get your class back on track, talk to the professor or seek out advice from the CTL. A lousy section is bad for you and it’s really bad for your students.

Stage 3: Engaging the Material with Discussion

The prospect of facilitating discussion is often a source of intense stress for TFs. What do I say? What if no one else says anything? What if someone asks a question I can’t answer? What if the discussion goes off-topic and I can’t regain control?

These are all perfectly understandable responses: leading discussion is not a simple task. It’s unpredictable. It can be intensely exhilarating and intensely frustrating. And it’s among the most important things TFs do as teachers—most undergraduates equate “section” with “discussion,” since discussion probably accounts for 90% of the time they spend in section.

There are several simple things you can do to grease the wheels of discussion. First off, you should strive to create an environment amenable to productive discussion. A good classroom dynamic is the holy grail of teaching. The way you interact with your students and your students with each other is crucial in making them receptive to learning from you and from their peers. Your students, like you, learn and work best in a fair and reasonable environment where the basic rules of civility hold sway. Here are a few basic guidelines for creating that kind of classroom.

For information about leading the discussion, click here.

The Physical Environment

Positioning the Furniture

The way the chairs, table, podium, and other furniture are arranged will have a distinct impact on the classroom dynamic. Consider the different messages a student would receive upon entering a room with chairs arranged in rows, all facing the front (where you get to stand), as opposed to a room with the chairs arranged in a circle or around a table. Similarly, imagine the message it sends when the chairs are arranged like Stonehenge. What is that message? “Druids at work.”

Positioning Yourself

Remember that where you put yourself in the classroom says something too. If the students sit in a circle while you pace around the perimeter, it implies that you’re more of an outsider observing their discussion, whereas sitting with them in the circle makes you more of a fellow participant. Neither set-up is inherently better than the other, and of course you need not do the same thing every week (or even for the entirety of a single class). Just make sure that the physical placement of your students and you jives with your plan for the day. Likewise, keep simple logistics in mind. Arranging the chairs in rows facing you is likely to squelch discussion and make you seem more authoritarian, but it’s useful if you have to write a lot of information on the chalkboard.

The Intellectual and Personal Environment

Challenge, But Don’t Intimidate

Remember that you (presumably) know this material far better than any student. Ergo, there’s no need for showboating; your students will (presumably) respect your knowledge and authority in the classroom. Putting students down or highlighting their ignorance in any given instance makes you look tyrannical and insecure, two adjectives that most people wouldn’t want applied to them. Two others are “sniveling” and “leprous.”

Don’t Bluff!

It’s okay not to know everything (unless we’re talking about qualifying exams). If questions arise that you can’t answer, don’t make stuff up—it’s academically unethical, and students are likely to know that you’re trying to bluff. If they catch you, your credibility will be damaged. Say either, “I don’t know, but I’ll find out” (and then do so!), or “I don’t know, but here’s how we can find out.” You might even consider making the answer to the question an assignment (or opportunity for bonus points). If you do make it an assignment, be aware that it will likely seem like a punishment and possibly prevent students from asking provocative questions in the future; making it an opportunity for bonus points (or something similar) is a good way to reward students’ motivation.

Know Their Names

If you know your students’ names, not only is it easier for you to call on them (easier than, say, “You there, with the fedora and the confused expression”), but it also subtly communicates your interest and connection to the class. Some TFs make a map of the table or classroom and fill in students’ names, some have the class make little name cards like they’re senators at a committee hearing, some rely on name games—whatever works for you. It’s also helpful to make sure the students know each other’s names. Say names out loud to reinforce your learning and to get the rest of the class to know each other.

Give Students the Benefit of the Doubt

Even if you think you’re being hopelessly naïve, even when experience suggests otherwise, assume that your students are motivated by a desire to learn. Treat class members as mature, responsible, willing, and intelligent students. Let them know that you respect their abilities, as nascent and formless or advanced and sophisticated as they may be. But don’t be a sucker— make clear that you will assess them individually according to their abilities and weaknesses in the class and will not tolerate a lack of preparation.

Now that you’ve set up the perfect environment, it’s time to get into how to actually lead a discussion. For that, we send you to another page!  

Stage 4: Debriefing After the Discussion and How to Wrap Up Class

You may be tempted to allow discussion to go on as long as possible, preferably until fifty minutes have completely elapsed. Most students, moreover, are probably used to this phenomenon. Probably the most common way to end section is something along the lines of “Whoa, it looks like we’re out of time. Think about what we discussed. See you next week!” That tactic can send the wrong message, however. The point of section is not (well, should not be) to fill fifty minutes: there’s a goal to each section, right?

The conclusion of class should, like the conclusion of an Agatha Christie novel, tie things up nicely. Don’t let students talk all the way to the end of class. Stop them with five or ten minutes left to go so that you can reflect on what happened during the section as a whole and the discussion in particular. Were the goals of the section met? How so? If not, what didn’t happen, and why?

You might summarize the discussion and perhaps reiterate its relation to the course as a whole; you might indicate how what you covered in that section will relate to the subsequent lectures or sections; you could merely observe that the discussion illustrated how controversial or difficult the material is. If you started the section by referencing a particular text or statement or artwork, you might consider coming back to it at the end, uroborically tying it all together. If you can, incorporate some positive feedback, perhaps praising the students for engaging with the material in such a lively way, or even for their patience in dealing with what is a difficult subject.

Another strategy is to show students how what they’ve accomplished in section relates to success on papers or exams. Highlight well articulated arguments, use of evidence, or problem solving. When you take two minutes for this crucial debriefing step, you send the message to your students that their discussion was worth something other than merely a participation grade. The class as a whole made progress toward a larger goal, whatever that may be. The result? More motivated students who have a reason to come back for the next week’s section.

Wrap-Ups

Bad Wrap-Ups

  • “Well, enough of that. I’m starving. Let’s get out of here.”
  • “As you can see, the question of whether bad men can produce great art is a difficult one. The answer, however, is No.”
  • “I’m surprised no one brought up the possibility that Kafka himself actually turned into a cockroach for a period of time. Oh well. See you next week.”

Better Wrap-Ups

  • “I think our discussion today has shown just how thorny the issue of judicial interpretation is. Next week we’ll relate our discussion to the 2000 presidential election debacle.”
  • “At the start of class we watched part of an episode of The Simpsons. Can anyone relate our discussion of appropriating stereotypes for political gains to the social satire in that excerpt?”

Stage 5: Preparing for the Next Section

The final minutes of class inevitably take place amidst the sounds of paper shuffling, chairs scratching across the floor, and jackets being zipped. The wrap-up of Stage 4 served as the postlude to the current section; use the final moments of section to dish up a prelude to the following week. Better yet, suggest how this week’s discussion will play into next week’s section. Now students really know what’s going on! A–Always. B–Be. C–Closing. Always Be Closing.