5 Preventing and Resolving problems

5.1 Common Difficulties in Facilitating Class Discussions

The following are some of the common problems that can occur in classes and some ideas about how to cope with them:

  • The whole group is silent and unresponsive - ask students to work in pairs to get people talking and energised. Ask "What is going on?". Ask groups of four to discuss what could be done to make the group more lively and involving and then pool suggestions.
  • Individuals are silent and unresponsive - use open, exploratory questions. Invite individuals in: "I'd like to hear what Clive thinks about this," Use "buzz" groups (pairs or groups of three).
  • Sub-groups start forming with private conversations - break them up with sub-group tasks. "What is going on?" Self-disclosure: "I find it hard to lead a group where..."
  • The group becomes too deferential towards the tutor - stay silent, throw questions back, open questions to the whole group. Negotiate decisions about what to do instead of making decisions unilaterally.
  • Discussion goes off the point and becomes irrelevant - set clear themes or an agenda. Keep a visual summary of the topics discussed for everyone to see. Say: "I'm wondering how this relates to today's topic." Seek agreement on what should and should not be discussed.
  • A distraction occurs (such as two students arriving late) - establish group ground rules about behaviour such as late arrivals. Give attention to the distraction.
  • Students have not done the preparation - clarify preparation requirements, making them realistic. Share what preparation has been undertaken at the start of each session. Consider a contract with them in which you run the seminar if they do the preparation but not otherwise.
  • Members do not listen to each other - point out what is happening. Establish ground rules about behaviour.
  • Students do not answer when you ask a question - use open questions, leave plenty of time. Use buzz groups. Ask students to write down their answers first and share with a neighbour.
  • Two students are very dominant - use hand signals, gestures and body language. Support and bring in others. Give the dominant students roles to keep them busy (such as note-taker). Use structures that take away the audience. Think about how you position yourself. If you sit next to them rather than opposite them, it is harder for them to "come in". See if you are giving them too much "non-verbal" encouragement, such as nods, eye contact and positive comments. You may need to break some social rules now and then!
  • Students complain about the seminar and the way you are handling it - ask for constructive suggestions. Ask students who are being negative to turn their comments into positive suggestions. Ask for written suggestions at the end of the session. Agree to meet a small group afterwards.
  • Students reject the seminar discussion process and demand answers - explain the function of seminars. Explain the demands of the assessment system. Discuss their anxieties.
  • The group picks on one student in an aggressive way - establish ground rules. Ask 'What is going on?' Break up the group using structures.
  • Discussion focuses on one corner of the group and the rest stop joining in - use structures. Point out to the group what is happening. Look at the room layout, how are students positioned and where do you sit? - see if physical re-organisation can make a difference to undesirable group dynamics or can enhance discussion flow.

Adapted from materials produced by Dr Alan Booth (University of Nottingham) and Jean Booth (University of Coventry). Enhancing Teaching Effectiveness in the Humanities and Social Sciences: participant guide (1997) UK Universities and Colleges Staff Development Agency, Sheffield, p115-6.

5.2 Suggested DOs and DON'Ts for Running Problem-solving Classes

With thanks to Tony Whelan from the LSE for some of the following. Tony is a highly experienced class teacher who has run classes in Maths, Statistics and OR.

Possible DOs for Running Problem Classes

  1. Provide background: In some sessions, it may be appropriate to discuss the theory and methods involved in a topic, at a fairly general level, and then to use that discussion as the basis for approaching the issues raised by homework exercises.

    On an elementary statistics course, homework revealed that students had considerable difficulty with one important idea, namely that of an estimator. One successful class session involved spending half the time studying the relevant definitions and properties, with lots of examples of things that were, and that were not, estimators. This clarified the issues involved, and it was then possible to go back to the homework questions and clarify how the basic ideas applied in all of them.

  2. Read and contextualise the question(s): In most sessions it is fruitful to encourage students to read questions carefully and to absorb the information in the question. In many applied areas this can be motivated by the observation that, in the "real world", real problems require considerable effort and thought to decide what is important about them, and what mathematical approach(es) might be fruitful.
  3. Identify thought processes: In most sessions it is also fruitful to discuss the thought processes that students need to engage in while approaching how to solve a problem: at each stage, students need to be able to decide, "what should I do next"?

    In an elementary statistics course, there are strategies for calculating probabilities using two results known as Bayes' Formula and the Total Probability Formula. It is often useful, at an appropriate stage, to (re-)display those results, in a different colour from the "solution", to remind students just why the next calculation is the appropriate one to carry out. Similarly, in explaining the Gaussian Elimination method of manipulating matrices, it can be useful to put coloured boxes around the key cells and blocks being used at various stages in the calculations.

  4. Use examples: It is frequently useful to motivate ideas and techniques by reference to realworld examples.

    In an elementary statistics course, students meet the concept of "outliers", that is to say values in a set of data that seem a long way away from the bulk of the known data. In real-world situations, such anomalies can be due to, for instance, instrument errors. The discovery of the famous hole in the ozone layer, over Antarctica, illustrates both the importance and the difficulty of dealing with this problem in "real-world" situations: it was discovered using meteorological balloons, but then the question arose why meteorological satellites observing the same area earlier had not identified it first. It turned out that the computer programmes used to analyse the satellite data had been so written as to reject, as "outlier" instrument errors, true readings which ought to have revealed the ozone hole but were ignored until it was discovered a different way.

  5. Prepare and structure: Make sure that classes are well prepared, with a proper structure: some ideas about this can be found just above, and also in the section on 'Preparation and planning'.
  6. Explain, then summarise: Be prepared to repeat things, often from slightly different angles, and to summarise the ideas you are trying to get across, e.g. as bullet points.
  7. Observe your audience: Pay careful attention to whether students appear to be following what is being said: there are all sorts of clues that can help with this, involving body language and facial expressions as well as any explicit questions or interjections that they make.
  8. Encourage participation: Even when a class teacher is dominating the discussion (which will often be the case in problem-solving classes), s/he should make sure that students are encouraged to yell out if something is unclear, or wrong.
  9. Involve students: One other technique that helps to involve students, even when a class teacher is dominating the discussion, is from time to time to ask something like "Someone tell me what comes next". This approach can be varied by asking particular students something similar, but whatever detailed approach may be used, teachers need to be aware of the twin dangers of the "pushy" student, who likes to show off how much s/he knows, intimidating or discouraging others, and of the shy or nervous student, who needs to be encouraged to respond in such situations.
  10. Use follow-on exercises to check on understanding: Students can be told in advance that they will be given an exercise in class as a follow-on from, or as another example of, an exercise they have prepared. They could work on these in small groups with the groups reporting back.
  11. Give students enough time: If you give students work to do in the class as a follow-on exercise from the ones they have prepared, give them enough time to complete it, or at least to get sufficiently far through it to benefit from the subsequent explanation.

Definite DON'Ts in Running Classes

  1. Read aloud: Don't just read out, or ask students to read, pre-printed solutions supplied by the teacher in charge.
  2. Skip parts of explanations: Don't "skip" detailed points of reasoning on the grounds that they are "easy" or "obvious". Maintain a consistent level of depth of explanation and remember that points that are "obvious" to you may not be so to your students.
  3. Rush: Don't go too fast.
  4. Try to hide errors: Don't be afraid to acknowledge errors when they happen or to admit that there is something you do not know. If asked a question that you feel you cannot accurately/adequately address on the spot, then do not waffle or offer a vague explanation. Tell the students you will look into their question and let them know. Make a note of any unresolved questions or queries and make sure you get back to them with a response.

5.3 Dealing with Difficult Students

At some point in your career as a class teacher you may have to deal with a student who causes disruption in the class or who does not meet his/her course-related obligations, such as handing in assignments, attending classes regularly, etc. Although each case will be different, you will need to take some steps. Here are a few tips:

  • If a student who is on the class register does not attend the first class/classes, check that your class register is up to date and, if so, contact the student to remind them they should be attending class, informing them of your office hours in case they wish to come and discuss the course/classes they have missed with you. Typically, students will respond to this and start attending more regularly. If such encouragement is ineffective, then alert the student's tutor/other appropriate member of staff about the matter, copying in the student.
  • If a student does not submit the required assignments, then contact the student and give them a reminder and, if appropriate, a final deadline for submitting work. Be flexible and understanding if a student is facing some particular personal or academic difficulty, but maintain a level playing field for the whole group. If failure to submit coursework persists, alert the student's tutor and copy the student.
  • Familiarise yourselves with the regulations relating to course assessment so as to advise students accordingly.
  • If a student causes disruption in class, for example is rude, aggressive to other students, uncooperative etc, then you have to decide whether the level of class disruption is such as to necessitate intervention (asking the student to stop or, in extreme cases, to leave the room), or it is sufficient to speak to the student later, outside class, about the matter. If you ask the student to leave the classroom, then contact the student's tutor and the undergraduate/graduate tutor directly after the class and explain what occurred. Take care not to offend or humiliate any student in front of his peers, even if his/her behaviour is very challenging.
  • Different class groups taught by the same GTA may have different atmospheres. Some may be boisterous and loud, while others may be quieter. It is inevitable that the mix of student personalities and that of the class teacher will jointly determine the atmosphere in the classroom. Sometimes a simple solution is to move a student to a different class group, if possible.
  • Keep organised e-mail records for students that cause problems so as to be able to provide an accurate account of the problems at a future date if the need arises.
  • Students may try to undermine your authority as class teacher if they perceive you as not being very assertive. Different approaches work for different people but deal with problems professionally as soon as they arise in order to prevent escalation.
  • Take time to understand what is motivating the poor attendance/challenging behaviour of students and take steps to encourage and motivate them.
  • Ask for advice if faced with problems that you are unsure how to tackle.

5.4 Getting Feedback

At various points in the year, you will want to assess how well you and your students are doing. Here are some suggestions to help you evaluate your classroom teaching:

Checking Student Progress

  • As noted in 'questioning skills' in the section on 'the skills of the class teacher', ask questions designed to monitor student understanding. This is an informal way to assess student progress.
  • Watch for student reactions to your discussion section. Take notice of body language and eye contact.
  • Consider using short quizzes designed to monitor students' understanding of the previous week's material. (The Economics Network has links to many tests and past papers, that you might want to use or adapt.)
  • Try out an "instant questionnaire". This is a simple technique of asking three or four "indicative" questions or statements about a particular session, and getting an instant response to them from the students (usually anonymously, on scraps of paper, done at the end of a session). Statements might take the form of "I now feel confident to tackle problems about x", "Today's class was too fast for me", "I really feel I need more help on understanding theory y", etc.

Feedback on your Class Teaching Approach

  • Ask students how things are going, over coffee, or when they come to see you in office hours.
  • A few weeks into term, ask students to jot down answers to the following: what would you like me to stop doing; continue doing; start doing? (Think of variations on this theme, for example asking them to comment similarly on what they'd like from their fellow students in the class.)
  • Using peer observation of teaching sessions can also greatly benefit the reflective class teacher. It can be very useful to agree to observe and be observed by another class teacher reciprocally to help develop teaching skills.
  • Invite the teacher responsible for the course to observe your teaching and arrange a feedback session afterwards.
  • You may wish to videotape your classes to review your own approach (you would need to consult with your students about this and probably explain that it is for your benefit and therefore ultimately for their benefit!).

Top Tip

"I asked if I could sit in on one of the experienced class teacher's classes, before I met my own group, just to see how he did it. I really liked his approach but I knew I wouldn't have the confidence to mimic him - still it gave me an idea of how to break up the time and how to avoid doing all the talking."