What to Do If You Have a “Bad” Class

Posted by on May 15, 2012 in Communicating with Professors, General | 9 comments

This would be an easy classroom dynamic issue to solve. Crumble!

(Back to business! This is not an easy topic for faculty to talk about, myself included. Based on a discussion I had recently with a colleague who teaches elsewhere, it seemed timely. I hope students and faculty will weigh in. We’ve all been there with a class that didn’t go quite as we planned. It may not be something that we necessarily want to admit, but the situation does not happen in isolation. Read on!)

It was my third year of teaching. It was an 8 a.m. class.

Some students shuffled in, slumped in their seats, and pretty much remained in that schlumpy state, regardless of what I did to try and amp up the energy.

Some students whispered annoyingly in the corner. Others passed notes (texting wasn’t as big yet–does that make me old?). Ironically, when I tried to engage students in discussion, no one had anything to say.

Some students skipped class on certain days; other students skipped class on other days (were they coordinating?).

After a week or so, I never knew what configuration of students would actually show up. For a Communication class with a lot of interaction, this made activity planning pretty difficult. Actually, planning any curriculum became difficult.

I am a very high-energy instructor. I keep my classroom time dynamic and energetic, even at 8 a.m., which I suppose could be a little grating. But we all agreed to take the class at that time, so I figured I’d try to make it as enjoyable as possible.

But I admit, I started to dread that class and I imagined that the students felt the same way. What was worse is that I had a 10 minute leeway before my next class and since both classes met five days a week, I was finding it harder and harder to shake off the negativity of one class to prep for the next.

My 9 a.m. class was vastly different than the 8 a.m. class. They were lively, vibrant, excited. In other words, we had the class dynamic that I had been used to cultivating, both as newly tenure-track faculty and also as a part-timer. The 9 a.m. class could see that I was not happy with the 8 a.m. class. Some of those students knew the other students and… (hold on to your hat).

One morning, in the 8 a.m. class, a student raised her hand and said in a snide tone, “I don’t think it’s very nice that you tell your 9 a.m. class how much you don’t like us.”

I think I possibly grew 2′ shorter as I sunk into the floor. I said, “I would never tell my students that I don’t like you. But they can probably see that I’m frustrated. I don’t know what’s going on this term. Half of the class shows up at a time. I can’t seem to get a response when I try to open up discussion or do activities… I am really concerned about our dynamic.”

I remember that my heart was beating so hard and I felt sick. There was no class in my Post-Secondary Ed degree called “What To Do When You Have a ‘Bad Class’ and When You’re Being an Equally ‘Bad Professor’ Who Doesn’t Know What to Do About It” (because the title of that would be too long for the college catalog, right?).

What did I do? The only thing I knew to do. I called a class meeting.

That’s right. I literally called every single student at home and said, “We are having a mandatory class meeting at 8 a.m. and I need for every single student to show up. I will be taking attendance and there will be a larger penalty for missing this meeting.”

Now the class meeting part was kind of B.S. I mean, it was class. But I had to do something, anything, to get the entire group, or at least the majority, there!

My plan worked and the students showed up. Here is what I said:

“I feel really sad about what’s happened this term. I don’t understand it and I have felt confused over what to do about it. Our classroom dynamic has been very different than what I’ve been used to, despite anything I’ve tried to do. I know some of you have heard from my later class that I am frustrated or that there is a perception that I ‘don’t like you.’ I have been frustrated with myself for not being able to turn things around or to get more of you to come to class. I am sorry about this. I am doing what I know to do to make your time in my class engaging, informative, and enjoyable. I need you to be here and to be involved. I get that coming to class at 8 a.m. is hard, but we all signed up for it and it isn’t forever. Can we get through this and turn this situation around?”

The students agreed. The class that day was a bit better.

I would love to share that this story has a Cinderella ending, that my classroom turned into a palace, and that we had a big dance number on the last day (because a fairytale wedding would just be weird, right?). But the classroom dynamic, while somewhat better, was just never what I would consider ideal.

The good news is that several of the students did go on to take other Comm classes with me. One is in touch with me to this day.

I have been teaching for 14 years. I can count on one hand how many times I have had a class dynamic like that. Thank goodness.

Students, before I get on to what you can do, let me share quickly about my colleague’s story (and, yes, I realize this blog post may run a little long, but perhaps due to the sensitive subject, we can bear a little leniency?).

So, my colleague from a different school (out of state) was teaching a brand new class and was handed curriculum… long, windy lecture notes that my colleague was asked not to deviate from. Over a few weeks, my colleague noticed that the students were just glazing over (big surprise, right?). My colleague worried about what the students were learning and how uncomfortable the staid teaching felt! After some discussion with two profs (I was lucky enough to be one), my colleague took the same risk I did: Held a “meeting” with the students and transparently shared why the class was going the way it was–that it was a new class, that my colleague was handed the curriculum, and that this was feeling no better to my colleague than it was to the students.

The students were so appreciative for my colleague’s honesty–and open to collaborative ideas of how to add to the curriculum. (This is a higher-level class, numerically, than what I was teaching).

So, what’s the communication lesson here?

Students, I just want to let you know that you are not alone if you experience a “bad class.” “Bad class” is really the wrong way to put it. It was just a “negative experience” for all involved at the time, but I will say I learned more from that experience as an educator than from many other classes that I’ve taught.

(And just to be clear, the time had nothing to do with it. I had other 8 a.m. classes that were perfectly fine).

Now the teachable experience is good news for me and my colleague, right? We will become stronger educators. But that’s not such good news for you, the student, who had to deal with the “bad class.” It’s not even good news if you were contributing to the negative dynamic (just being real here–because we have to be fair that isn’t exactly adding to your learning either).

So what can you do?

First, if your prof doesn’t open up discussion about the class, then you open up discussion privately in the prof’s office. Say, “I’m concerned about our class dynamic or ___________(insert what you’re concerned about). I’m hoping we can discuss this.” Remember not to bring “Everybody” into the argument like I discussed in this post; encourage others to go to the prof separately. More voices will make an impact. Be very specific about your frustrations.

Next, ask for a class meeting! Say, “I notice that we’ve been having trouble getting students to come to class. Can we call a mandatory class meeting to talk about the issues we’re having and turn this situation around?”

If you do not have confidence that your prof is able to work on things for your class, you could discuss your concerns with a department/division chair. The person may talk to the prof or help facilitate a meeting. Say “I am concerned about the dynamic in my class (or the way my class is going this term… or whatever the issue is). I would like to talk to my professor, but felt that I needed some help talking about this before going to my professor.” Another student wrote into the blog with a classroom dynamic issue and had to see a division chair. Remember this post?

Finally, while this isn’t the ideal, know that a term does not last forever. I hate to say that because I want every class to be alive and engaging for you. Hell, I want every class to be alive and engaging for me as an educator! But I know that for whatever reason, not every class goes that way. If nothing turns around, your specific concerns on the student evaluation will be critical. Even if you are not given one, ask a department/division chair or even a department or building secretary where you can submit an e-mail with an evaluation or a written evaluation (Yes, you can submit an evaluation even without a formal process).

Students, I hope you stayed with this post and I hope this is not a situation you have to deal with ever in college, but if you do, use your voice to the best extent that you can. Know that your prof probably feels similar concerns. Open communication can do wonders to turn a challenged classroom dynamic around.

Or, at the very least, it can improve from being “schlumpy.”

Colleagues and students, you know what I’m going to say here… want to weigh in on your “bad class” experience now that I shared mine?


  1. Outstanding suggestions, Ellen. It is awesome that you recognized your own bad class and how the attitude was bleeding through. Then you had the courage and caring attitude to take action. You sought change versus just let it go an entire term as simply a “bad class”.

    I also like how you empower students to approach their professors if they feel this same “dynamic” in one of their classes. And rather than point fingers, you approach it from a “bad dynamic” standpoint, so you can work against a common enemy of that class succeeding and becoming a vibrant learning environment.

    • Hi, Brian,

      I wish I could say that the class turned around, but I guess that mixture of folks just didn’t gel the way I would have liked. Some would definitely say that the time played a role, too, but I had other early morning classes that did fine. I know this happens more than faculty and students want to admit, but students do have a voice in the matter. Also, I wish more faculty would open up and discuss it with students, rather than let the elephant remain in the room. Maybe this piece will help both sides :) . I always appreciate you writing. When’s the next education post? Ellen

  2. Ellen,

    I’ve experienced the bad class thing. The truth is, some semesters are just better than others. Ironically, my “bad” classes have been with some of the same students who are in my “good” classes at the same time. There are just differences in timing, material, etc. that cause these shifts. I appreciate your head-on approach. I tend to just buckle down and pray for the end of the semester. Probably not the best way to go about it.


    • Hi, Kenna,

      You know, it hasn’t happened in a while, so it would be interesting to see how I’d react now. What has been heartening is when the students from the “bad” class then take a class with an entirely different dynamic, they see that the other class was not the norm. There is a lot to be said for counting down to the end of the term, though. I did a lot of that! :-) Ellen

  3. First time coming on your blog.
    Good post…now going to explore other posts…

    • Very many thanks, Fahad! Welcome!

  4. Isn’t it weird how a class develops a personality seemingly independent of individuals in the class? After 25 years of teaching, I had one in the spring that just refused to get out of “high school” mode, getting the same basic material as four other classes, at least three of which were dynamic! Never could find the leverage point. It’s really frustrating, but it certainly happens. And that class had several “good” students in it, who were seemingly as frustrated with the rest of the class as I was. There have only been four or five classes like that in all these years, and I always wonder what would have happened if they had occurred during the first couple of years of teaching–I’m sure I would have been convinced I wasn’t cut out for this!

    • Donn,
      Nice to see you! Time for NISOD soon, right? Can’t wait to hear about your presentation!!!! Yes, it was definitely daunting, and had I not been teaching so many classes (6 per term at that school–semester system), I would have questioned teaching, in general. You are dead-on that other students become so frustrated about students who don’t take the class seriously. In my book, I actually talk about that in several chapters… that distractions like joker-ing, texting, whispering, etc. are not only annoying for the prof, but really problematic for other students. They just don’t tolerate it. in college.

      I’m glad to hear from you. Have a great presentation at NISOD if we don’t connect sooner!

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