I teach a certain course which is part of the obligatory undergraduate curriculum. I teach two groups out of four; the other two groups are taught by two other lecturers. In one group I have about 20-30 students. The other group also started with the same number, but students left the group gradually, and now there remain only 5 or even less; the others go to the other lecturer who gives the same lesson in parallel. One reason is probably that I am a new teacher and still not very good at teaching. Another reason is that the other lecturer is very good.

I feel that some of the 5 students remaining in my class do so only because they are being polite. I appreciate it very much since I put a lot of effort in preparing the lessons, but it is not very efficient for me or for them. So, I thought of suggesting to the remaining students that they move to the other lecturer's group. This way, they will have a better lecturer and I will have more time for research (the other lecturer said it's OK with him). What might be the implications of such a step?

UPDATE: Thanks a lot for all the feedback. While there are many great answers, the one thing that convinced me to keep going was the fact that this is the only way I can become a better teacher. So today I came to class as usual. For some reason, the number of students rised to 10.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – eykanal Jan 4 at 18:18
  • The question in the title and the actual question are two very different things. – Greg Jan 6 at 11:52
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    One thing that I missed on the original reading -- you teach two sections, one of which has a full complement and the other has students fleeing. What is the difference between the two? Is one at an undesirable time of day? Are you a terrible teacher just after lunch? Is there a significant difference between the students enrolled in the two sections for some reason (one possibility is that a section added late is likely to contain more junior or less committed students.) Can you talk about the differences a bit? – arp Jan 7 at 13:25
  • @arp both are at 9:00 at the same location. I think the difference is that in the time I give the lesson to the smaller group, there is another lecturer that gives the same lesson. – Erel Segal-Halevi Jan 7 at 17:30
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    I'm confused. So they remain enrolled in your class, but they attend the class lectures of another instructor (in other words, unofficially switching classes). Assuming this is the case, eventually, there will be homework, quizzes, tests, and grades. Who will manage all that for those students, you, or the other lecturer? Or, are those students actually dropping your class and taking the other class. – Kevin Fegan Jan 8 at 3:03

14 Answers 14

up vote 19 down vote accepted

I’ll speak from the perspective of a student since it’s all I’ve got.

What to do if most of my students leave? I teach a certain course which is part of the obligatory undergraduate curriculum. I teach two groups out of four; the other two groups are taught by two other lecturers. In one group I have about 20-30 students. The other group also started with the same number, but students left the group gradually, and now there remain only 5 or even less; the others go to the other lecturer who gives the same lesson in parallel.

At the end of the day, you can’t literally control where and what your students decide to do. But nevertheless the key points here are the following.

One reason is probably that I am a new teacher and still not very good at teaching. Another reason is that the other lecturer is very good.

You acknowledge your shortcomings and identify strengths in others. This is important, keep reading as to why.

I feel that some of the 5 students remaining in my class do so only because they are being polite. I appreciate it very much since I put a lot of effort in preparing the lessons, but, it is not very efficient for me nor for them. So, I thought of suggesting to the remaining students that they move to the other lecturer's group. This way, they will have a better lecturer and I will have more time for research (the other lecturer said it's OK with him). What might be the implications of such step?

Regardless of your skill at teaching, I ask you: how would you get better if you have no one left to teach and in turn, learn from?

Teaching is reciprocative, students learn from the teacher and the teacher from the students. In large classes, the time and opportunity for qualitative exchange is limited. Think lecture hall size, the professor and students would rarely have 1:1 time with each other.

Since you can’t literally control where students decide to go, you need to have a honest conversation with your current students as to where they want to be, acknowledge your shortcomings, and propose a solution where you will adapt to the situation as best you can.

Whether it is investing more time preparing, asking the more experienced teacher for help, or offering 1:1 time. In absence of a plan, the students don’t know what you are planning and would be fearful of their ability to perform well; communication is key here to ensure that they stay.

Nevertheless, know that moving forward you will most likely have future teaching requirements, if you don’t change and address your shortcomings now, how would ensure your success in the future, as a PhD student, as a professor, as a team lead in industry?

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    "Teaching is reciprocative, students learn from the teacher and the teacher from the students" - you are very much correct. I do learn a lot from teaching the small group, and this benefits the other group (which I teach several days later). This feels somewhat unfair towards the smaller group, though. – Erel Segal-Halevi Jan 1 at 13:50
  • “how would you get better if you have no one left to teach”. But they have someone left to teach: the other group that still has 20–30 students. – user137369 Jan 1 at 14:41
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    "At the end of the day, you can’t literally control where and what your students decide to do. Hence the definition of free will." .. what are you saying here? "You cannot control other people, therefore we have defined free will"? The reference to free will seems pointless here, and is a potential distraction. – FooBar Jan 1 at 14:47
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    @ErelSegal-Halevi But remember that in a small group, you spend more time and attention with each of the students, which kind of balance the fact that the group is first and you may be less prepared. I always preferred to have the first group in the week smaller or more active, it makes things easier and better in the end. – yo' Jan 1 at 19:25
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    @ErelSegal-Halevi and FrankFYC: I Support most of this answer, but I object to the part about the "honest conversation with the remaining students". The students are not teaching coaches, and should not be expected to now have the meta-duty of taking their teacher's "issues" into account. What I would do is ask another faculty member - or perhaps more than one, both a lecturer and a younger TA - to sit in on one of your classes, then give you feedback. Also, since you only have a few students, you can be rather attentive to how they react and cope, and reflect on that some after class. – einpoklum Jan 1 at 19:46

You should discuss this with your chair. Their opinion matters more than ours.

Describe the dwindling number of students as a concern, then see where the conversation goes. Instead of offering your suggestion, invite your chair to offer their thoughts and suggestions first, before you launch into yours. Who knows? Perhaps they will suggest closing down your section on their own and you get what you want. Their response probably also depends on the attractiveness of your research alternative versus their need to find instructors to cover sections they've already committed to offering.

Your chair may also be glad you invited the conversation, because they may have some feedback based on their own observations and conversations with your colleagues and students they would like to share with you. They may be able to tell you how you could get better so you could one day be the instructor who draws away everyone else's students.

But I agree with and upvoted DBB's answer, that trying to dump the class could make you look bad and that if you care about getting good at teaching, you should simply "push through" and deliver the lectures.

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    Please replace "chairman" with "the course' teacher-in-charge or the faculty member in charge of teaching overall". Not clear who the "chairman" is supposed to be. – einpoklum Jan 1 at 19:41
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    @NicoleHamilton: But, what chair? In many (most) universities there is no relevant person, or position holder, whose title is "the chair" or "the chairperson" or "the chairman". – einpoklum Jan 1 at 20:09
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    Okay, perhaps this US-centric. But here in the US, every department conventionally has a chair that runs the department. This is who you would go to first with this kind of issue. – Nicole Hamilton Jan 1 at 20:23
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    [cont'd] The idea that one can have a good academic career by focusing on research success to the detriment of teaching success is so N years ago, where N is at least 20. My understanding is that the OP's position is the Israeli equivalent of a tenure track assistant professor in the US. He thus needs to show good teaching in order to keep his job. If he applies for another academic job he will need a teaching letter, and I struggle to imagine how to put a positive spin on "stopped teaching a class because the students figured out another lecturer was better." – Pete L. Clark Jan 1 at 21:57
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    "Also, I don't think you can assume that faculty with both research and teaching responsibilities all care about becoming good teachers." I think that they all should care about being not-too-bad teachers. I don't think the OP is thinking this through enough -- that unpopular teachers get rewarded by having more time for their research is just not the way academia works. Academia is hard to figure out; lots of times questioners on this site "want" something that is not actually in their long-term best interest. If so, we do well to point it out to them (IMO, of course). – Pete L. Clark Jan 1 at 22:42

I am sympathetic as to why you feel this way based on the loss of students. But I want to answer your question briefly and honestly. The worst possible implications of taking this step is you could look to your department chair like a (a) quitter (b) person who is not interested in teaching (c) bad teacher (d) bad colleague (e) all of the above... Seems like you also were not put in a position to succeed, matched up against a beloved senior instructor.

In my experience as a student, I left classes when I felt the material was over my head and the teacher did not care about it. The smaller class sizes seem like a good opportunity for you to improve as a teacher which will be invaluable in an academic job search or tenure push. If you want to stay in academia I advise you to push through this type of adversity and improve.

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    I also sometimes (as a student) left classes because I felt I could learn it faster by myself or that a different instructor explains it way better. Just to point out that the reason you mentioned is not the only reason possible – lucidbrot Jan 1 at 17:41

The answer to what you should do is "Keeping plugging away with the students you have." There are some side issues here, and I think they are important. First, your colleague is misbehaving. On the surface, it seems noble for him to double his class size for no compensation, and perhaps no immediate damage is done. But what happens when the dean notices that the class size can be doubled at no cost? 1. Probably half the lecturers will no longer be needed. Bye-bye. 2. The remaining lecturers have their class size doubled just because ONE lecturer was OK with it. If I were the chairman, I would have a clear policy against "course hopping" and encourage the faculty to take steps to reduce it. Assuming your chairman is sensible, I would think that the most likely implication from your meeting with him is that your colleague gets his leash yanked. Most chairmen know that it's vital to keep sections even.

Sometimes I teach two sections of the same course which has a TA-led discussion section attached. Sometimes one TA will be experienced and personable while the other is a first-year grad student who barely squeaked by the TOEFL. I absolutely forbid the students from one section attending the other. It's not fair to the popular TA, as his reward for being good, to have more students and have his office hours overrun by extra students. I help enforce this by requiring one quiz per week in discussion, so that the students attend the correct section at least once a week. (And this is a bit of free-but-worth-every-penny advice: Make attending your class worth some small amount of points. It will bring some students back. And it will help you measure how big the gap is between you and your colleague. If a 1% attendance grade brings back most students, then the gap is not that great.)

Second: A lecturer just has to be Dory (the fish in Finding Nemo.) No matter what happens (you fart real loud in class, you give the whole lecture with your pants unzipped, you accidentally offend all the women in class and don't know why, you give a test and the average is 12%, a student with emotional problems has a major meltdown in class, etc.) you "just keep teaching...just keep teaching...just keep teaching...

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    You seem to care more about fairness to the TAs than to the students. If one TA is objectively (much) better than the other shouldn't alternatives such as the TAs alternating between the two groups of students be considered? – Roland Jan 2 at 9:56
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    @Roland Yes, I do care more about fairness to the TA's. Not every teacher can be World's Greatest(TM) and some students are going to have to take their turn with less than perfect professors and TA's. It's good for them, because they get to learn how to learn in less than ideal circumstances; like the "real world." Your proposal to alternate won't work, because the students will still follow the TA of choice. – B. Goddard Jan 2 at 11:01
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    Caring more for fairness to those who get paid than to those who pay is an attitude I don't agree with. If students fail because they've had the bad luck of getting the worse teacher it might help them learn that the world is not always fair but the cost is a bit high in my opinion. – Roland Jan 2 at 12:34
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    @Roland If a student always has the very best teachers, then he'll never learn how to learn in adverse situations. If the white sheet isn't written with spot-on prose, he won't be able to struggle through it. It's certainly not our job to add extra adversity, but we also do no favors when we try to strew all paths with rose petals (in the name of "fairness.") – B. Goddard Jan 2 at 12:45
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    @Azor-Ahai I never said not to consider why. I said to persevere. The OP was proposing to give up. – B. Goddard Jan 3 at 22:09

You have a great opportunity here if you can grab it. You have a very small class, just 5 students, and, if you are willing, you can offer them much more individualised attention than a regular class. Are you sure the students who are left are not enjoying this? Given the small class you should try to engage them, and help them learn the material better.

However, I am under the impression you really want to have more time to do research (I may be wrong, sorry if I am suggesting something that is incorrect) in which case you may not be putting the needed time in this class, but if you are really interested in improving as a teacher, I can't see a better opportunity.

To add further, you have two opportunities here:

  1. Use this small class to refine your teaching potential and get good feedback from your students
  2. Use this opportunity to talk to the other teacher and chair and, if they agree, have more time to do your research

In other words, do not stop this class just because you think the other lecturer is better and the students will do better with him, on the contrary, you (and them) can learn a lot. On the other hand I can understand your pressure to do research, especially if you are on a tenure track or similar path, and any extra time is valuable.

What is more important to you? Do you think you have the potential to end up in an institution where your research will be valued? Or do you think, like most people, that you will end up in an institution where teaching is very valuable? (many institutions will hire you -or not- depending on your teaching abilities)

You need to consider many factors before making a decision (most of which I do not know).

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    +1 for the first paragraph. A small section of non-discouraged students can be a great opportunity to hone one's craft. – Matthew Leingang Jan 3 at 16:04

I get from the question and your comments that the Sturdy Five are the people who suffer the first time you ever teach these classes. The other group is then fine as you have already trained and prepared for the material.

What not to do?

Do not drop the Sturdy Five. Some group will have to be first to endure your lectures. If the other group will become first, they might start to leave as well.

What to do?

Try to reward the first group: give more 1-on-1 time, try to be engaging and help with their particular problems. Use their size to their advantage to outweigh the flaws of first-timer.

Secondly, try to understand what exactly is that what you learn during the lecture with the first group. Maybe you can incorporate some of that in the preparations before the lectures.

You say the other teacher is “very good.” How do you know this? If you are correct, that implies you are able to recognize good teaching. That in turn implies that you should be able to identify what makes it good and develop your own version of those characteristics.

This is a long-term solution; other answers have already addressed your more immediate issue.

  • I was more or less assuming "very good" meant "easier to get a good grade from" when I read the question. I'm wondering if that's something that the OP has thought about as it seems likely to be part of the problem here. – enderland Jan 3 at 20:11
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    @enderland I would assume that while students can go to a lecture they're not enrolled in without anyone challenging them, turning in a test to someone who's not your instructor would be something quite different. – Acccumulation Jan 4 at 21:37

I appreciate your candor and self assessment.

You haven't stated your own background or aspirations but I feel the issue your bumping into is a manifestation of a failure in our academic system.

I have experienced this from the perspective of a student attending an entry level required physics class taught by a professor who was a research scientist.

I didn't transfer classes and attended his class for the tests but attended a much better lecturers class for the normal lessons.

My first professor had research to do, grants to fullfill, TAs to manage, PhD candidates to coach, but due to some policy in our academic institutions a man who might be a brilliant research sceintest is being forced to teach entry level physics when he has no skill as a teacher, which is an entirely different and often non-overlapping skillset from researching, manager, etc.

The idea that we scale teachers based on physical buildings, or the difficulty in grading assignments, or in providing one on one assistance is incongruent with our modern digital communication methods.

In the extreme case a great lecturer can scale to hundreds of millions of people as evidenced by things like MIT Open Course Ware.

In a microcosim this is already happening, teachers assistants are already relied on to do most of the grading, they staff labs where students can receive one on one assistance, and many of the other duties that don't scale and also do not require the skill of a great lecturer.

The thing that bothers me the most is the disservice the process does to students.

Instead of them getting the best quality lecture that allows them to understand and aquire new information with the least friction, they are made struggle with learning from someone who is not adept at teaching, whose aspirations are not to teach, who wouldn't even be teaching the class if they weren't required to, all so that a department can justify the headcount of staff based on the ratio of teachers to students.

Ultimately it comes down to money and how academic institutions are funded. When lecturing is commoditized as a product and then mass produced cheaply (replaying a great lecturer via youtube recording) that completely erodes their business model. They are not acting in the students best interests but in what they think is their own.

To keep your job, not make waves, etc. the other answers are probably better advice.

If you genuinely want to become a good teacher then there is no better way to do it then actually teaching but if that is not your aspiration, only a part of what is required of you so that you you can do what your real aim is, then any way you can lessen them until our academic systems eliminate them for good anyway (great lecturers lecture, great researchers research, etc.) seems like a good idea.

I could be wrong about all of this but it is an area I feel passionate about, criticism welcomed if you disagree.

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    Good teaching style does require practice, but such practice doesn't guarantee it. I have no doubt some of the professors I tolerated projecting textbook pages on a screen and reading them out loud will continue to do so until fired or retired or someone enlightens them on why this is wrong. – WGroleau Jan 5 at 15:14
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    -1 Disagree that online learning is a panacea. Lecturing is fundamentally about questions-and-answers interactions, and this cannot be scaled. There have been many, many cycles of technologies promised to take humans out of lecturing (starting with books...) and none have succeeded. We're already at least a few years past when the craziest hopes for MOOCs have ebbed. kernelmag.dailydot.com/issue-sections/headline-story/14046/… – Daniel R. Collins Jan 5 at 23:23

This question has excellent extensive answers, but I want to add something that I think might help you and maybe somebody else who might ask this quite common question.

You must make a much more important decision asap: whether you want to teach in your future career or make money solely doing research. Don't make the decision lightly. Think about salaries, job opportunities, your interests, ambitions, etc.

If your career plans include teaching, do not drop the class. Push it through and learn as much as you can from it. View 5 students as an excellent opportunity to improve your teaching. You be their student, it will pay off 10-fold in the future. Also pivot the class towards what you are interested in, introduce something related to your research projects. Students will love it.

If you don't want to make money teaching in the future, drop it like a rock. Focus on research and don't waste time.

In my opinion, if you make this decision solely basing on your self-interest, everyone will benefit. Do not worry about others in this matter, they'll do well if you do well.

  • Agree with most everything here except the promise that "Students will love it.". – Daniel R. Collins Jan 5 at 23:25

Are you sure you've considered all explanations other than "I'm a bad lecturer and the other one is much better, hence the students go there"? You say they cover the same content in parallel, but does this mean at the exact same lecture time? I know in my first year chem course, there were 3 lecture streams in the same lecture theatre. The first was at 9:30, the second was something like 2:30, and I think the last started at 5:30. I was assigned to the 2:30 one, and thought it must have been an utterly enormous class to fill a 1500 seat lecture theatre 3 times a day, until I realised that everyone just skipped the more unpleasant times to go to the mid-afternoon lectures. Even if they're at the same time, it could be that the other lecturer's location is simply easier for the students to get to. Maybe you have an accent that's more difficult to understand for them, I know that I had several lecturers in undergrad that took me weeks to figure out (hearing "callum wector" repeatedly in a programming class before I'd taken linear algebra... eventually I clicked that he'd been talking about column vectors).

A possible course of action here is to ask the students that remained in your section why other people go to the other sections, but this has to be done carefully if you want a useful answer - I also remember taking lectures from a new lecturer who constantly asked how things were going but also seemed like he might burst into tears if we gave a negative response. They're probably not going to say "you're a bad lecturer and the other ones are better", but you might get a hint of some of the real reasons (which are likely to be numerous). Try not to suggest reasons to them unless they don't give you any response, and try to do it casually at the start of end of the class. Giving them reasons will skew the responses, but will also let them agree with you instead of bringing up something they might consider a bit rude or insulting if they were the first to say it.

Current college student here. This won’t help your current situation, since I’m not sure you could make such a change to your course’s grading mid-semester, but pop quizzes that comprise 10% of the students grade are an excellent way to ensure students show up.

Make them at the end of class or near the end of class so students have to stay the whole time to take it. They don’t have to take much time, and you can even give something like 50% credit just for taking it. In addition to boosting attendance, this will give you the added benefit of checking your student’s knowledge on the subject and knowing where you can spend more time teaching.

One final thought—if your students aren’t showing up to class then how do you hope to get feedback to help you improve? Keep your chin up and realize the other lecturer has likely been in your position before as well.

  • In many places, this is not feasible, as all students have received a syllabus stating the grading policy. – WGroleau Jan 1 at 18:57
  • Yeah... like I said. So implement it the next semester. – ringo Jan 1 at 18:59
  • I'm not sure this even answers the question. The way I understand it the issue isn't a matter of attendance since the students are leaving the OP's course for a different one all together – Warlord 099 Jan 2 at 14:42
  • @WGroleau: The syllabus is not a contract and can be considered tentative and changed for compelling reasons. – Daniel R. Collins Jan 5 at 23:27
  • That’s likely true in most places, but in many, this suggestion would not be a “compelling reason.” – WGroleau Jan 7 at 6:36

If you quit from teaching, you won't learn to teach at all. The other lecturers had to learn it as well.

Is it possible for you to join the other lecture and alternate with your colleague? One lecture held by them - you can watch them how they teach and learn it - and the other lecture held by you - your colleague can watch you and give you some feedback.

When I was in high school students from faculties of education were coming to our school for practice. They were watching our actual teacher for couple of days and then they were teaching us under our actual teacher supervision. You can try to mimic this, with your department head approval of course.

Student perspective here: In addition to improving your oration, make sure your lesson materials are good.

For me, that's been the single highest most important thing for a good class: quality visual aids, whether it be live math on a white/chalk board, or a slideshow). It's really important that they don't have too much text (that's what the textbook/google is for!). It's astounding how many people get this wrong, both in professional and academic settings. Slideshows are meant to illustrate your point, and add to your speech, and not just be a transcript of everything you said.

There are lots of public resources for improving general presentation skills, which would carry over quite naturally to lecturing. Perhaps those are worth checking out

I am posting my comments as an answer - others have very valid points as well.

By letting your students move to the other lecturer there are several losers here. You and yes even the students. A new teacher is learning. How do you learn to teach with out students to teach? How do you make sure students are involved, listening or even on the same page, how do inspire them to ask questions that will cause you to "Research" . too bad the work, and tests is by "website"; not really provoking reasoning skills and or additional thought. Think on that one student that asks relevant outside the box questions (where you say I never thought of it that way) - adding value to all.

I had a finance class and we were talking about a specific function - the professor had taught for years and in one of his classes an engineering student said why are you doing all of that math to get to the answer; all you need to do is x and then you will have your answer. All the texts and the guidelines taught that function long hand - he as well in his books) . He never thought to do it the engineers way before, I can tell you the engineers method was easy as can be in comparison.

Now think if that engineering student was not in his class or the professor let another professor take over - no matter how good they are; what says you can not become as good or better and the only way to do that is get your students involved in your lectures and provoke them to challenge you .. kind of like stirring you up to research / study.

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