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I have been assigned to a section of student where I am teaching probabilistic models. From the starting day itself, I feel something strange is happening in the class. For example:

  • I like to have two-way communication inside the class. i.e. I prefer to have some sort of active discussions. However, the students do not respond at all.

  • Given the above point, I initially thought that it was my fault that they are not finding my teaching interesting. But, I sat with them in other courses which they are taking. It is the same. It sounds strange, but, it is.

  • I can't say they are lazy (c.f. How to deal with lazy students?) because they are doing something else in class. Some are busy coding, some are reading research articles, some are doing something else. Out of 40 students, only ~5 students are interacting.

  • I can't throw them out of the class, as it is against the university rules.

Due to the above reasons, I (and a few other faculty members) do not feel interested in teaching these students.

How can we improve the class environment, given the passiveness of these students?

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    Notice that not all the students like a two-way communication. When I was a student, I've always found annoying the professors who wanted us to communicate. I really didn't like interactive lectures, and I'd skip them. Leave me alone, especially in early morning ;-) – Massimo Ortolano Sep 24 '16 at 21:59
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    There still remains the likelihood that none of the teaching is interesting, yours included. You have not excluded that possibility just by watching them act the same way in other classes. – Nij Sep 25 '16 at 1:55
  • +1. I talked with two of these active guys from my section and it quite matches with your comment. The class is in the evening. (Playing time for young guys) @MassimoOrtolano – Coder Sep 26 '16 at 8:04
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Some are busy in coding, some are reading research articles, some are doing something else.

I have seen (and participated in) this exact behaviour in classes that are minor and irrelevant to the study path students take. This might be an Ecology class for Physics majors, or a Science class for Language majors. Thus, step 1 is to understand students' motivations behind taking your class. If your students only take classes because some governing body requires them to, you have little room to improve their motivation.

To find if this is the case, try asking the students: either directly or by collecting an anonymous poll with 'What is your motivation for this course?' question. If the answers indicate that their motivation is external, adapt.

One strategy I can think of is changing the lectures to project work, literally making the students learn on their own. However, what to do with students who only have external motivation is a separate question. EDIT: since the students seem to be taking the class for the sake of a good transcript, they will not interact with you in the lectures. Their goal is to sit through the lecture, "nine-to-five", and minimize the effort, subject to reaching a passing grade. (Ironically, students are good at solving these kinds of optimization problems.) My advice still holds: if a student is given a project to work on, be it a program, a research report, an essay, a survey, you name it, he has much less space to slack than in a lecture.

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    +1. Yes. I have asked about the motivation behind taking this course. The answer is we just need a fascinating course name on the transcript. This is horrible answer by few students, but it is a bitter truth. – Coder Sep 24 '16 at 22:13
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    @Coder I've edited the answer accordingly. You also may consider changing the course name next year to a less fascinating name. – svavil Sep 25 '16 at 2:18
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    @Coder Actually, a fascinating answer. I would take it with humour. Richard Feynman once wanted to give a specialised seminar without it being inundated with uninitiated audience just eager to see him. So, he invented a boring seminar name, and a dull professor's name and then appeared saying that that professor became ill and he (Feynman) was there to replace him. (The organisers got in trouble later for not making a wider announcement, but the seminar was obviously as meaningful as it was supposed to be). Sometimes, underselling is the secret to overtaking. – Captain Emacs Sep 25 '16 at 21:12
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Some possible strategies:

  1. Make sure the lecture is worth listening to. Don't simply go over what's in the textbook.

  2. Reward the students who pay attention by asking exam questions about examples gone over in lecture.

  3. Put students who obviously aren't paying attention on the spot by asking them questions.

  4. If the class as a whole is doing well on assignments and exams but still appears bored, consider making the material more difficult. (But be careful about this, lest you leave the weaker students in the dust.)

  5. Remind students that they can leave if they don't want to be there. (Being able to say this is one reason I never take attendance.) A classroom with five engaged students is a better environment than a classroom with five engaged students and 35 distracted students.

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    +1 for the answer. point 3: I have already tried and the answer from them is "we don't know". – Coder Sep 24 '16 at 22:15
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    @Coder "We don't know," while likely true, is a cop-out. It must be followed up with "why not?" or "where can you find that information? ... Please do." And wait. – newcoder Sep 25 '16 at 3:30
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    -1 for put them on the spot. – aparente001 Sep 25 '16 at 16:44
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    "We don't know" is a good answer - if there was a real attempt to understand. It's not if that was clearly lacking. Follow up on what is missing in the students' understanding to be able to answer the question. – Captain Emacs Sep 25 '16 at 20:17
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In my opinion, there has been a general (but not universal!) downward trend in student engagement and participation in classes in recent years. In other words, I see more passivity these days than previously. I'll skip the analysis and get to the brainstorming. (You may have tried some of these ideas already.)

  • Incorporate a small participation component (no more than 10%) into your grading scheme. (If you do this, (a) make it clear in the syllabus and remind students of this occasionally -- but don't drive it into the ground; and (b) make sure you do it consistently by making notes right after class, and during class if need be.)

  • For students who are not comfortable participating in a spontaneous way in class, provide alternatives. Examples: online class discussions, asking students to peer review each others' drafts, some "journal" type responses to thought questions. Note that a shy student who doesn't feel comfortable sharing his or her response with the whole class will still be able to participate in this, by sending the response to you individually. Or you could have them participate electronically using a randomly assigned ID. You have to design and test the questions carefully so that it's clear what you're asking, so that there is no one right answer, and so that the desired length and scope are clear (and fit the question comfortably). Perhaps I am making this sound daunting. It need not be if you are collecting feedback in a regular way without getting on the students' nerves about it (see bullet point at end of list).

  • Encourage the students to interact more with each other. I think this is more important than eliciting a particular type of response to something you say in class. Again, this peer interaction need not be in class, and it need not be by speaking. You could be a facilitator of group discussion sessions (maybe 15 minutes per class once a week). If necessary, to break the ice initially, you could pose a topic of discussion that is not directly relevant to your subject -- just to help them over the hump. Using name tags with a fat magic marker so they are easily readable, for the first few classes, can be helpful.

  • Include information in your course about how your subject matter can be applied, and how it can be relevant on the job.

  • Explicitly encourage some assignments to be worked on in small groups. Don't wait until the last month of classes to give this type of assignment, because one of the purposes of this should be to facilitate the forming of study groups. Work a little bit directly with each working group, to make sure that each of your students is getting plugged into a group in a comfortable, functional way.

  • Allow and encourage humor in your class. Ask students to contribute a favorite funny math or science cartoon or short video clip, and project the best once a week.

  • You wrote, "I have asked about the motivation behind taking this course," but apparently you didn't get helpful information back. Try, instead, asking each student to give you a short info sheet about him or herself, including how the course fits into his or her academic goals. You could ask, for example, "What sort of learning style works best for you? What was your favorite class you've ever taken, and why? What was the worst, and why?" Explain that they don't need to write long answers to these questions (so you don't get on their nerves with what may seem like unnecessary, tangential work).

  • Think carefully about what you expect students to do while you are lecturing. Copy notes from board verbatim? Sit and watch the slides go by? Jot down additional notes on a powerpoint hand-out? Sit and watch the slides go by on their own laptops while you stand at the front of the room talking about the slides? Work the sample problems with you, trying to anticipate what the next step is? Look at a proposed proof you are displaying, to discover its strengths and weaknesses? Make up a problem of a certain type, for one or more classmates to try to solve? In other words, are they being set up for a passive role right from the start?

  • Observe other classes, perhaps in some other departments and institutions, to collect intriguing techniques and approaches.

  • Don't wait until the end of the semester to collect constructive feedback. You can ask simple, quick feedback questions at multiple points in the semester. Make sure students are comfortable doing this in an anonymous way, for example with an electronic tool that guarantees anonymity, or by asking a friend or colleague to step into your class (while you step out) for the last 5 or 10 minutes of class on the days you do one of these feedback questionnaires. (If your class is very small, and handwriting can be easily recognized, definitely go the electronic route.)

Keep in mind that human interaction is something like a seesaw. When you are overfunctioning, it is natural for the other party to underfunction. You may need to bring your own tone down, and be a bit less entertaining, in order to allow the others' personalities to come through. I have no idea whether you are coming on too strong and making some students uncomfortable in this way! To find out, ask a trusted colleague, friend or grad student to sit in on a class to provide feedback.

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    +1. Very nicely explained on the possible approaches. I would try. Thank you. – Coder Sep 26 '16 at 4:44
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Your question sounds like you're expecting a silver bullet answer which will magically change your class the way you want it. It is unlikely to happen this way. To change the way the class behaves, you need to understand the reasons of their current behavior. Your first step - to observe them sitting other lectures - was a good one. But you need to take it further, and really dig out the reason(s) behind it.

You can consider checking with your colleagues on the history of this particular group. Were they always behaving like this? Or someone or something pushed them off suddenly? It may take a single lecturer to dramatically demotivate a class, e.g. by giving an appalling and negative feedback to most students.

You can consider talking to them, explaining why the current situation makes it difficult for you to enjoy time with them. You can do it directly or through students' representatives or anonymous email/post. You can ask student support team to step in and help to mediate the case.

Some cohorts are difficult, but honest and open communication is often a key to fix it (at least to an extent). Remember, you are not teaching subject, you are teaching people - so focus on them.

  • +1 for giving an idea about the negative feedback concept. I shall try it sooner. – Coder Sep 24 '16 at 22:11
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@MassimoOrtolano is right.

Not everybody likes to be put on the spot in a lecture. Students may prefer offline studying. Myself, I used to sometimes be "in the interaction zone" during lecture, but sometimes not, and reading post hoc or even only when the exercises/homework loomed. Very variable, depending on mood, energy, etc.

Do they do well? If yes, that's what you want. Don't assume that one size fits all. Frankly, if you want them to interact, don't blame students for passiveness, but wonder what's wrong with your lecture (which may or may not be the case).

Are you too fast? Too slow? Both will kill interaction. And, sometimes, you simply cannot do anything.

I have generally high interaction levels, but I've had cases where nothing I did made a difference. Well, that's that. Find out whether it's you - and adapt your energy; if it isn't, cut your losses and do your honest best, and accept that, at some point, it's the students responsibility to match your investment.

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I have never had this issue, although I do fear that it'll come to me one day. I have nothing but personal experiences to offer (I have never been big on teaching methods) but here goes.

I think the most important is to establish some sort of rapport between you and the students. I generally do this by talking about some concepts that the students don't expect me to know. For example, I know that I sound ridiculous when I do it, but I intentionally use a generous amount of slangs in my teaching. For example, I'll say things like, "Hey, let's integrate the freak out of this function, because like, YOLO." (For the record, I'm at a great R1 school, ranked very very high for pretty much every area).

First of all, they find it amusing that a "grownup" is trying so hard to fit in. Secondly, because it's pathetically funny (I'd love to be naturally funny, but that's not something that I can change easily) they actually want to listen, in case they miss some hilarious moment. Thirdly, it makes me almost one of them, so they feel better about confiding in me their weaknesses, so if they're stuck or confused, they'll actually interrupt me and ask.

This method has its downsides, because some class clowns feel the need to interrupt when they have something funny to say. But you learn to deal with it (eg. "Thanks for that input, but now I'm going to show you that math is even funnier than that.")

But if the students are downright ignoring you and doing their own things, and if it repeats for multiple sections, then there is a clear problem in your teaching method, and I think that you need to find things to entertain your students. If it's just that one section, however, maybe you just got unlucky with the student lottery, and you do your best and bear with them for a semester. Good luck!

  • +1. Right. I am usually somewhat amusing inside class, I guess. Thanks. – Coder Sep 26 '16 at 4:46

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