Mid-term is a difficult time for professors and students. Both experience the sensation of time moving far too quickly coupled with the illusion that the end of the semester is an ever-retreating horizon. The excitement that characterized the beginning of the semester starts to wane and disenchantment sets in. It is at this point in the semester when I am filled with the most doubt: about the course, my teaching abilities, and the students. Thus, around mid-term, I open up a discussion with students around what is helping or hindering their process of thinking, learning, and creating. The focus of this discussion is not on course content but on the process of student learning and development. It involves asking questions about how students learn, about how professors teach, and, finally, how we are working together to create an environment that makes teaching and learning possible
Often, however, when you try to open this discussion, you are met with blank stares and silence. It may be tempting to take that as a sign that everything is great or that students simply don’t care. But it is far more likely that students are not comfortable entering into a conversation with a professor that feels like a confrontation. That is because students are savvy. They have been students for a long time and they know the score. Whether or not they have read their Foucault, they know intuitively and through experience that the classroom is awash with technologies of discipline. Visibility in the classroom can too often be met with punishment in the form of shaming, grade reduction, and additional work. So, how do you get students to engage openly in this conversation, in the classroom, with you? How do you go about opening up the discussion when students tend toward silence in the face of authority especially when that face is asking for feedback that may not be entirely to its liking?
For starters, you can prepare for the discussion with the same gusto as any other classroom activity, assessment, or presentation. Take the time to prepare discussion questions that address your concerns and goals and invite students to express theirs. You may want to give the students an anonymous mid-semester course evaluation and review it ahead of time to help you develop your questions accordingly. You also want to make sure that you leave enough class time to devote to this discussion. Five minutes at the end of class on a Friday afternoon is probably not ideal for this purpose. When you and your students feel rushed you are less likely to think clearly and speak cogently and more likely to be irritated, anxious, and defensive. Offering a few stolen minutes at the end of the class can also be interpreted as a lack of genuine concern which discourages students from taking the discussion seriously.
Having prepared, the most important thing you can do is enter into the discussion from a position of not knowing. This is not to say that you should feign ignorance in a Columbo-esque ruse to catch your students unaware and get them to confess! You may, however, want to let go of assumptions that you are the expert on how a classroom should be run and instead, position students as the experts on how they learn. Your actions, words, and responses all flow from this position of relinquishing claims to expertise and inform your comportment throughout the discussion. One way to begin the conversation might be to begin with observations about yourself and areas where you see room for improvement. This not only encourages students to help you with your goals as a professor and also shows them the kinds of issues you hope to address, it also models for the students how to take responsibility for their contributions to the classroom and how to offer constructive criticism. Another way to open up this discussion is to normalize the situation. Let them know that all courses can be improved upon and that not every teaching style or process works the same for everyone. You can frame the discussion by introducing the notion of a class as a collaborative project wherein we all have various roles and responsibilities to help create a useful, engaging, and enjoyable experience.
But no matter how you begin your discussion, open-ended questions will likely be the most helpful contribution you can make. Questions that are too specific like, Do I assign too much reading? are often met with yes or no responses and can lead students to respond the way they think you want them to. Open-ended, however, does not mean vague or unfocused. Questions that are too broad, for example, What do you think about the class so far? often overwhelm or confuse students and tend to pull for responses like I like it or It’s really hard. Questions that are “just right” offer a framework for discussion while still leaving room for students to voice their ideas. Some examples of questions that are “just right” in this context might be How can we make better use of out-of-class readings? or If you could change anything about this course so far, what would you change? If students still offer short, nondescript responses you can ask them to elaborate with questions like: Could you tell me more about that? or How so? By asking questions and pressing students in gentle ways, you can encourage a discussion that not only helps you understand “problems” in the classroom, but possible solutions.
And so, what you get when you engage openly and thoughtfully with your students is more than just an answer to the question, How am I doing? You get a way forward through the mid-semester malaise and feedback that allows you to continue to develop as a professor and help your students to continue to develop as learners, thinkers, and creators.