As the school year marches forward, educators everywhere find themselves facing the age-old dilemma of how to sustain the momentum and excitement of the beginning of the semester.
Any given course will develop a rhythm unique to its circumstances—the classroom environment, the content, the students, and of course, the instructor—and that can be a good thing. A sense of consistency can ground students and make them more likely to feel comfortable participating. But if that rhythm becomes too uniform, making the entire class predictable, boredom and apathy can set in.
As Donna Killian Duffy and Janet Wright Jones ponder in their book Teaching within the Rhythms of the Semester, “What can be done to improve this situation? Need we professors confront such periods of low motivation? Yes, we must, for it is these flagging energies and this failing motivation that feed the doldrums. And it is at this period that a number of students drop out of classes” (163).
Below we’ve selected a few excerpts from some of our favorite books offered here at Atwood Publishing, all examining inventive ways to shake up the rhythm of your class and keep students engaged and learning.
In Classroom Communication: Collected Readings for Effective discussion and Questioning, edited by Rose Ann Neff and Maryellen Weimer, contributing author John H. Clarke proposes structuring a discussion as a cycle of inquiry, maximizing participation and engagement with the issue(s) at hand:
“Every good discussion is an investigation, conducted by a group of people who see the importance of seeking answers to an important problem. For a discussion to work, students must become aware of some unresolved difficulty in the content. They must feel the pressure of their own need to know. They must have access to the conceptual tools of the discipline, the terminology, the methodology, and the logical framework used to solve problems. They must agree on the sources of factual information related to the issue. Most of all, they must be led to see that their own management of the issues, concepts, facts, and interpretations is the real work of learning at the college level.”
In The Dynamic Classroom: Engaging Students in Higher Education, edited by Catherine Black, contributing author Kathy Cawsey advocates for the strategic use of silence in discussions, varying rhythm and drawing out student participation with the pause:
“The timing of the pause is its most crucial aspect, and there is a rhythm to it. You ask, you wait, you rephrase, you wait, you narrow down, you wait, you explain.
The waits are crucial. This is the chance for students to think about the question, to formulate their response, to see if anyone else will answer, and to test you to see if they can get away with not answering—if you will answer your own questions. . . .
If the silence stretches, you can break it by rephrasing the question—and then wait again. If no one answers at this point, then narrow down the question to make it easier to answer. At no point in this process do you answer the question yourself: each rephrasing or narrowing down of the question should move the class closer to the answer you are aiming for.”
Last but not least, in Teaching and Performing: Ideas for Energizing Your Classes, authors William M. Timpson and Suzanne Burgoyne explore the use of performance skills to enliven lectures and discussions. One possibility to change up the rhythm of a class is the use of props:
“Props can definitely enhance student engagement and learning in class. If you’re discussing the burdens of power for one of Shakespeare’s characters, for example, borrowing a crown from the theatre department can add a wonderful visual touch. As students respond, each can try on the crown. . . . When discussing some aspect of molecular structure, a three-dimensional model can be invaluable. In particular, students who are new to a subject may benefit from having these kinds of concrete representations available. Trying to clarify complex ideas with words alone can be difficult in any discipline. As simple as these props might seem to you, they can be memorable for your students.”
Duffy, Donna Killian, and Janet Wright Jones. 1995. Teaching within the rhythms of the semester. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass Publishers.