That Class Everyone Loves to Hate

October 29, 2017

It could be a letter in your departmental mailbox, an email, or an announcement in a departmental meeting. However it gets to you, you have just found outthat it is your turn to teach (fill in the blank) - the class everyone loves to hate. What is the class everyone loves to hate? It is that one class in the curriculum all students seem to just loathe to the core of their being. It does not really matter if it is a foundational, lower division, introductory course that surveys the field, or if it’s a pre-capstone, upper division, advanced course that focuses on research methods or some other topic the students find forced or irrelevant or even painful. Either way, they seem to always hate it regardless of who is teaching it. And, therefore, you are not even in the class yet and you are already starting to hate it, too. This is a lose-lose situation that will inevitably spiral downward, or at best be a barely tolerable experience everyone suffers through. Unless, you do something to break the cycle by letting students see how important this is and why. To do so, here are some strategies to consider:

  1. Make explicit why this class exists. It had a purpose at some point, and it likely still does. No matter how irrelevant or unnecessary it may appear to students on the surface, you and your colleagues decided it was critical to student success in the major and necessary for them to graduate with a degree in the discipline. So, why is that so? Experience tells me it is because the focus of the class is on something students will either likely use, or build upon, later. Or, it is because the focus is something that is inherently not very fun or interesting, but a necessary part of being or doing work in the discipline in order to get to the fun and interesting parts. If you can concretely identify why the class exists, and what its purpose is in the curriculum, you have an inroad to make it more relevant and obviously necessary by connecting what they are doing now to what it will enable them to do later.

  2. Pull back the curtain and let students see how important this is and why. Immediately above you answered why the class exists, why the topics in the course are important and necessary. The next logical step is to make that transparent to the students. Many times, dislike for a class stems from not understanding how this content is connected to a larger whole. The solution is to make that connection explicit. How do you use what is covered in the class? One strategy is to make even brief space in class, even as aside comments, about how you and your colleagues in the field (as practitioners and/or researchers) use, or draw from, what is being covered in the class.

  3. Reveal how you approach aspects of your work that are necessary, but not necessarily what you enjoy. How do you think about that work? What enables you to have the resilience and grit to push through it to “get to the good stuff”? Talk about this with your students. Use it as a way to frame your collective push into and through this material. Learning is not always fun, and this is an ideal opportunity to help students meta-learn, to become better learners, and find intrinsic motivation from applying a process of discipline and diligence towards desired ends. The process itself does not have to be fun, or even an overtly positive experience. However, the end result should be an intrinsic feeling of accomplishment, purpose, and success. For example, students have just finished a unit where they have tirelessly and persistently worked through how to solve a particular problem (discipline does not matter here, so insert whatever kinds of problems your discipline addresses). It has been a grinding process of iteration. After each iteration of trying to solve the problem, or type of problem, ask the students how they are feeling about it now versus before. Not how much they are enjoying it, but how they feel about it. You should expect comments now focused more on the learning process, and less focus on how they feel about the material (e.g., “I feel more confident in applying concept X to solve Y problems.” versus “I really do not like Y problems or understand why they’re necessary.”).

  4. Make students own their disdain, confront it, and then move past it. Start by identifying why do students hate it? For example, if it is because the content is perceived to be irrelevant, give them an assignment to start looking for examples of class topics in their daily lives and bring those to class or section (or create an online repository for them to add links, images, etc. - which can be a useful resource the next time you have to teach the class!). In one instance on campus,  a faculty member assigned to teach a pre-capstone course knew the issue for students was perceived irrelevance, and so redesigned portions of the class to infuse direct relevance. It was not that the content was more relevant than before, it is what the professor had the students do with the content that changed. Students approaching graduation would soon be asked to present their ideas, and to do so to lay audiences. So, instead of only the typical research paper, this professor had student groups do weekly blog articles explaining aspects of the course topic to a public audience. The professor reported that the students had great fun with these activities, built very concrete skills on top of what was being learned in terms of content, and ultimately expressed that the class was not nearly as “bad” as they had heard (*also received the highest SET scores the course had seen in the past decade - students really did have a better experience).

  5. If it is because it is perceived to be too much content, or too hard, or too abstract, or too… anything, ask students to first offer rationale on why they think it is the way it is. Then, ask students to offer suggestions to improve it. Even if you do not get a lot of great ideas that you will act upon, you will open a dialogue with students that we are all in this together, and we do have a driving purpose here. No one designed and teaches a class everyone hates for the fun of it, because it’s not fun. Instead, let us try to turn our attention to any or all of the four strategies outlined above designed to improve the student experience, your experience, and learning overall.

Ultimately, not every class is going to be everyone’s favorite - you or your students. However, you do not need to be stuck teaching a hated class, and end up powerless to do anything but hate it, too. Most of the courses with this kind of reputation are requirements, and fixed in many ways (must cover topics A-Z or students will not be ready for the next course in the sequence). But, what is not fixed is how you engage with students and the conditions you create for learning to happen. Find those malleable pieces or spaces in the course where you can focus on any or all of the tips above, and leverage them whenever and wherever possible. Not all course are fun, not all learning is comfortable, and some things we do just need to “push through” in order to get to the good stuff. Motivation and curiosity play an enormous role in learning, and so we should lean on opportunities to cultivate these, especially in the class everyone hates.

Of course, this all assumes there is a very good answer to Tip #1 above. If not, and you got stuck there, it is time to talk to your department Chair, curriculum committee, or appropriate person/s about a curriculum change.