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Inclusive Teaching Guide: Responding to Challenges

Effective teaching is a dynamic, not static, process. Whether you have years of experience or are just beginning to teach, there is always room to expand your repertoire, explore a new approach, or reflect on an aspect of your practice.

Tips and Strategies for Challenging Situations

Students will not answer questions or participate.

  • Try rephrasing the question.
  • Wait at least ten seconds after asking the question. The silence will often prompt someone to speak up.
  • Acknowledge their silence in an understanding way. For example, you might say "I see no one wants to answer. I probably wouldn't either this early on a Friday." Aligning yourself with where they are coming from will often encourage someone to not leave you hanging.
  • Use humor or gentle teasing to relax students or lighten the mood. You might make a deal with them, saying you will answer this question if they promise to answer the next one. Or ask a silly question before the real one. When using humor or playful teasing, always be aware and mindful that you are not humiliating or alienating anyone.
  • Have students work or discuss questions with partners or in groups.
  • Encourage them directly. Try saying something like, "Who is going to be brave and answer?" Avoid negative phrasing, like "Why won't anyone answer?" or "Doesn't anyone know?"
  • Answer the question yourself, then ask them again, or have them repeat back what you said.
  • Just keep teaching. You can't force anyone to answer or participate. Don't let it undermine your confidence, this happens to everyone at some point. It is okay to switch to more of a lecture style presentation if necessary.

Students are not paying attention.

  • At the college level, students are responsible for their own learning. If they are not paying attention, ultimately they are only hurting themselves. As long as they are not creating a distraction for other students, some instructors may choose to ignore off-task behavior. Other instructors may feel that it is important or necessary to address. This comes down to your own philosophy and approach in the classroom.
  • Keeping the class moving and incorporating active learning time can help keep students engaged.
  • Circulating around the room whenever possible encourages student attention.
  • If a student is distracted during an activity, consider asking them if they need any help.

Students having side conversations.

  • Try proximity control. Often simply moving closer to the students will encourage them to quiet down.
  • Tell the class if they need to talk about something, feel free to step outside for moment.
  • Try taking a pause. Your silence can signal attention.
  • Say something like, "We have so much to cover today, do you mind finishing that conversation later."
  • Avoid calling people out directly or humiliating anyone. Be calm and respectful in your approach.

One student is taking over.

  • If one student is answering all of the questions and not leaving room for others to participate, you can purposefully direct questions to other areas of the room. For example, "can someone from the corner table tell me..." If necessary, commend and appreciate the student, then ask them to give others a chance, "I really appreciate your enthusiasm, you've been awesome answering these questions. Let's see if someone else wants to give it a go."
  • If a student is asking too many questions or keeps bringing up personal experiences, say something like, "That's an interesting question/story/point. We don't really have time to discuss it now, but we can talk after class."
  • If a student is challenging your knowledge or authority or otherwise dominating the session, say something like "I can see that you have a lot to add. Unfortunately we have limited time, and cannot really address those issues right, but I'm happy to discuss with you after the session."