The Teaching Workshop: Engaging Students during the Last Few Minutes of Class

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Question:

I’m noticing a weird trend in my class. For most of the class, students are very focused on the lecture and discussion is really great, and then all of a sudden, during the very last five minutes of class, students become unfocused and even look tired and do not seem to have the energy to keep talking. How do people avoid the seeming fatigue at the end of class? (I teach in the morning, so this may be part of it, but I’m still hoping to liven them up until the end!)

Answers:

Vanessa Wills: At Saint Joseph’s University, I always taught courses that ran from 8 a.m. to 9:15 a.m., by choice (I’m sort of an early bird). I can say that I rarely had this problem (not bragging!!! just saying there’s definitely hope for eliminating this issue). I took a page out of the book of a German teacher I had in grad school, and I mix things up constantly. One thing that helps when students grow quiet and lose focus is to do a “think, pair, share” exercise. I also break up lecture and discussion into bites throughout the class session. I rarely lecture for more than 10–15 minutes at a time, with pauses for questions throughout.

I also find that forcing students to sit with the awkwardness of a silent classroom and work their way out of it can help. I ask a question, then sit on a table at the front of the room and let them know that I will patiently wait. Even the silence and awkwardness refocuses their attention, and they start thinking of something, anything, to say to make it go away. They always find this a little humorous/funny, which helps liven things up. Conversation usually gradually gets flowing again after that.

I also mix things up between classes that are more lecture/discussion-based and classes where students work mostly on small-group projects (flipped classroom style). It helps that I too will become very bored if we don’t mix things up a little throughout the class, and I’m the teacher! Plus, looking at the faces of bored, upset young people is no way for anyone to start their day! So I’ve been motivated—partly for self-interested reasons—to think of ways to keep things lively, for all our sakes.

Regina Rini: This often happens shortly before time runs out, when some students start packing. Other students hear the packing noise, and this primes them to think, “Oh, this is almost over, no need to focus anymore.” (I assume this happens subconsciously.) That may be part of the flagging: they get fidgety and impatient when they are signaled that the end is approaching. A partial solution: ask people not to pack until class has ended. I tell my students that I will offer them a deal: if they promise never to pack early, then I promise never to let the class run overtime. (And I empower them to call me on it—I will stop mid-sentence if a student points out that we are out of time.)

David Sobel: Some days I allow myself a mid-class break—usually with me telling a joke, but I might also show a brief fantastic nature video—and I think that helps give folks a mental break and even lures some back into the discussion who had drifted away.

Kate Norlock: : I notice this in my more discussion-based classes often. Can you plan a gear-shifting thing to do in the last fifteen minutes? For example, I tell my students at Trent University that we all flag during that hour, and I urge them to bring water to class. At the 45-minute mark, I tell them, “Everyone sip your waters and move your arms around. Let’s keep that circulation going!” At my previous institution (St. Mary’s College of Maryland), I had small enough classes that I even taught them the hand jive. So sometimes we would all stand up and do the hand jive (there’s nothing like chanting, a cappella, “Born to Hand Jive, Baby” to bond a class), and then sit back down and resume talking about philosophy. But one less-demanding gear-shifting thing to do is just pause ten or fifteen minutes before the end of class and say, “Before we stop today, let’s do an in-class writing exercise.” Just changing patterns is enough.

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