Perplexed, Part 1

No QuestionsThree or four times this year, students have told me they are frustrated by others making comments or asking questions.  I’m not sure what to make of this.  I run a pretty rowdy classroom, with lots of big-group discussion as well as small-group discussion, but I don’t chase tangents unless they connect directly to the point.  I encourage students to share what they know about the subject.  Most of them do, at one point or another, and seem to really benefit from getting feedback from me and other students about the topic’s connection to their experience.

Today, someone commented in class that

“the class goes too much at the pace of the group, and not enough at the pace of the material.”

When I ask the frustrated students what they would prefer, they suggest that I should shut down questions and be more authoritarian.  Are they simply grieving for a more familiar classroom style?  Are they having trouble finding the links between the topics?  Are they anxious about something else, but can’t find a way to tell me?  They are annoyed and feel they are wasting their time.

It seems to help if I open the floor to the room, so they can respond to each other.  But some students are starting to use this as an excuse, saying that they’re so irritated that they have to take a walk or put their headphones in.  I find this perplexing.  So far my response to them has been to remind them of times when they appreciated having their experience validated.  I also remind them that everyone’s learning needs are different.  I wonder if I should coach them more explicitly on dealing with frustration.


  1. Since you shared that article on grief, I’ve sent it to so many teachers who are frustrated with their students’ frustration. I bet helping students explicitly deal with frustration would help, especially since they’re going to run into so many situations in their lives when things don’t go just the way they want (how old are your students? I’m not familiar with your system and am not sure whether a 2-year technician course is adult education, an alternative to a traditional university program, or similar to a vocational high school track).

    Your reflection is also making me wonder about the choices teachers make about when to open the floor and when to plow ahead; I know that I didn’t always make smart choices, and sometimes let a conversation drag on painfully long when really, my students just needed me to assert something. And I don’t mean giving in to students– I often observe teachers who are essentially waiting to hear the exact answer they’d constructed in their heads, or trying to emphasize a point that’s already been made, both of which frustrate students and turn an otherwise meaningful conversation into a different type of equally unproductive game: guess what the teacher wants to hear.

    Are there certain guidelines you follow when you make a decision about whether to move on or keep a discussion going? The novice teachers I work with would love to hear such advice 🙂

    • *laugh* Grace, you’re great. I’m in no position to give advice, but the exercise you propose sounds too interesting and useful to pass up. I’ll give some thought to clarifying the “decision-tree” in my head that surrounds student comments/questions, and dedicate a post to it. If anyone else reads this and tries it, I hope you’ll link back here — it would be really interesting to compare different approaches.

      • I should clarify that this situation arose in response to the class getting enthusiastic in asking questions of me… not me trying to prod responses out of them. They were calling out theories about why a circuit worked the way it did, debating which model to use to solve a problem, comparing to other circuits we’d studied, and what if we turned the diode around, would the voltage be negative?

        That particular hour had been full of thought experiments (not proposed by me!) and students trying to prove me (and each other) wrong (or right). We had had small-group discussions and large-group report-backs. Several people contributed anecdotes about how the topic related to their real-world experience (often in the form of, “I didn’t understand it at the time but now I think that must have been a rectifier”). By my calculation, the students were engaged and excited about the topic. That’s why I was so perplexed by the unhappy students.

        Incidentally, I wrote a bit about the demographic context on the About page — might shed a bit more light on the situation. Thanks again for the thoughtful reply!

  2. I’ve finally been able to read through your posts and find your writing, and your thougths delightful! As our college – yours and mine – moves toward more and more integration of critical reflection (which we’re calling ‘portfolio approach to learning’) into all that we do, we’re looking for exactly these kinds of conversations. Grace refers to making explicit the connection between the classroom frustrations and life. As your students become more skilled in recognizing and speaking frustrations within the classroom, there’s opportunity to springboard to learning styles, personal preferences for work environment, personal tolerence an respect for differences, all of that. Sounds likel an exciting, dynamic environment for curiousity to lead to learning well beyond the content. Nice!!!

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