Beating the Doldrums

I’m currently reading Duffy & Jones (1995) Teaching Within the Rhythms of the Semester. I just finished the chapter titled, The Interim Weeks: Beating the Doldrums. Quite a coincidence! The reading matches my reality. defines doldrums as “a dull, listless, depressed mood; low spirits.” It’s an apt description of post-Thanksgiving break letdown. Are you experiencing it too?  Are your students?

Duffy & Jones describe the doldrums’ implications for learning this way:

“During a class period, professors and student interact intellectually and emotionally; they rely on each other to move the course forward. From an emotional point of view, the response of students can influence a professor both positively or negatively. Students who are attentive and focused in class provide the necessary spark for a professor who is feeling tired or discouraged, and a student with a good sense of humor can shift the mood of a class, redirecting potentially negative feelings into positive interactions… In contrast, the apathy of inattentive students is one of the greatest challenges. The ways in which professors acknowledge the doldrums and the techniques that they use to cope with them are critical, for it is the professors’ responses that will determine whether the semester ends with a bang or a whimper” (pp.162-163).

What happens when teachers overlook or disregard the significance of the emotional ebbs during the semester? Student energy wanes and class preparation falls. Unprepared students can’t engage effectively, resulting in weak class discussions. Flipped instruction becomes less effective when students aren’t motivated or prepared. A common instructional response is to resort to lecturing, which may further decrease students’ energy and motivation.

Some teachers may feel powerless to reenergize the class. Others may not believe it’s their responsibility. A few may blame “students these days.” Absences increase and for some teachers that can lead to resentment and frustration.

What can teachers do to minimize the doldrums?

Reconsider WHAT & WHEN. Some faculty teach material in the order it’s presented in the textbook. That may not be the most pedagogically effective in light of the doldrums. If the most challenging course content coincides with a period of listlessness, learning will be negatively impacted. To address systemic doldrums, like the period after a break, course planning should be designed with a focus on these questions:

  • What topics are typically most interesting, from the students’ perspective?
  • When should the most and least interesting material be taught and learned?

Save fascinating topics for the emotional low points of the semester. Front load challenging material whenever possible, to take advantage of the enthusiasm that exists at the start of a new term.

Reconsider HOW. If altering the content or sequence is impractical or pedagogically unsound, consider introducing a fresh approach when the doldrums occur. Novelty is a powerful force in regaining students’ interest, attention and focus. Do something unexpected. Introduce alternative media, allow different assignment formats or integrate some student choice. Bring in props. Incorporate humor. Integrate activities that encourage interaction and collaboration. Anything that breaks the routine can be the spark that moves learning forward.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) provides a slightly different and visually apt definition of the doldrums: a nautical term referring to a belt around the Earth, near the equator, where sailing ships sometimes get stuck on windless waters (this can endure for weeks!). Without action, the doldrums can persist in the classroom as well. Thus, teachers bear some responsibility for restoring progress. To do so, teachers should acknowledge the doldrums explicitly with their classes. It’s important to explain the reasoning behind the strategies we use to reinvigorate learning. And we should ask students about their effectiveness so that the doldrums are temporary lulls, not permanent fixtures along the learning journey.

sailing ship

What strategies do you employ to lift your students’ sails during the doldrums?  Please share in the comments.


Duffy, D.K. & Jones, J.W. (1995). Teaching Within the Rhythms of the Semester. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.




About Lolita Paff

Educator. Wife. Mother. Amateur chef. Wine lover.

Posted on November 30, 2017, in Classroom Management, Learning, Students, Teaching and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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