Category Archives: Classroom Management

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.




Resources, Strategies & Advice

While putting materials together for workshops, I realized my blog doesn’t have an easy way to find resources by theme.  Today’s post addresses that gap. When you visit the blog you’ll see a new menu tab, aptly named Posts by Topic.  It contains a summary of the research-based strategies and recommendations I’ve written about over the past few years in the following areas:

  • Helping Students Grow as Learners
  • Helping Teachers Grow
  • Syllabi & Policies
  • Academic Integrity
  • Classroom Interaction
  • Instructional Strategies

I’ll continue to update Posts by Topic as I blog.  I plan to add a search utility soon.  And most important, I will introduce support materials (handouts, sample documents, discussion questions, etc.) here and on my website in the near future. I hope you find the articles and resources helpful.

Helping Students Grow as Learners

How We Learn 

You can teach facts and concepts all you want, but what’s most important in the end is how students think about that material.


They say hindsight is 20-20.  Evidence suggests otherwise.  Awareness of cognitive biases is a first step toward helping students see what’s around, approaching, and behind more clearly to make better learning decisions.

Influencing Student Learning

Learning results from what the student does and thinks and only from what the student does and thinks. The teacher can advance learning only by influencing what the student does to learn. ~ Herbert A. Simon

24 Minutes

As educators, we know reading, reviewing, and “looking over” the textbook or notes are weak, passive learning strategies.  I can tell them that passive strategies aren’t very effective, but telling isn’t as powerful as seeing that for themselves.

Groundhog Day

Every term there are students who ignore advice, skip the learning resources, underestimate the challenges, overestimate understanding, and study insufficiently. Every first accounting exam triggers Groundhog Day, where students (this time about 12%) have fallen into (some might say they dug) a hole that’ll required extra effort to escape.

Learning to Learn

Should teachers be concerned with their students’ ability to learn? The answer to that question depends on a teacher’s belief about the primary goal of teaching.

Food for Thought (Ignore the Salad)

Can doing well lead to a rebound of doing poorly? Meaning, might students feel licensed to “let up” in a course after doing well? Or might thinking about studying be associated with less actual studying? Or, is doing well in one course associated with licensed behavior (like reduced study time) in another?

Helping Teachers Grow

Big Assumptions

“At its heart, self-reflection requires that you question your assumptions and your habits and ask whether they are useful in dealing with the world around you… In order to truly improve as a [teacher] you must do the hard work of questioning some of your most deeply held assumptions and beliefs…”

Today’s Expert was Yesterday’s Novice

Relationship matters. Recognizing students’ prior knowledge and experiences builds mutual respect. Personal connection minimizes distance and promotes trust.

Enjoy the Ride!

We can influence perceptions about our discipline and shape students’ understanding of themselves as learners. What systems and practices help students identify and celebrate their growth as learners?

Likable People & Effective Teachers

Too many people succumb to the mistaken belief that being an effective teacher comes from natural, unteachable traits that belong only to a lucky few—the good looking, the fiercely social, and the incredibly talented. It’s easy to fall prey to this misconception. In reality, being an effective teacher is under your control, and it’s a matter of emotional intelligence (EQ).

Glass Half Full

An optimistic teacher is motivated by the opportunity to ignite student interest, recognizing that what worked one term may not work as well with another cohort, so it’s important to develop a set of alternatives.

Holes in my Scarf

I wonder how many of my students are dealing with “if only” remorse? Catching problems early, in knitting or academics, saves a lot of heartache. Some students may be trying to salvage a semester dotted with “holes” like poor attendance, weak study skills, procrastination, insufficient time or effort.

Purls of Wisdom 

Teachers need to leverage the power of enthusiasm.  A teacher’s passion for the subject is  important.  But I think peer interest can be  more powerful because students can more easily relate to peers.


It’s not possible to script or control how things will proceed when students are solving problems in class. As I relinquished control student interest and engagement grew. It was scary at first. Eventually I saw that loosening control doesn’t mean bedlam will occur.

Self-Undermining Rhetoric

When we report grade distributions and make cross-student comparisons, we increase the stress and pressure experienced by introjection-oriented students. The external comparison-as-motivation works as long as the student is a “winner.”

Student Disinterest- Who is Responsible?

Attending to student interest isn’t about “entertaining” students as much as it’s about engaging students through teacher immediacy and employing instructional strategies that promote interest. Schussler puts it this way: “Engagement in learning involves formulating a deeper connection between the student and the material whereby a student develops an interest in the topic or retains the learning beyond the short term.”

Engagement in Schooling v. Engagement in Learning

I suspect there’s a significant cohort of faculty in higher-ed who mistakenly believe the focus of engagement is akin to Kumbaya around the campfire. Kumbaya is engagement in schooling, not engagement in learning. A schooling emphasis centers on showing up, talking for points, and surface intellectual activity. Engagement in learning goes much deeper.

Teacher as Student

“Holy cow, this is what students feel like!” I forgot what an awful feeling it is to believe that you are in over your head. When was the last time you were a novice?

Same Old Song

There’s a lot that sets the Millennials apart from prior generations, but the real question I want an answer to is this:  Have faculty always longed for “better” students?  And closely related: Have teachers always thought back to their own time as students as the good old days when students were serious, worked harder, etc?

Syllabi & Policies

Reservations & Setting the Table for Learning

A gentle reminder of the importance of first impressions and the subtle ways negative, implicit messages can quickly mar the learning environment.

Learner Centered Syllabi

Take some time to reflect on how you would characterize the tone of your syllabus and what you could do to make it more learner-centered.

Exceptional Circumstances

I softened my makeup exam policy about five years ago. It consists of one line. “Makeup exams are only given under exceptional circumstances.” When I changed the policy I feared many students would seek extensions or request makeups. That hasn’t happened. Instead, I find myself dealing with the question of how to define an exceptional circumstance. “I know it when I see it” has worked until now.

Ceding Control: Risk & Reward

“The classroom works best when students and teachers perceive it as a place where there is a continuing conversation among interested people, similar to what one might have with friends. A sense of community is not created by rules and laws but by a sense of mutual respect and tolerance” ~Singham, M.

Questions, Plans & Preparation

I believe the best way to plan instruction is to ask myself two big questions. What are the course goals? What are the specific learning objectives? How these questions are answered provides the foundation for all the other decisions in the course.

Why Policies Fail to Promote Better Learning Decisions

If policies are supposed to prevent these unproductive behaviors, why do students still engage in them? Are there reasons why policies don’t work?

Grading Participation- Does it work?

Teachers grade participation because grading it is the only way to get it, right? Embedded in the desire to promote classroom interaction are deeply ingrained assumptions about grading and its effects on participation. If we believe students only do work that’s graded, it follows that we must grade participation to motivate students to speak up.

Academic Integrity

Changing the Economics of Cheating

Rather than blaming lazy students or bad teaching for the growth of Internet-facilitated student cheating,… We must change the underlying economy of cheating.”

Personal Integrity

The literature suggests teachers should routinely exhort students about the importance of attendance. This is more effective than penalties in motivating students to attend. I’m hoping continued messages from me, about honesty, character, integrity, may have some positive impact.

Classroom Interaction

Classroom Discussion Techniques- Part 1

Discussion pedagogy continues to intrigue, inspire and challenge me. There is so much good work being done!

Classroom Discussion Techniques- Part 2

Reflection is a key to advancing learning from the interactions.

Discussion Points & Protocols

The teacher isn’t solely responsible for ensuring the discussions are successful.

Promoting Better Student Questions

“The most distinctive feature of questions during discussion is that they are open for discussion rather than closed for answer.” Dillon, 1998, p.125.

Instructional Strategies

Notes to Myself

By approaching my problems with “What might make things a little better?” rather than “What is the solution?” I avoid setting myself up for certain frustration.

Course Wrappers

Teachers need to consider how we can raise students’  awareness of  cognitive biases, and we need to be aware of own tendencies toward mental shortcuts and foggy hindsight as we approach the end of another term.

Skills & Content: Challenging the Zero-Sum Mindset

A 2015 article in Inside Higher Ed reported only 28% of employers think graduates are well prepared in oral communication (AAC&U survey of 400 firms). The accounting education literature refers to this problem as the expectations-performance gap. The gap persists for many reasons. This post considers just one: misplaced priorities.

Stuff They Should Already Know

If I teach technical content and students develop mastery but they lack “skills” like the ability to communicate informally, have I met my professional responsibility?

Slice of the Pie

In Minds Online, Michelle Miller writes about the “third shift” problem in online learning. The first and second priorities are work and family, in either order. Schoolwork is the third shift. It’s often relegated to the night or whenever the first two “shifts” are completed. It means school work is getting done when the student is tired. I like the analogy. It’s pertinent in other learning contexts, not just online.

It’s a Marathon, Not a Sprint

Running a race embodies so many parallels to learning. Students start the term with big plans and high expectations. They go out hard. Then we reach the 2-mile mark. They regret poor choices, doubt their ability, and consider quitting. I see fatigue in my students’ faces. Attendance is down. Illness is up. The semester feels very long and the finish seems far away. What can I do to help my students finish the term strong?

Of Elephants & Stink Bugs

It’s Thursday. I’m asking questions about the homework. My students are looking back at me with blank faces. No one is volunteering. I’m starting to feel some frustration. Why isn’t the class cooperating like usual?

Content Slavery: Causes & Solutions

All content isn’t equal. Not to mention, just because we cover it, doesn’t mean students have learned it. I’m not suggesting necessary content should be cut, but rather that teachers should be really thoughtful and intentional about depth and breadth of content.

Graded Homework & Taking Risks in Learning

I believe many teachers grade homework because they assume if it isn’t graded, students won’t do it. There is some truth in that, but I am starting to think this is an assumption that warrants testing.

Failure is Not an Option

How many of our students view college with a “failure is not an option” mindset? If more students shared this mindset, would learning be enhanced?

Big Questions

Want to get students thinking? Or perhaps more accurately, want to find out what they are already thinking about? Ask them to ASK questions!

Unproductive Student Behaviors- Technology Distractions

It’s easy to write a “no screens” policy, with harsh penalties and stick it on the syllabus. Finding ways to help students connect with content, making lessons that are relevant to today’s students, and actively engaging them in the learning process each class period is much more difficult. But if we do that, we may find the lure of the phone and students’ habitual checking for updates will be less urgent during the few moments we share with them each week.

Unproductive Student Behaviors- Unprepared for Class

When it comes to assignments, less may indeed be more. I am a firm believer in working hard. Assigning numerous small assignments can mean students are routinely engaging in course content. But, many small assignments can also become so “routine” that they are drowned out and possibly ignored. When was the last time you thought about the number of assignments in your course?

Unproductive Student Behaviors- Deadlines & Lame Excuses

Highly specific syllabus policies that attempt to cover every possible scenario encourage loophole finding. (Think IRS tax code.) Inflexible policies have an implied message we may, or may not really intend: “I don’t care what is going on in your life. This is the deadline. Deal with it.” Highly punitive policies may encourage fraudulent excuse making. Rigid policies may discourage fraudulent excuse making, but at what cost?

Unproductive Student Behaviors- Procrastination

Policies outlining the consequences may seem proactive, but aren’t they really reactive? We believe students will behave a certain way, our policies are responses to those beliefs.  Instead of policies that react, I’d like to focus on practices that prevent or limit unproductive behaviors.

Unproductive Student Behaviors- Absences

If we focus on poor behaviors in the syllabus, we probably shouldn’t be surprised if students behave in ways we seem to expect. Do we want students to do the work, in order to avoid losing points, or are we hoping students will develop a desire for learning? What will happen when the negative consequence is removed?

Of Elephants & Stink Bugs


I lost them.

It’s Thursday. I’m asking questions about the homework. My students are looking back at me with blank faces. No one is volunteering. I’m starting to feel some frustration. Why isn’t the class cooperating like usual?

Isn’t it awful when that happens?

A few thoughts cross my mind. Perhaps they are confused. Maybe they are unsure of the answer. Perhaps they are too embarrassed to admit they don’t understand. But I did such a good job explaining the concepts on Tuesday! The podcast and supplemental packet have worked well in prior semesters. I don’t want to consider the possibility that I wasn’t clear, or the materials I developed aren’t working for this group of students.

I press on. Thirty minutes into a 75-minute period, a brave young woman raises her hand and declares, “I’m not getting any of this.” A second student adds “I don’t see the connection between the material from last class and last night’s homework.”

I am now forced to accept that my “excellent” explanations, materials and examples have not resonated or lead to understanding for these students. Instead of dealing with their confusion up front, I am now backpedaling.

As I tried to find different ways to explain, to make it clearer, a stinkbug (you can’t make this stuff up) swirls around me, and lands on my back! I have to ask a student to swat it off me. I am grossed out, totally off my game and we still have 30 minutes in the period.

What did I learn?

Check for understanding first. I often ask students to write a 1-minute, muddiest-point reflection. Had I taken that approach I could have addressed the confusion more systematically, instead of on the fly.

Teacher pride inhibits learning. I suspected the class’s confusion. But I didn’t want to go there. It meant facing two inconvenient truths: I wasn’t clear in my explanations and my plans for the class would need to be adjusted.   Ego focuses on the teacher’s needs, not students’. In many ways, teacher control and power are the flip side of the pride/ego coin. We’re the experts. If students don’t “get it” it’s convenient to blame them for lack of effort or ability. It’s much harder, scarier and humbling to consider what I could have done differently.

 Without rapport, I might still be in denial. I thanked both students for having the guts to speak up. You could feel the atmosphere in the room change as we acknowledged the elephant in the room. If we hadn’t established an environment where students feel safe to share their confusion, I would not have discovered the problem until the exam.

Good teaching isn’t mistake free. Like my students, I don’t like to make mistakes, especially not publicly. But what a teachable moment this was! We learn more from our failures than our successes. That’s true for teachers and students. I was forced to rethink the concepts and materials. I realized this segment would benefit from adding more active learning strategies. I’m now developing new in-class activities. I’m also exploring ways to individualize the content, to increase personal connections with the concepts. Without the hiccup in understanding, it would be business as usual.

I keep telling my students “we’re here to learn.” But talk is cheap. Changing the schedule, going back to clarify understanding, rethinking activities, and developing new assignments suggests “learning centered” and “student centered” aren’t just talking points. By mucking it up a bit, I got to “walk the walk” by showing them teachers learn from mistakes too.

Photo source: