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I had this happen today, and several times before. I had had difficulty preparing the material, because I knew my students strengths and it didn't seem suited to them. However, it seemed the right material at the time I was preparing.

As I gave the lecture, I noticed the students seemed unusually bored. There were few comments, and as I lectured I doubted my choice of lesson plan.

This is a senior-level course without a fixed syllabus. I could have abandoned ship and went on to other material.

What should be done in this situation? Is it ever advisable to openly abandon a lesson plan when it isn't working?

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    $\begingroup$ And further: what do you do when you realize two weeks into the course that your course plan is not working? $\endgroup$ – JDH Mar 19 '14 at 14:02
  • $\begingroup$ +1 Real shop talk! $\endgroup$ – benblumsmith Mar 19 '14 at 23:56
  • $\begingroup$ @JoelDavidHamkins, I think that would be a very interesting question. I don't have any ideas for that one and would love to see other's thoughts on the subject. $\endgroup$ – David G Mar 20 '14 at 3:11
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    $\begingroup$ @DavidG You should ask that question; the number of questions per day is slowing down anyways. $\endgroup$ – Brian Rushton Mar 20 '14 at 3:15
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The first lesson I ever taught was on Standard Deviation to a high school Intro to Engineering class. It went fabulously and I stuck to the lesson plan covering every point on my slide show and getting through every activity only having to shorten the pair and share activity due to time constraints. The students understood everything, responded to discussion well, and the observing teacher gave me a glorious review.

Then I had to present the same lesson to my Education class. Within the first five minutes, I realized that there was only a single person in the entire class with the background needed to understand the mathematics I was presenting. This made the warm-up exercise and discussion extremely one-sided. In that moment, I decided to abandon my lesson plan and launched into a discussion about crappy furniture. Every college student can understand crappy furniture even if none of them understood what variance had to do with it. By the end of the lesson, most of the students had a reasonably good grasp on the concept of standard deviation and how it relates to Ikea.

Any time you're speaking to an audience, you have to pay attention to their attitude and capture their attention. In my example it's a bit different than most teaching situations because I had prepared for a class that had the background to understand my content but the idea can carry over to any classroom. If either they don't get it or you are having an off teaching day. It could be time to switch gears and doing that midway through a lesson is not a terrible idea.

Making a habit of going off-topic is ill-advised. I've heard horror stories of professors who just go off on tangents for most of the lesson. This not only creates discontinuity in your teaching but is a waste of valuable instruction time. While this may be interesting every now and then, if it's your go-to teaching method, there is a problem.

If at all possible, have a plan B. When I prepared my lesson on Standard Deviation, I had weeks to work on the lesson plan and had a variety of topics to generate discussion in case the class decided to be sleepy and quiet that morning. So when my education class was not responsive, it wasn't hard to come up with something that they could relate to but still stay relatively on topic. When working on a lesson plan, considering the question 'What if this bombs?' is not a terrible one.

I don't believe there's an easy method of knowing if a class is bored or lost or hungover but I think the best way to tell if you should jump ship on your lesson plan is to know your students. Could you drop the lesson plan and just have a discussion on the topic? Would they be able to follow and participate in such a discussion? Is that something that would interest them? Would they get more out of a discussion than the lecture right now?

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    $\begingroup$ @TimSeguine You're right - and my attempted joke is inappropriate for comments anyway. I've deleted it. $\endgroup$ – user37 Mar 19 '14 at 12:23
  • $\begingroup$ I don't really understand your remarks about furniture. Could you explain the point you are making? $\endgroup$ – JDH Mar 20 '14 at 2:19
  • $\begingroup$ Sorry. In class, I made a connection between variance in manufacturing and difficulty in putting together DIY furniture. That's not really the point though, just an interesting story of a time I managed to ditch the lesson plan and not bomb. $\endgroup$ – David G Mar 20 '14 at 3:10
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My suggestions (which assume that you are a lecturer in a large university class):

  1. Design lesson plans with hinge questions that check for important understandings. In a large lecture hall, you can use individual student response devices so that every student votes on their answer to the question, and you get to see the distribution of responses. This allows you to make your decision about how to proceed with the lesson plan based on data, rather than just your intuition about what they understand. Sometimes people are bored and do not ask questions because there is nothing new in what is being presented. For more information about this, see Dylan Wiliam's book "Embedded Formative Assessment."

  2. This is related to the strategy from #1. When the results from students come in from your voting system, they will often be quite mixed. One immediate strategy to use here is to ask students to discuss their solutions with each other before moving on to explain why A (or whatever) is the answer. See Eric Mazur's "Peer Instruction." The benefit here is that, in general, students will move to better understanding if they have an opportunity to get feedback on their thinking, and discourse with someone else is an excellent way to get feedback.

  3. Design your class so you regularly get feedback from your students on what they understand, and use this feedback to help design your lessons. This will help reduce the probability that the lesson you design doesn't meet their needs, because you will have much more knowledge about their needs.

  4. It is really difficult to deviate from something you have planned that is not working, and then on-the-fly come up with a better plan. It is better to have prepared two or three possible plans (one of which is well-prepared and the other two of which might be more loosely sketched out) planned ahead of time, so that you are not stuck going in a completely different direction with no idea what it will look like.

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Absolutely! Abandon your lesson plan. If its not working, it's not working.

I've had this happen numerous times. I literally stop teaching and go back to the beginning of the lesson and start over using formative assessment.

I know my students understood some of it, I just need to figure out which part. Then, once I figure out where the misconception is, I'm able to ask questions to help students make connections and move on or not.

Just the other day, I had to completely stop, think of another way to explain it, and start over. No one understood the first way, but 85% (formative assessment) understood the second way.

Well worth stopping, rethinking, and starting over.

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