It’s Not (Always) the Students’ Fault

Eric Vanden Eykel describes how he learned firsthand how faculty members’ failings can become opportunities for positive change.

August 17, 2022
Students in a lecture hall.
(skynesher/E+/getty images)

One of the most important things my students have taught me is the importance of acknowledging when I have failed them. It all started with the first class that I taught. The class was in the six-week summer term, and I was a Ph.D. student. I chose readings and assignments carefully and overplanned our time together down to the minute. I was ready—or so I thought.

Two weeks in, this course was well on its way to becoming one of the worst ever taught in the history of higher education. At least that’s how it felt. Students seemed bored and disengaged. They came to class barely prepared, and their assignments were … not great. The first couple of days had been lively, but things went downhill fast after that.

At the end of the first week, I was frustrated, but I concluded that it was probably just timing. The class fulfilled a general education requirement, and who wants to take one of those in the summer? Plus, we met every day of the week. Surely that was it.

But by the end of the second week, I had started to blame the students. I was doing everything in my power to make things interesting, after all. They were just slackers and were probably taking the class in the summer because they failed it during the regular academic year. I had high standards, and it was the students who were failing to reach them. Certainly, none of this could be my fault.

As I marinated in my frustration over the weekend, however, I began to think: What if it’s not them? What if I’m doing or not doing something that’s preventing them from connecting with the material? What if it is, in fact, me?

When I arrived to class the following week, I started by telling them that I was disappointed by how things had been going as of late. When I saw a few nods around the room, I realized I was not alone. I reminded them that we were only a third of the way into the term and that there was plenty of time left for us to do things differently, at which point the nods intensified.

“So,” I asked, “what would it look like for us to do things differently?”

Piercing silence.

But then a hand went up. “I liked when you split us into small groups on the first day of class and had us discuss a few things and then share our answers. Could we do more of that?” This was met with more nods from around the room.

Related Stories

Another hand. “I’m confused by the reading assignments. I feel like if we had more specific questions, and more specific things to look for, that would be helpful.” More nods.

Yet another hand went up. “I think if we had more frequent short quizzes on the material, it would keep us accountable and give us feedback so we’ll know if we are on the right track.” I was actually surprised at how many nods this received, and I promise I am not making this up.

I assured the students that I would work on implementing those things, and I encouraged them to let me know if they had other ideas. I thanked them for their patience with me and for their willingness to vocalize their frustrations.

The transformation that followed over the next few days and weeks was noticeable. The class wasn’t perfect (as if there is such a thing), but we learned together what that particular classroom experience should look like. And we did that by being honest about our successes and our failures and by being open to new approaches.

New Expectations, Priorities and Questions

Students have quite a bit to teach their professors about what the college classroom can be, and the experiment I’ve described has been as formative to my pedagogy as any other I’ve tried. I am a huge proponent of holding students to high standards, and I want everyone to leave my classes with a sense that they have accomplished something. (It’s also good if we try to have a bit of fun along the way.) But what this experiment convinced me of, and what it continues to remind me of, is the importance of realizing that when students are not performing in the way that you want them to, the best way forward may be to: 1) create a space where students feel comfortable sharing what they need from you and then 2) actually listen and respond accordingly.

It goes without saying that the college classroom isn’t the same as it was 20, 10 or even a few years ago. Reading and writing expectations have evolved. Students are consuming and producing new types of media. The traditional final exam and the end-of-term research paper—hailed for decades as the gold standards by which learning is ultimately measured—are now painfully antiquated in so many ways.

The COVID era has also introduced new challenges and exacerbated old ones, and student motivation and learning styles have undergone particularly drastic shifts since the start of the pandemic. It is possible to blame lockdowns and poorly conceived and implemented virtual learning for some of what’s happened, but it is also the case that students are coming to college with new expectations, new priorities and new questions. In fact, they have been for some time. To pretend that their needs are the same now as they were five years ago—much less 10 or 20—is to bury one’s head in the sand.

“Because that’s how we did it when I was in college” is a fairly common sentiment in certain corners of higher education, but it is not a logical or compelling reason to justify doing something. In the face of the new challenges, questions and needs that students are bringing to the classroom, we need to interrogate many of the tried and true pedagogies that have worked in the past and, in many cases, replace them with more relevant approaches.

To be sure, there is no one size fits all for the college classroom, and so what works in one context may not work in another. And what works for one group of students may make little sense the following year. Such is the challenge of education in the context of our rapidly and persistently changing world.

But new semesters present chances for fresh approaches to old material. They also present chances for failure as well as the opportunities that such failure brings. When a student “fails” at an assignment, a good professor will help them understand what they did wrong and then provide timely, clear and encouraging feedback to help them improve. This is the type of space where learning can happen.

But it is unwise to speak of failure as if students have a monopoly on it. They don’t. Faculty fail as well, and we do so in ways that are often glaringly obvious. And just as students are expected to learn from their failures, and to adjust their approach accordingly, we likewise should be open to acknowledging and learning from those moments where our own pedagogy falls flat.

Creating Space for Meaningful Feedback

The feedback that students provide to us as faculty is obviously of a different sort than what we provide to students. Most students will not be comfortable approaching their professor after class to let them know that the comments on their last writing assignment made no sense, or that they lecture too quickly or assign readings that are too long or too advanced. End-of-term course evaluations are famously fraught with difficulties of various sorts, and they also arrive after it’s too late to make changes for that term.

Some institutions flag classes with habitually and abnormally high failure rates and then collaborate with faculty who teach those classes on more appropriate and realistic learning outcomes, as well as more current and effective pedagogies. Yet that approach assumes adequate funding of support staff and other resources to facilitate such things—not to mention good faith on the part of the administrators who are doing the flagging. As a result, in many contexts, final responsibility for cultivating a sense of self-awareness and also creating a space for meaningful student feedback lands on the professor.

So what does it look like for a professor to create a space for meaningful student feedback during the semester? Answers to this question should and will differ in light of a number of factors, including your own positionality and employment status, as well your institution’s climate. The experiment I described at the start of this piece, for example, will not work everywhere. In hindsight, I’m actually a bit surprised it was as successful as it was. At the time, I was a contingent faculty member at a research university where many students had been conditioned to not voice opinions on such matters—especially not to the person who was in charge of determining their grade. I’ve tried to start similar conversations in other class settings with mixed results.

But public conversations aren’t the only way to elicit student feedback. Some faculty have adopted the practice of a midsemester check-in, in which students respond to questions on a survey. You can administer them in class or virtually, and your LMS will probably allow anonymous responses, which may encourage some students to respond more openly and honestly. You can also, of course, administer such surveys sooner in the semester and more often.

Regardless of how you go about eliciting student feedback, making the effort conveys to students that you are invested not in faceless, hypothetical, idealized learners but in those who are actually enrolled in your class. It shows them that you see them for who they are, with all of their interests, abilities, strengths and, yes, even shortcomings. Because change is hard, and because many people are convinced that they already know what is best for their students, such conversations can be difficult and messy things. Yet whatever form they take, these conversations play an essential role in the process of learning, which is neither a one-way street nor a formulaic, simple affair.

Share Article

Eric Vanden Eykel is associate professor of religious studies and the Forrest S. Williams Teaching Chair in Humanities at Ferrum College.

Read more by

Eric Vanden Eykel

Back to Top