Sometimes I think the most important quality any teacher can have is flexibility — the capacity to adjust quickly to whatever is happening in the classroom. The more flexible you can be about course design and approach, the more authority your students can take in shaping those aspects, and the more likely they will take responsibility for their own learning.
To put it another way: All the preparation in the world won’t help if you turn up for class on the first day and discover your students aren’t nearly as skilled as you thought they would be. What’s required then is the ability and willingness to change your lesson plans to suit the students you have in the room, rather than the students you wish you had.
As the semester goes on, faculty members must continually adjust to all the ways that teaching in a real classroom manages to diverge from our plans — when an activity takes much longer than expected, when students don’t understand a concept we find straightforward, or when half the class is sailing through while the other half is struggling to keep up. As I wrote last month, flexibility is also at the heart of making sure your courses are accessible to all students. Rigidity keeps us from giving every student — no matter their limitations — a chance to succeed.
There’s a growing consensus in psychology that flexibility — sometimes figured as "emotion regulation" or "adaptive strategies" — is a key feature of psychological health. Being able to adapt as situations change, manage mental resources, and balance competing desires and needs is essential for navigating a complex and unpredictable world. What’s more, psychological inflexibility — often described as rigidity or a lack of sensitivity to context — is associated with a number of common mental illnesses: depression, anxiety disorders, and schizophrenia, among others. Think about the phrase "well-adjusted." To be a psychologically healthy person is to be able to successfully adjust to conditions outside of your control.
As it is in psychology, so it is in pedagogy. There’s very little benefit to rigidly adhering to your initial conceptions of a course. Particularly now, as you enter the second half of the fall semester, being able to take stock, to pay attention to how your courses have diverged from your initial plans, and to adjust accordingly is a hugely valuable skill. Do the plans you made still make sense? Although it’s later than you think, it’s not too late to adjust the trajectory of your course based on what you’ve learned so far.
And you’ve learned a lot. For one, your students are not the theoretical beings they were when you were first sketching out your syllabus. You’ve gotten to know them, if not individually, then as a group. What kind of a group are they? How have they responded to the course so far? What approaches have worked well, and which ones have been like pulling teeth? You should have a decent sense of your students’ various strengths and limitations, what they are good at and what they still struggle with. All of this is useful information going forward.
Ideally, the flexible instructor is always paying attention to student feedback and making little adjustments as new information comes in. Try using students’ work as a source of information for on-the-fly planning, just to make sure you’re not stubbornly following a map to a country that no longer exists. The in-class work and assignments they’ve completed can give you valuable data about their capabilities and shortcomings. As you look over their submitted work, look for patterns — repeated errors, difficulties, and misconceptions — that can guide your teaching in the weeks to come. This is a process best done after you have graded some of their work. First, you evaluate how students did, and then you assess the results to determine what students need.
Whether or not you’ve made course adjustments so far, the midpoint of the semester is a great time to explicitly ask your students for their views.
Three years ago, I wrote about Peter Filene’s unique approach to the midterm course evaluation, and I still use his exercise in my courses today. I hand out index cards and ask the class to fill them out anonymously. On one side, students describe something that has worked well in the course so far — something that has been valuable to them. On the other side, they write about something that hasn’t worked well, an aspect of the course that they think should change in the semester’s second half. I collect the cards, shuffle them, and redistribute them at random. Now that everyone has someone else’s card, I can feel free to ask students to read them aloud. It’s a way to start a conversation about how the course has been going without putting anyone on the spot. You get to hear your students’ honest opinions, and you signal to them that you care about their views. Even if you don’t drastically alter things going forward, the exercise shows students that it is their course, too, and that they have a hand in how things will proceed.
It’s also worth engaging in some self-reflection and reassessment. Now is the time to look back on what you planned for the semester and decide whether or not to stick to those plans. Take a look at your syllabus — in particular the goals you sketched for the course. How much progress have you made? Are you heading in the right direction? Remind yourself of your destination and turn the steering wheel accordingly.
A rigid adherence to a calendar you planned out in August is in nobody’s interest. Certainly there may be elements of your syllabus that you can’t change halfway through the semester, but you don’t need to feel completely handcuffed by your initial plans.
In a rhetoric course I’m teaching this fall, the biggest changes I’ve been making have to do with the number of readings on the schedule. Readings take valuable class time to unpack and discuss, and I’ve started to worry that we don’t have enough time for the practice of skills my students need. Particularly in light of their first papers, which showed that many of my students need help with constructing effective sentences and paragraphs, I decided to thin the calendar a bit.
In the psychotherapeutic approach known as acceptance and commitment therapy, therapists help patients identify their central personal goals, and then coach those patients to be flexible in the face of changing conditions as they pursue those goals. To cultivate pedagogical flexibility, we need to let our goals for our students guide us, even as we adjust our methods when things don’t go as planned.
As any experienced instructor will tell you, students have a way of showing us — clearly — when a teaching technique does not work. When that happens, all we have to do is pay attention, and adjust accordingly.