Creating a Learning Environment

There are a number of situations and issues all instructors must deal with at some time or another. Following are some tips and techniques for dealing with those challenges.

Nervousness | Non-Participation | Texting | Sleeping | Student "taking over" | Talking

Faculty "taking over" | Technology Failure | Class Disturbances


Public speaking continually ranks in the top five things people fear most. Even experienced speakers get nervous before presenting. Nervousness can be viewed as a positive sign since it usually means that you care about teaching and how you present yourself to an audience. Following are some techniques to help you handle nervousness:

  • Be prepared. Understanding the content you plan to teach is the best way to be confident in front of a class. Spend time with the topic and learn the subtleties of that type of research.
  • Practice in front of a mirror or with colleagues. If you have colleagues who are willing to listen, ask for feedback.
  • Record yourself. In the absence of an audience, you can rely on cell phones, iPads, and webcams to record yourself and review your strengths and weaknesses while presenting.
  • Be comfortable. Be sure you are wearing something in which you feel comfortable and confident. Find a home base (a position that you stand in when you are not gesturing/walking) that is most comfortable. Placing your forearms on the hipbones and clasping your hands loosely usually works well and helps to alleviate nervous shaking hands. This stance will make you appear confident and will help to put your audience at-ease. Keep your paper notes or iPads on the surface in front of you since holding objects only draws attention to shaking hands. Clasping your hands loosely will also make you mindful of their placement and prevent nervous movements, like playing with a necklace or the change in your pockets.
  • Bring water. If you tend to have a dry mouth when nervous, have water available to sip or suck on sour candy. It makes your mouth water. Sipping water is also a great way to put a natural pause in a presentation.
  • Wear layers. You never know what a classroom temperature will be like and teaching involves a great deal of movement. If you perspire when nervous, wear layers and try turning the thermostat down slightly. Keep a cloth in your pocket to wipe your palms.
  • Relax and breathe. If your voice quavers, take deep breaths and speak in a lower tone.
  • Take your time. If you suddenly forget what you are about to say, glance at your notes or take a moment to collect your thoughts by asking a question.
  • Keep teaching! You often notice your "mistakes" more than your students do. Don't let something that went wrong ruin the rest of the session. Remind yourself that it isn't a big deal - it’s just one instruction session and practice is the best way to improve your skills and increase your confidence.

Students will not participate or answer your questions

One of the difficult things about asking questions is being met by complete silence. If students will not participate or answer your questions, try one of the following:

  • Rephrase the question
  • Wait ten seconds. The silence will usually encourage someone to respond.
  • If you have already established rapport with students by talking to them before the session began, ask them if they would answer. Be sure that you don't unintentionally humiliate anyone by calling on them if they don't know the answer.
  • Acknowledge that they are not answering the question in an understanding way. For example, you may say "I see nobody wants to answer that question. I guess I wouldn't either at 8 am on a Friday." If you impart to them that you understand where they are coming from, they are more willing to participate and not leave you hanging.
  • Use humor or gently tease them to relax them and encourage participation. For example, make a deal with them. Tell them you'll answer this question if they promise to answer the next one. Or ask them an easy, amusing question such as "Raise your hand if you have ever read a book." This usually makes everyone laugh and raise their hand and someone may then be willing to answer the real question. When using humor and teasing, be careful not to humiliate anyone or alienate the class!
  • Try having students work in groups early in the session. This usually loosens them up and makes it more likely that they will respond to questions and participate.
  • Encourage them directly. Ask "Who wants to answer this question?" Make sure not to phrase it negatively such as "Why won't you answer the question?" or "Doesn't anyone know the answer to this question?"
  • Answer the question yourself and ask them to repeat the key concept back to you. For example, if you asked if you can find articles in Library Catalog and have to answer the question yourself, immediately ask them "So, can you find articles in Library Catalog?" and they will all say "No."
  • Remember that sometimes you will not be able to make them participate no matter what. It happens to everyone at some point or another. Don't let it undermine your confidence. If you can't get them to participate, it is okay to change to more of a lecturing presentation style.

Students are texting/on Facebook/focused on something else

There are two philosophies of what to do if students are obviously engaged in another activity on the computer or their phones. Some instructors believe that once students get to college, they should be treated as adults who may make their own decisions about listening and participating. If they choose to check out during a library instruction session and aren’t causing a distraction for other learners, they are the only ones who will be hurt by it in the end. Other instructors believe that more preventative teaching methods should be used in the classroom, like asking students to turn off monitors when the instructor is talking.

Structuring your class plan with activities requires learners to demonstrate engagement and understanding. If students aren’t engaged and are involved in other activities on the computer, circulate around the room and check in with students who are not participating and ask if they need help. Moving around the classroom and making students aware that you can see their activity often helps to focus computer use as well.

Students are spacing out/falling asleep

The best way to handle lagging attention is to prevent it in the first place. Brain research has shown that everyone experiences "mental drop out" but there are some guidelines to follow to minimize this occurrence.

  1. Don't talk over 10 minutes without breaks or a change in activity.
  2. Build in external and internal focus (eg., demonstrations on the screen as external focus and 5 minutes of reflective work as internal focus)
  3. Give downtime between pieces of learning
  4. Use variety and contrast (eg., lecture, group work, self-directed work, etc.)1

For specific tips on how to implement these guidelines, read the Speaking to an Audience, Asking and Answering Questions and Active Learning sections.

One student is "taking over"

There are many ways a student may "take over" a session.

Issue: Student is asking a lot of questions or bringing up personal experiences that aren't relevant or on point.
Solution: "That is a really good question/point but we don't really have time to address/discuss it right now. Let's get together after the session and talk about it."

Issue: A student answers all of the questions and does not give others a chance to participate.
Solution: "You've done a great job of answering the questions so far and I appreciate your enthusiasm. Let's see if someone else wants to take a stab at answering."

Issue: A student intentionally challenges the instructor's authority or control over the class by interrupting and/or refusing to stop talking when the instructor is ready to speak.
Solution: "I can see that you have a lot to add but unfortunately we don't have time to address those issues during this session. I have a number of points to address and time is limited. Let's discuss those issues after the session."

Students are talking amongst themselves during class

If students are talking while you are at the front of the room trying to present, address those students directly and respectfully. If you humiliate them, you will probably end up losing the entire class. Try the following: "We have a lot to cover in a short amount of time so do you mind waiting until after the session to have that discussion? Thanks. I appreciate it." If you have a second instructor in the room, they should approach the students and quietly say the same thing to them so as not to single them out in front of the class.

Faculty member is "taking over" the class

You can use many of the same techniques with faculty that you do with students. Remember to be respectful, no matter how annoyed you may be feeling inside. Whenever possible, address the faculty member individually rather than in front of the class so that you do not undermine his or her authority or credibility. One common issue with faculty is that they interject frequently in an attempt to be helpful. Sometimes it may seem irrelevant, or sometimes they are jumping the gun and you aren't at that point in the session yet. In either case, try to incorporate what the faculty member is saying into your presentation. For example:

"That is a really good point. [Rephrase it]"
"Your professor brings up a good point. I'm going to discuss that in a few minutes."
If the faculty member starts asking questions that really are more pertinent to his or her research than to the students' research, try the following. "That is a great question but I think it may apply to faculty-level research more so than to undergraduate-level research. Do you have a few minutes after class to go over that with me?"

Technology failure

Prevention and preparation are the best ways to handle technology failure. Check your equipment beforehand and make sure it is working. Find out how many simultaneous users a database allows before you use it in a session. That way you won't be surprised. If you have technology failure anyway, consider it an opportunity to exercise your flexibility. If you can't get into one database, have another in mind that would work and use that one instead. Whatever you do, don't panic and keep trying to access that same database. Think of it as a teaching opportunity. Many students will have the same problem one day and your response will teach them how to choose another database or tool rather than just give up on their research. You find yourself in a situation where online access goes down and you’ll need to discuss the concepts without demonstration. This isn’t the end of the world and there’s nothing wrong with shortening the class session in consultation with the faculty member. You can provide followup materials and instruction via email or an online course research guide.

Late comers and early leavers/class disturbances

If someone arrives late to a session, a normal reaction is to try to sum up for the latecomer what has been discussed and get him or her up to speed with the rest of the class. Resist this reaction since it wastes the time of the majority of the students who did arrive on time. Instead, continue on and when you get to your first active learning exercise, take the opportunity to speak individually with the student and explain what he or she missed. If the student is so late that this is impossible, tell him or her to contact you after the class to set up an individual session. If a student leaves early, just ignore it and don't let it derail your session. You can also ask students at the beginning of the session to help you out by showing any latecomers that sit next to them how to sign into the wireless network.

1 Pierce, Deborah. "Brain Research, Learning and Teaching." Music Library Association Continuing Education Workshop on Information Literacy, Austin, TX. 12 Feb. 2003.