Three steps to save a dying lesson

Man being rescued

We’ve all been there. You poured your heart into your lesson plan, but the clever activities you thought would thrill fell flat. Where you’d anticipated squeals of delighted discovery, you see blank — maybe even embarrassed? — faces. Something is wrong.

For the newer teacher, this is the stuff of nightmares. Like a frantic stand-up comedian feeling themselves bombing, you might be tempted to go bigger — to pull out a new, unexpected activity. That fun one they always enjoy. Might not be connected, but it gets the job done.

Of course, if you truly want to educate your students and not just entertain them, you need to know what happened. Was it just a boring activity? Were your instructions unclear? Did your grammar explanation confuse them and make them hesitant to produce? And most importantly: are they learning what they need to learn, and if not, how can you help make this happen?

Three intervention techniques (that are also just good practice)

Here’s where you differ from the stand-up comedian: you’re not a performer, you’re a teacher. You can ask your students for feedback while your lesson’s in motion; you can find out what they need.

The options for doing this are endless. Our favorite three-step plan is as follows:

STEP 1. Do an objectives check

Every activity is done for a reason. Understanding these reasons will help your students invest in the lesson, as well as giving them critical information to reflect on. At the end of a crucial activity — even if it’s dead-quiet and some students are glaring — share what you were trying to achieve, and ask students to identify gaps.

For example, you might say:

“We did this activity for three reasons. First, to help you get to know your colleagues better. Second, to give you experience using the vocabulary for this week. And third, to make sure you can use past simple, present perfect and past perfect to talk about your life.” 

“Now think… on a scale of one to five, where are you at for #1? What do we need to work on to help you get there?” And so on…

Modify, of course, for level and community — you might board the points, use your fingers, or even do this anonymously. And as students share, carefully listen to what they say. Don’t be defensive about your lackluster activity; focus on helping them articulate their competence gaps. Try to identify a pattern of need that you can address in the next stage.

Guided reflections like these open a conversation with students — a shared examination of their learning and confidence, exposing learning needs that can then be addressed. This also puts some responsibility back on students for their learning, increasing their buy-in for the next step…

2. Do an impromptu activity to address the need

Your students have just shown you that they need something. Your job is to help them get it. Perhaps the problem truly was that they were bored, and they needed that fun stand-by you had up your sleeve. Go for it.

But if the issue is more complex — and it probably is — you actually have in front of you a golden teaching moment. You and your students are aware of a pressing gap, and you’re collaboratively setting out to fill it.

How you do so depends on the need. If a listening was too hard, you might play it several more times and pull up a transcript on the screen. If it was a reading activity, you might have students delve into the text again, this time as a jigsaw, or perhaps through guided new questions that you pose one-by-one and support with metacognition-boosting follow-up questions.

Often the need relates to language. Addressing this in the moment can be daunting, especially for new teachers. But here’s a trick: instead of opening up the floor for “what didn’t you understand?” — which is easily dominated by a single outspoken student, do some group activities to break the problem down. Some possibilities:

  • In groups, have students tell their classmates what they didn’t understand. Have them try to help each other first, and then share in whole-class format what they 1) wondered about, 2) decided, and 3) still don’t get.
  • Put multiple whiteboard markers in front of the room. Tell the students that each of them needs to write a question related to this topic. Play some music, and if appropriate/necessary, leave the room for anonymity.
  • Recycle something from the last activity: for example, assign each pair a sentence and ask them to change (and board) a tense/aspect shift for a new timing situation.

What these all have in common is that they expose needs in further detail, giving you something to work with. With the problems ‘out there,’ you can prioritize needs, clarify areas of confusion, and do some checking work to give the students an opportunity to try out their new knowledge.

STEP 3: Check objectives again

Reinforce the point of this diversion by going back to the objectives you shared in Step 1 (perhaps they are even still boarded). Check in on the gap you were trying to address, and take the pulse of the room again.

You might say…

“So earlier a lot of people felt confused about present perfect versus simple past. We’ve done some work on this just now. So now, where are you on a scale of one to five…”

Use this opportunity to identify and share what you will bring back for more focus in future lessons. If you’re brave (and you should be brave), you might also ask your students for advice for the next time you teach this lesson. How could you make it more effective?

This kind of honest engagement might be uncomfortable at first, but as you progress, its benefits will reveal themselves. Some of the best lessons we’ve taught have been ones that almost failed: where we had to take a step back, talk to our students openly about what we were trying to do, and collaboratively get there together.

How have you saved a dying lesson? Let us know in the comments!