How to engage with sullen students

Academics offer advice on how to turn glumness into enthusiasm

October 8, 2015
Emotive faces drawn on lecture hall chairs

Sullen: “Of persons, their attributes, aspect, actions: characterized by, or indicative of, gloomy ill humour or moody silence.”
Oxford English Dictionary

Times Higher Education would never dare to suggest that today’s undergraduates are anything other than a lively and engaged lot. Yet everyone has their off days. Surely there cannot be a lecturer out there who has not encountered a sullen student or two during the course of their illustrious teaching career.

With this in mind, THE asked academics to recall any particularly exasperating examples of student sulkiness and what they do when faced with such a predicament in a seminar or lecture hall. What tactics do they use to convert glumness into enthusiasm and exuberance? Here, eight contributors share their experiences and their teaching tips.

The textbookification of higher education has paid a dire dividend to teaching and learning

It has happened only once in my career. I agreed to deliver a guest lecture for a colleague teaching a mass communication course.

“Tara, could you deliver the lecture in week 11? By that point, they’ll need some cultural studies.”

I was uncertain if anyone needed cultural studies. Then I read the textbook the students had been assigned. The students needed more than cultural studies. Mass communication, as a field in a digital media age, is about as useful as a nun in a crack den. This dated, “don’t take the brown acid, man” textbook made a bad situation much worse. The text had suffered through too many editions with insufficient revisions.

The textbookification of higher education has paid a dire dividend to teaching and learning. Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa, in their book Academically Adrift, captured the consequences of low level and minimal reading and basic assessment items on a student’s motivation to excel, transform and achieve.

As I walked into the gladiator pit of a lecture theatre, I could see Arum and Roksa’s argument come to life. Something was wrong. I always play music five minutes before the start of my lecture. We have a dance and a sing and it orients students into a learning experience.

This lecture was different. Looking at this group of students – row upon row upon row – I was confronted by a large wall of faces that resembled big blocks of ice. I received nothing – no energy, no interest, no feeling – from 300 students. They were robots, automated by too many models, flow charts and an inept, generalised and low-level American textbook.

For the first time in my career, it felt as if my energy, passion and excitement were bouncing off a transparent wall separating me from the students. No emotion, light, heat or thought passed through the barricade.

I worked hard – really hard – to cut through the wall. I felt a constant trickle of sweat down my back, confirming the exertion and stress. The content was of quality, the media selection was considered and the pacing of ideas and the theoretical rigour were strong. But the students had stopped caring about ideas and scholarship many weeks before my session.

A poor textbook, careless teaching and a dated discipline for the digital age had closed the minds of these students. Only by the final five minutes of the lecture had the ice wall melted. Students revealed a shard of light, thinking, interpretation and questioning. The students had not built this ice wall. Low-level reading and even lower intellectual expectations crushed a passion for ideas and a motivation to learn.

Tara Brabazon is professor of education and head of the School of Teacher Education at Charles Sturt University, Australia.

Lecturing isn’t about filling buckets; it is about lighting fires

The key is to engage students from the first meeting. It is like a one-sided blind date. As you walk into that lecture theatre, your undergraduate audience immediately starts to form an impression of what you are going to be like. And first impressions can be hard to change. Initially, these judgements are based on your posture, walk, attire, demeanour and your gender – not that there is much you can do about that. But you can, to some extent, control the other things. Use a shuffling, stooped gait and you are doomed: the way people walk tells you so much about them. Stuffy clothes may predict a stuffy manner. As for gender…well, male undergraduates, they say, rate male lecturers more highly.

Those first few minutes on the podium are crucial because they form the basis of the audience-lecturer relationship that decides whether you are going to win your audience over and whether they are going to learn anything. What are you, as a lecturer, hoping to achieve? Have you looked at the vast body of students before you? Have you smiled at them? If so, these are both good signs. Ignoring your audience and simply starting to “lecture” is the kiss of death for both you and them.

But of all the traits that undergraduates use to decide whether to engage or not, a lecturer’s enthusiasm for their subject is key. Genuine enthusiasm wins hearts and minds. And that should extend to telling them something remarkable right from the outset. This can be the findings of a recently published study, a personal anecdote relevant to the course, or indeed anything that lets them see that you care about their experience.

Enthusiasm alone won’t work, however. It must be coupled with knowledge. Confidence is essential – not cocky but Attenborough-esque confidence. Knowing your stuff makes you confident but, like enthusiasm, it isn’t much good on its own. The full package is enthusiasm, confidence, knowledge and empathy. This final trait ensures that undergraduates know that it matters to you whether they enjoy and understand the lecture. In some ways, notwithstanding what I have said about the importance of knowing your subject, understanding can play second fiddle to enthusiasm and empathy. As Plutarch said, lecturing isn’t about filling buckets; it is about lighting fires. If you can engage and inspire your audience, they can check the factual content of your lecture very easily for themselves. And, if they’ve been fired up by the way you’ve engaged with them, they are far more likely to do just that.

Tim Birkhead is a professor of behavioural ecology at the University of Sheffield.

Smiling face on lecture hall podium

If something has the capacity to frustrate you, then it is probably because it has the capacity to satisfy you in some way, too

There are lots of tactics for dealing with sullen seminar attendees – doughnuts would probably work – but I want to think about what sullenness might mean in our teaching. In London, where I work, it’s little wonder that our students might be a bit sullen from time to time. The cost of living is exorbitant and the private rental market is legalised extortion, so my undergraduates today must work excessive hours in typically grim jobs to supplement meagre maintenance loans. If you’re pulling pints in a Brixton boozer till 3am to pay the rent, then you probably will feel a bit taciturn when faced with Sir Gawain and the Green Knight the next morning.

Why else might students seem sullen? I teach English literature, so students sometimes say that they find the novel hard, or that it is boring, or that they couldn’t get through it. I have a big interest in psychoanalysis, which at its heart is all about ambivalence. So a sullen response to a set book is, for me, a provocative starting point. Freud suggests that if something has the capacity to frustrate you, then it is probably because it has the capacity to satisfy you in some way, too. The question becomes, what made the book hard or boring?

A more experienced colleague of mine pointed out that our job as teachers is to make connections. This means that our teaching must help students to understand their emotional and affective responses to the material in the context of the shared languages, rituals and gestures that make up a discipline. My teaching therefore sees this apparent sullenness as the answer to a question that they are yet to put into words.

I would go further and say that there is a place for sullenness in our teaching of the humanities. The Oxford English Dictionary tells me that another definition of sullen is “obstinate, refractory, stubborn, unyielding”. University branding generally shows brightly lit rooms full of smiling students who are absorbed in chatty debate – but I think, in a way, that such an image sells intellectual life short. Ideas themselves – especially the counterintuitive ones worth getting your hands dirty for – are often rather knotty, and traipsing a path through them involves the odd grazed knee and a few brick walls. Perhaps we might want to embrace a little sullenness. It reminds us of the acceptance of difficulty that gives our work its character.

Benjamin Poore is a teaching fellow in the School of English and Drama at Queen Mary University of London.

Value students’ contributions – questions, comments and insights – so that they feel more confident and willing to contribute ideas

In our era of many measures of student satisfaction, discussion of teaching excellence and preoccupation with league tables, an apparently sullen group of students is bad news. Students are consumers, paying to be in our lecture seminar rooms, and a sullen cohort is unlikely to be a satisfied one. Even the occasional sullen individual can dampen down the buzz of any lecture or seminar – the phrase “trying to stir treacle” springs to mind.

There are dozens of different reasons why individual students can appear to be this way, and only some of these could be considered to be “our fault”. Some students are shy and fear looking silly if they get things wrong in front of us or peers; some already know it all and resent being there learning little; some are just having an off day; others are fearful that they will not be able to live up to our expectations and that they may face failure. Sometimes our particular topic is the least appetising dish on their menu, or we are their least-favourite lecturer or tutor, and it shows. Some students don’t like their peers much, or would rather learn on their own in their own way; others don’t like our approach. Sometimes students are just uncomfortable – this can be to do with things as basic as seating, visibility, audibility or temperature.

We often notice the odd display of sullenness, even when most of the group may be perfectly happy and engaged.

Here are some tactics that can help:

  • Avoid confrontation and embarrassment. Don’t push unwilling individuals to engage – they will resent this. It is best to do things that increase the energy and enthusiasm of the whole group and hope that the less engaged students will be carried forward.
  • Smile and use eye contact, but do not make it uncomfortable for those who don’t return such engagement.
  • Keep changing how students interact with the material that they’re learning. Make sure that they are not spending too much time listening to you or watching a screen, and provide plenty of opportunities for students to discuss and debate with their neighbours, and indeed with you.
  • Value students’ contributions – questions, comments and insights – so that they feel more confident and willing to contribute ideas.
  • Learn from your colleagues. Sitting in others’ sessions is one of the fastest ways of finding tactics that can improve the atmosphere in a room – and equally of finding things that do the opposite.

Phil Race is an educational developer. He is visiting professor of higher education at Plymouth University and visiting professor of educational development at University Campus Suffolk.

A good place to start is with an open question such as, ‘Is there something going on that I need to know about?’

“Sullen” isn’t the default status of students ordinarily – exhausted, hungover, inert maybe, but not sullen. When the problem does arise, I suggest a four-stage process:

Diagnosis: Try to find out what’s going on. Have they just been told that a popular module option isn’t running this year? That an excellent teacher, who is the only person (they think) able to make sense of tough subject material, is leaving? That the last-semester results were poor for the whole cohort (which would suggest more deep-seated problems)? Have they just experienced the third class cancellation or double-booked room that week? To cope with their collective bad mood you need information, and a good place to start is with an open question such as, “Is there something going on that I need to know about?”

Remediation: Once you’ve got some clues about what is going on, what can you do to sort things out? Can you offer to find out if there is anything to be done about the cancelled module? Can you inform them about online resources to help them with troublesome knowledge areas? Can you offer some drop-in surgeries for those having to resit? Can you let them know about where else to take their concerns?

Getting through this session: You are going to need to work hard to turn the mood around. In a quick analysis of your prepared session, are there elements that are going to energise students? Do you have lively demonstrations, authentic case studies or up-to-the minute plucked-from-the news examples? Can you connect quickly to that YouTube video that makes relevant key points quickly and with humour? Can you draw on students’ own experiences and expertise? Instead of ploughing on regardless with your prepared lecture, what tasks can you give them to do to get them engaged?

Prevention is better than cure: Is it in your power to sort out some of the problems that have arisen through poor course management? Most universities care deeply about student satisfaction, especially if scores count towards league tables. Do the course leader/associate dean for teaching and learning/dean for students know about the regular muck-ups? Is anyone working on making sure that they don’t happen again? And above all, is anyone letting student reps know that matters are being treated seriously?

You are unlikely to change the classroom mood from sullen silence to joyous engagement in one go, but your student-centred efforts will at least be recognised.

Sally Brown is emerita professor of teaching and learning at Leeds Beckett University and a visiting professor at Plymouth and Liverpool John Moores universities.

Pile of books with smiling face

I always return to any question or issue that provoked a non-response – it is then that one gets the most insightful answers

I have never ever forgotten the first sullen silence or tumbleweed teaching experience. It was during my first term as a lecturer at Durham University. A seminar class of 15 students sat in a large circle on the kind of winged chairs you find in the foyer of an old people’s home: flattened cushions, empty crisp packets down the sides and that slight whiff of…best not to go there. No one would respond to my questions; they just all stared and kept staring. So I just kept talking, and then I talked some more. Not even the class genius chipped in. It was utterly demoralising. I had been given no training in lecturing, let alone in running a seminar. My teaching heroes were the likes of Sir Harry Hinsley, who had oozed charisma and gravitas, plus I was used to one-to-one supervisions. It was a long term.

Now, years on and after learning the hard way, I can fully concur with the brilliant advice of friend and colleague Claire Gordon, senior academic developer at the London School of Economics’ Teaching and Learning Centre: “From the outset, take time to build a good rapport with all your students. Make it clear that participating in class will enable them to learn effectively and perform well in their assessments.” If there is ever a long silence, I never attempt to fill it, but I give it time and thought. There could be a good reason why there is some withholding going on: difficult or upsetting course material that we teachers have become hardened to, or student dynamics and differences that we cannot know anything about.

When I had a class that was challenging because its unprecedented range of ability was de-energising the room, I became sold on Claire’s technique of “giving students opportunities to practise their ideas in smaller groups”. I always reinforce students’ contributions with positive feedback, sometimes in emails after class. It takes such little time and can make all the difference in promoting confidence. I’ve also learned to follow what was the hardest advice from Claire: to “call on all your students, even the quietest ones”. I still carry to each class a bag of emergency extra primary sources for that week, an exam paper or some controversial quote or image, just in case. But I always return to any question or issue that provoked a non-response – it is then that one gets the most insightful answers.

Joanna Lewis is assistant professor in the department of international history, London School of Economics.

Apathy is sometimes a cover for a deep and tragic fear of actually committing to something that might change their lives

Sullen students, despite their appearances, care about something – it’s just not your course. I come in early and ask them a question that very few of their professors take the time to express: “What do you like doing?” Ask it like you mean it. Go over the top – but not in a weird way. If they have trouble caring, you need to be the model. This question serves a number of important functions. There is, obviously, a tacit message that is conveyed, namely that they don’t necessarily like the class and, more importantly, that you’ve noticed. But the question has other, more pedagogically useful, functions.

It encourages them to talk about something that actually motivates them. Don’t pass judgements on their passion. It is, at the very least, a passion, and if you can tap into it then you stand a chance of surviving the semester. Instead of passing judgement, affirm their care. Most sullen students, in my limited experience, are scared of something. Their seeming apathy is sometimes a cover for a deep and tragic fear of actually committing to something that might change their lives. This sort of sullenness is completely understandable and more pervasive than you might think. If you punish the sullen student, he or she gets the message that they have every right to be afraid. So try the soft touch first.

The opposite of being sullen is being engaged. And you just showed them that they could be. Don’t let the conversation end abruptly or awkwardly. Dig deep into your interpersonal repertoire and make sure that they don’t think that this is perfunctory. Perhaps they like heavy metal or “stepping” or care about stamp collecting. It doesn’t really matter, but it matters to them. You have just found a hook that you can use in your class to catch their interest. If you are teaching the humanities or social sciences, it does not take any great powers of imagination to integrate examples of their passions into the content of your class. If you are unwilling to do so, perhaps your student is not the truly sullen one. Maybe you are.

John Kaag is associate professor of philosophy at the University of Massachusetts Lowell.

A re-enactment of a rural wife-sale would really crank up the level of feminist outrage

I suspect that there is now a clear divide between those who treat teaching like stand-up at the Edinburgh Fringe, and those who believe that their discipline is so intrinsically enjoyable that no further embellishments are necessary. In my discipline (English) we are particularly subject to the latter delusion, so I was cheered one year to see a student sporting her Gryffindor House scarf in a Harry Potter seminar. What better way of entering into the spirit of the thing, and for a moment I toyed with the thought of pirate hats for Peter Pan, or Eat-Me cakes for Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. As for The Mayor of Casterbridge, a re-enactment of a rural wife-sale would really crank up the level of feminist outrage.

The reality is that I go in for harmless ice-breaking exercises, such as asking everyone in my children’s literature class to recall what they read as a child. I do the same, and then we create a “leader board” of favourites that exposes a generational shift at my expense. While they read Roald Dahl and Goosebumps, I loved The Family from One End Street and Milly-Molly-Mandy – passed on by parents who were children in the 1930s. In my MA class on sensation writing, I ask students to choose a Victorian scandal and compare three or four press reports of it, while in modern children’s literature we play “guess whether this is a book for children or a book for adults”, based on the opening paragraph (not as easy as you think). All too soon, however, the games are over and we settle into the serious business of textual analysis and critical reading. I remind the students of rules and regulations about submission of work, and exam preparation. My inner voice tells me that I should be pulling out the technology-enhanced learning, and doing something with flexible pedagogies. Does anyone in the room have a phone app for The Mill on the Floss?

When I was young we used to just sit and talk about books. We once spent an hour and a half exploring Browning’s My Last Duchess – “That’s my last Duchess painted on the wall/Looking as if she were alive” – in a lamplit room, with a small glass of madeira in our hands. Something tells me that wouldn’t be allowed now.

Valerie Sanders is professor of English at the University of Hull.


Print headline: Turn those frowns upside down

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Reader's comments (4)

Another large but largely useless article from THE: most of these (selected) contributors seem to think that teacher "enthusiasm" will solve everything; that might work in the performing arts or experiential education but is complacent advice for formal instructors. Some of these comments about finding "the light" or playing inspirational music or playing "ice-breaker" exercises would patronise students of substance, and would not carry students through a 3-hour class. How about teaching useful content that students value, such as practical skills and useful knowledge, so that students develop enthusiasm for the content? How about evaluating student participation as part of course performance? How about setting early expectations about individual responsibilities to the group? How about student in-class exercises? Presumably these solutions are too obvious or old-fashioned for these contributors. This is an important topic. THE selected nine contributors who seem to think that teaching is social work; THE should be more discriminating if it is going to be useful to the rest of us.
Students will talk to each other, especially if they subsequently are evaluated by each other. Posting even ridiculous scenarios (selling farmers wives!) for them to solve during lecture time, provided they have had the opportunity to learn the background knowledge outside of lecture and then are able to use that information in discussing or solving the scenario, gives them the opportunity to display their "fitness" to one another; don't forget that many of the kids are still seeking their potential mates (and you, dear lecturer, are not among them, so impressing you is low on most of their horizons).
There is nothing new under the sun. The Cambridge Review was pretty cynical about lack of academic engagement by students in 1966, for example: "The individual attention, the stimulation and encouragement, the gentle rebuke, the subtle widening of the issue and the abrupt demand for evidence, all this and much more has come to represent, to some at any rate, the ultimate in higher education. The reality, as most of us know, is very different. The inadequacy of the lectures has to be supplemented, indeed often replaced, by a less formal exposition; the student’s difficulty in working out the technical points on his own must be eased; he must be spared the need to extract from the books the information he needs; we must see in effect that he has learnt his piece for the week". The essential problem is that undergraduate students are themselves, not us. They are young adults with concerns different from our professional ones. Since time immemorial it has been this way, and when some of them become lecturers they too will be writing articles in the THE about the difficulties of teaching another generation. Such is life.
Any question is a good one. I try to instill this simple, but powerful though to all students that I teach. All questions are welcomed, no matter how 'silly' that they may seem. Besides, one question asked is often one question shared by other students.


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