Awkward Situations
Two Pedagogical Patterns
Joseph Bergin
Draft 1

These two patterns are submissions to the Pedagogical Patterns Project. They cover two situations that are somewhat difficult for many instructors. They cover similar problems, but at different time scales. It is intended that these be incorporated into the larger pedagogical patterns literature eventually.

Play Your Strong Suit

You want to do a good job of teaching, but you (or your boss) are unhappy with your evaluations. You recognize that you need to improve your effectiveness with your students.


You have strengths and weaknesses. You may speak in a monotone without gestures. You may get confused on your feet. You may be shy. You may have so little time to prepare lectures that you aren't effective. You can often train yourself to overcome your weaknesses, but it takes time -- measured in years. You enjoy doing some things and not others. There are a lot of different ways to be an effective teacher, as the pedagogical patterns project is showing. Some of these ways are surprising to individuals initially. Your personal educational experience perhaps overly emphasized lectures.


You must be effective in spite of your apparent weaknesses.


Therefore, use teaching techniques that play to your strengths. The most common instance of this is the poor lecturer. In which case don't lecture. If it is research that drives you, then base your course on student research. Above all, remember that you must have ACTIVE STUDENTS, so plan their activities using STUDENT TASKS FIRST. Also be aware that GROUPS WORK, so you can emphasize student team activities, rather than lecture. Use student projects, large and small to activate the students. You can even have the students prepare lectures and query one another. A LAZY PROFESSOR can be an effective one.


While you are doing these things to be effective, you can also work on your weaknesses, of course. in the long run, this can be the way to excel at teaching.

Change the Tempo

Your students are bored, really bored. So are you. Things aren't going right in your lecture. The students are whispering to each other or playing games on their laptops or doodling, etc. You would rather be anywhere else and feel that you are failing as an instructor.


Sometimes the material isn't captivating. Sometimes you are at a low point. Sometimes the students have had a long day or have other things on their minds. It is difficult to motivate the students every moment. However, it is probably important that they deal with the material you are trying (unsuccessfully) to present, or you wouldn't have included it in the syllabus.


You need to suddenly become more effective at a point at which it is obvious to everyone that you are not.


Therefore, change the tempo of the class. If you are lecturing, stop immediately. Announce that you are going to do something new and exciting to wake them up and engage them. Do something dramatic in which they will need to become ACTIVE STUDENTS. A technique that often works is to have them quickly group (2 or 3 in a group) and either answer a question or formulate one. After a few minutes you can change the question and rearrange or combine the groups.

Sometimes you need to do the opposite thing. They are bored working in their groups. Change the Tempo by reconvening the whole for a mini-lecture, question and answer sesson, or a wrap-up.


This was discovered in a course on Patterns. The students were bored hearing about patterns and were falling asleep after a long day. We changed the tempo by creating this pattern. I thank the class for aiding in the creation of this pattern.

Other patterns for awkward situations:

Anonymous Feedback. Don't let a single disgruntled student spoil the course for everyone. See

Let the Plan Go. Something comes up in your course that is really unexpected. See

Human Professor. A student has transgressed the boundaries. See

References to the named external patterns.

Groups Work. See

Active Student. See

Lazy Professor. See

Student Tasks First. See


Last updated: May 18, 2003