What to Do When They Don’t Understand

active learning

You’ve explained something. You can’t tell from their bland expressions if they understand or not. “Do you have any questions?”

The silence is long; finally a hand goes up and one of your better students admits, “I’m totally confused.”

“How about the rest of you?” you ask. Lots of head nods. What can you do? Here are some options.

  • Try again. Basically, repeat the explanation, slowly, step-by-step, pausing and asking “Are you with me?” Simplify, clarify, and keep extraneous details to a minimum.
  • Try more examples. So often it’s an example that gets the toe inside the door. When students are confused or not understanding, it’s terribly useful to have a repertoire of examples. If you’re a newer teacher, you’ll have to collect them. If you’re not so new, maybe you have some already. Often, however, we don’t value examples as much as we should. We hear or come up with a good one, but then we forget. All of us are well advised to collect good examples and to have them there and ready in your notes.
  • Maybe what you need is a metaphor. What’s it like? The “what’s it like” should be something familiar to students, something they already know. Understanding is easier when you can connect something you do know with something you don’t know. It boosts confidence and engenders insights.
  • Get the students talking to each other. Say, “Okay, let me give you a chance to talk to each other. Maybe somebody understands part of it. See if you can help each other identify or resolve the confusion.”
  • Get the students asking questions. Suggest, “See if you and a partner can come up with the one thing you need to know about this. What’s one thing that you think would help you understand? Can you frame that as a question?”
  • Encourage explanations from those who do understand or think they might. Often students can explain things to each other in meaningful ways. Expect some imprecision in their explanations and inaccuracy in their language. Think of their efforts as attempts to open the doors of understanding. Then you can walk through with all the details, subtle nuances, and academic nomenclature.
  • Share how you figured it out. Can you recall your first encounter with this content? Were you confused? How did you figure it out? What helped you understand what was involved? Was it hard for you? If not, what made it easy?
  • Refer to other resources. Is it explained in the text or other course materials? Are there good online explanations to which you can refer students?
  • Don’t equate being stumped with being stupid. Few college teachers do that intentionally, but some do unintentionally. “It’s easy! Anybody can do it.” Your students might think, “Well, if I can’t, what does that say about me?”
  • Practice patience. Don’t let your frustration show if the confusion is legitimate. Teacher frustration bubbles up from the inability to understand how something so clear, so obvious can be so confusing. How can students not understand it? Well, it’s a new idea, concept, problem, or theory. This is their introduction. You’re well versed in the content.
  • Keep the faith. Don’t overreact to their confusion. Their struggle creates a powerful learning opportunity. Be confident in their ability to figure it out: “You’ll get it. Lots of other students have. Keep working. Your efforts will pay off.”
  • Take a break. Sometimes it makes sense to move on, even if confusion remains. Encourage students to take the content with them, to have it there in the corner of their minds, to think more about it when it comes up. Sometimes understanding creeps in and stands up when we aren’t expecting to see it.
  • Pause and reflect. What have you learned that you can use next time you have to teach this content?

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You've explained something. You can't tell from their bland expressions if they understand or not. “Do you have any questions?” The silence is long; finally a hand goes up and one of your better students admits, “I'm totally confused.” “How about the rest of you?” you ask. Lots of head nods. What can you do? Here are some options.