When Students Don’t Get It
+ Summer Course Design Opportunity

How Many Times Do I Have to Explain?

Recently a student told us about her experience seeking help from a professor. She said she was trying to learn how to do something essential for passing a difficult course, but she “just didn’t get it.” She worked up the courage to go to office hours, and when she did, her professor was happy to help. He explained what she needed to do, and when she still didn’t get it, he explained another way and another. After three explanations, she didn’t want to admit that she still didn’t get it, so she thanked her professor and left to seek other resources.

Many of us can probably relate to this colleague (and this student). Sometimes we explain concepts, theories, processes, approaches, etc. as clearly as we can, even making multiple attempts, and students still “just don’t get it.” (Or they say they do even if they don’t, just to have mercy on us.) Frustrated, we might wonder, why can’t students understand this? We might think we just need to motivate them more, that if they think harder, they’ll learn it. But the problem likely isn’t our failure to explain—or students’ failure to put in the thought—it might be that further explanation is not what’s needed.

It’s common to think of teaching as talking—and the better and more clearly we talk, the more students learn—but just because we say something in students’ presence doesn’t mean they learn it. In addition to explaining, we can try some of these other strategies:

Give Examples. When students need to do unfamiliar work, examples can be invaluable. Activities that prompt students to describe, analyze, compare and contrast, or evaluate examples give them something concrete to which they can attach seemingly abstract explanations. For example, if you’ve explained how to write an effective summary, but students seem not to really get it, you can ask them to compare and contrast three different summaries of the same article, discussing the strengths and weaknesses of each one.

Create opportunities for practice and feedback. It’s often difficult for us, and for students, to know whether they can do something (e.g., apply knowledge, analyze texts, evaluate arguments, solve problems, etc.) until they actually make an attempt. That’s why the first attempt to complete a new type of task should not be on a high-stakes exam or project. Students need low-stakes opportunities for practice and feedback so they can build knowledge and skills over time, and so we can provide the support that makes learning possible.

Contextualize. Sometimes the work in our courses seems entirely abstract to students because they’re not able to connect it with something they already understand. Providing context can help them make meaning of coursework and see its relevance to real life. For example, grounding math problems in real-life contexts can help students build their conceptual understanding (rather than just memorizing procedures), and it may even help reduce math anxiety.

Adjust the pace. When we feel the “tyranny of content,” we might race through material at a pace that makes it difficult to learn and impossible to learn deeply. If we prioritize, we can adjust the pace and dedicate some class time to using the first three strategies: working with examples, providing opportunities for practice and feedback, and contextualizing topics that can seem abstract.

Adjust the level of challenge. The work in our courses should be both level-appropriate and challenging. If you find that many students are feeling lost or having trouble with certain coursework, you might need to consider whether the assignments require a level of masterythat is not appropriate for the course. When that’s the case, you may be able to redesign an assignment or break a large project into smaller components.

Find out what students know. It’s difficult to help students build their knowledge and skills if we don’t know where they’re starting. Formative assessments give us a window into students’ thinking, so that we can make adjustments to help them learn. Even in a large class, we can use efficient strategies to check in on students, so that we know and they know whether they are getting it.

Help students self-assess. If a student comes to your office or raises their hand in class to say that they “just don’t get it,” they have already done some self-assessment. Monitoring whether or not they are learning is an important habit for students to develop. That said, people don’t know what they don’t know, so it’s helpful to 1) provide tools to help them self-assess in more depth, and 2) provide regular feedback that includes actionable informationabout what students can do to improve.

Many students feel too intimidated, or too lost, to ask for help—and we should reward the courage of those who reach out—but for every student who musters the courage to admit their confusion in class or in office hours, many more may be struggling. To create the conditions in which they can all succeed, we must demonstrate our care and concern for them and for their learning, and we need to make a comfortable environment for error. If students “don’t get it,” don’t take it personally! It happens to all of us, and it presents an opportunity to get curious about what students know and don’t know, why that’s the case, and what might help them learn.


Summer 2023 Course Design Institute

June 12th-15th | 10:00 a.m. – 4:00 p.m. | In person, lunch provided | Click to apply

CAT’s Course Design Seminar provides faculty with the time, structure, and support they need to craft transformative and inclusive learning experiences that reach and inspire their students. Course design and planning need not be lonely work; they are best accomplished in a community of peers who are similarly engaged. The seminar is a four-day series of hands-on workshops, during which faculty will hone their goals for student learning, plan effective use of class time, and work on sequencing and scaffolding coursework, as well as gathering valid evidence of learning. They will also work on strategies for fostering welcoming classroom climates and cultivating student motivation. Participants will gain:

  • Structured support to (re)design a course for maximum learning
  • Assistance and feedback on course design, including learning goals; assignment and exam design; effective use of class time; class activities; active-learning strategies, etc.
  • Expertise in learner-centered teaching and backward design
  • Strategies for motivating students
  • Collegial community and peer feedback

Each faculty participant will receive a stipend of $2,000 upon successful completion of the course redesign. Seats are limited, and full-time faculty of all ranks are eligible. Priority will be given to courses that reach large numbers of students, and to applications from teams of faculty, either teaching multiple sections of the same course or courses that students take in a series. Participants must be able to attend all sessions of the workshop, complete pre-work, and submit final revised plans by August 1st.

You can apply through the link above. Please include a brief letter of support from your chair. The deadline to apply is Sunday, April 9th, and decisions will be made by Wednesday, April 12th. If you have questions about attending the seminar, please email us at pro-teaching@FSU.edu. We look forward to working with you!