“Sorry, I Got Nuthin’…..”

The Subject line of a recent “Teaching” column in the Chronicle of Higher Education reads, “How to Help Students Listen for the Key Idea” (February 17th online). 


The problem here is the implication that every lecture contains a key idea.

Most professors, even those at elite schools, are lucky if they are blessed with a key idea once or twice during an entire semester.  The notion that they would have such an idea to share with students at every class meeting is pretty funny.  Indeed, the core challenge in college teaching is how to handle the fact that the vast majority of class sessions contain NO key idea.

Here are five proven strategies that experienced faculty members routinely use in this situation: 

Turn the TablesPlace the burden on the student to discover whether a key idea is embedded in your lecture.  Emphasize that one of the critical cognitive skills to be developed in college is the ability to determine if something is present or absent.  Tell them that there might be a key idea in your lecture today, or there might not be.  It’s their job to figure out which is the case.  If they identify a key idea when none is present, express your disappointment and hurt.  This will make them defensive, which is good for learning.  

Be Transparent —  Acknowledge up-front that there will be no key idea communicated in class today.  Come clean by informing students that your lecture will basically consist of a lot of random crap strung together by several amusing anecdotes.  Students will appreciate your honesty, and you’ll sleep better.  

Go Postmodern —  Share with students your aggressive critique of the meritocratic, objectivist, bankrupt notion that some ideas are more “key” than others.  That’s just bullshit.  Who’s to say that the observation, “there is chewing gum stuck to the sole of my shoe,” is more or less key than the assertion, “Claude Monet was a founder of Impressionist painting”?  Context is everything.  

Pick an Idea.  ANY Idea. —  Before class, spread out a hard copy of your lecture notes on the kitchen table.  Close your eyes and place your forefinger on a random sentence.  That sentence will be your key idea for the day.  During class, say it louder than any other sentence.  You might wonder, “Doesn’t it make a difference which sentence I choose?”  No, it doesn’t.  When you walk into the classroom and gaze at those heavy-lidded eyes that are struggling to keep you in focus, you’ll know that.  

Turn the Tables II —  Impress upon students the following eternal truth: everything you say in class is key.  Every.  Single.  Utterance.  This was the preferred strategy of professors in the 1950s, and it served them well.  It’s the strategic gift that keeps on giving, as students develop obsessive-compulsive tendencies for note-taking that generalize to many other spheres of their lives.  These neurotic habits will be passed on to their children, ensuring your legacy as a professor “who made a difference” for generations to come.

Now that’s a key idea worth remembering.