Student Expectations in an Age of Anxiety
I’ve had some time to mull over the recent NY Times’ article on the growing sense of student entitlement at American universities. It has caused some buzz in the blogosphere where a colleague captured some of my immediate reactions. My gut response is always to side with the students, and it is virtually impossible to shake that perception in this case. After all the article does not articulate a sense of entitlement without foundation. The students assume that if they do the work, they will get an above average (i.e. B or better) result. While many teachers (myself included) think that we can counter this kind of attitude through the careful manipulation in the utopian space of classroom, the historian in me sees many of these notions to be deeply rooted in American culture. The idea that hard work will produce above average results must derive at least in part from long held ideas of American exceptionalism. The spirit of American exceptionalism translated to a suburban environment where two generations of Americans witnessed how a work-a-day life could produce a steadily rising standard of living and slowly built up the comforting arrogance that the grinding routine of a 40+ hour work week could grant one access to a wonderful world of consumables and luxuries. This might all change as the worsening “global economic crisis” threatens not only the economic basis for American optimism, but also calls into question the authenticity of the values on which this optimism rested. Despite these threats, the common paean in the news today is that hard work will bring America back from the brink.
When we walk into the classroom and confront a group of students who will likely work hard — if not in our class specifically, then in their classes in general (and if not “hard” by our standards, “hard” by their standards) — we aren’t confronting simply another example of botched communication between student and teacher, but the realities of over 100 years of American culture.
If a sense of student entitlement is rooted in part in American culture, it is compounded by a university system that can be quite confusing on a number of levels. Despite efforts to standardize classes across the curriculum, they still represent a bewildering diversity of demands, requirements, expectations, and work loads. For example, most departments offer courses at different levels (100, 200, 300, 400). The lower numbers represent “lower level courses”, but what exactly does this mean? Is it that the higher level requires more background and expertise? Or is the workload in these classes higher? Are they simply “harder” as many students assume? Students often seem to think that lower level courses should require less work and upper level course require more work. But, if upper level course do require different things or are harder or have a greater workload, it’s strange that they all count for the same number of credits (generally). And credits are what the student needs to graduate. And to make matters more complex, credits do not correlate precisely to grades. I student can get a C in virtually all of their undergraduate classes and still graduate. And as the NY Times article reports, most faculty assume that a C is the minimum amount of knowledge sufficient to receive credit for the course. On the other hand, the maximum knowledge gleaned from a course does not, at the end of the semester or academic career, equate to more credits — the basic standard required for graduation. (It’s interesting to note that the University of North Dakota, like many universities, did experiment with tying grades to credits awarded during the 1920s (I think)).
Another key aspect of the current system is that the expense of college education grows yearly. Now more students invest more money in their college education than ever before. The effect is predictable. As the stakes get higher with the spiraling cost of tuition the tactics students use to get the most obvious public results for their money become more creative and strident. In part, this is because students feel that they should expect more and more of the university experience, in general, including the faculty. This puts faculty on the spot as the rapid increase in tuition has not, from what I can tell, corresponded to an similar shift in campus culture. In particular, we probably need to develop strategies to confront the reality that all students are not all going to learn successfully the material presented in a class, despite the fact that they will pay — sometimes huge sums of money to learn the material. While its distasteful to consider on the level of an individual class, could it be that we need to put into place some kind of guarantee that student hard work will allow them acquire or achieve something within a system created by the university itself?
Of course, much of this debate also reveals the no incredibly contingent nature of so much education in any event. I see this particularly with graduate education in the humanities where the pressure to come up with a thesis topic, do research, write well and creatively, and complete the degree in a reasonable amount of time can be enormous (Go! Be creative! Quickly!). The difficult thing, of course, is that it might not be possible to come up with a “good”, much less exceptional, thesis topic in set amount of time, and so much good research is at least partially tied to luck. Of course it’s hard to sell luck in an environment where costs continue to spiral upward and hard work is touted as the solution. A student can work hard, in some cases, and still not succeed.
These observations should not, of course, serve as an excuse not to communicate our expectations to students clearly. Nor should it give us reason to grade capriciously and without any attention to the learning processes that take place when a student works hard and comes up short. What we can learn is that some expectations are not simply the break down in classroom communications or another indication of the decadent or irresponsible student behavior. The issues that are manifesting themselves in changing attitudes toward classroom grades, the purpose of higher education, and the role of faculty in this process are complex and largely rooted outside what we can immediately control in the classroom. What we can do is to engage openly and transparently both the root causes of changing student attitudes and adapt our methods to accommodate and whenever coopt these attitudes more effectively into the structure of the university and our classroom.
Cross-posted at the Teaching Thursday blog!