Teaching in the 21st Century

Teaching in UniversityAs another university term comes to an end, I begin to reflect on my experience during the previous months and the reported experiences of my students based on course reviews and comments. The goal, of course, is to critically evaluate my teaching style and topic content in an effort to develop the best possible course for the following semester. Though I have been fortunate enough to get mostly favorable reviews in almost all of my classes, my experience also comes with its fair share of pains and frustrations. A lot has been written about what the instructor should be doing for his or her students – in other words, the responsibilities of the professor. But I want to spend some time here discussing the responsibilities of the student. What role do students play in their own education? In the four years that I have been a part-time professor, I have noticed some disturbing trends regarding the modern university learner. I say ‘modern’ because I suspect that many of these trends are relatively new. I will outline some of them below.

Who’s Responsible for their Education?

iStock_000018372486XSmallAdolescence and early adulthood, at least in the Western world, tends to involve a struggle between freedom and responsibility. If we desire more of the former, we must eventually learn to carry the latter. This process is generally conceived as being part of ‘growing up’ and the end result is implicit in what it means to be an adult. While all of that appears true, it seems to me that many of today’s students are demanding unprecedented degrees of freedom, while being reluctant in bearing the burden of responsibility that comes with it. I will provide some examples to illustrate what I mean.

Let me begin with classroom attendance. Students have always skipped classes – there is nothing new about that. And I think most students would logically agree that if they do not attend class, they could miss something important that will affect their overall grade. However, it seems that many students want to have their cake and eat it too: they want the freedom to skip classes, without the consequences that come with it. It’s not a good feeling to teach a fourth-year course in theoretical psychology, when only half of the students bother to attend on a regular basis. To add insult to injury, today’s students expect, if not demand, for their professors to take notes for them in their absence. Well, not notes per se, but they expect me to give them my PowerPoint slides. Many get upset and angry when they discover that I don’t do this. Well, you might ask, why don’t you? Well, in part because studies have shown that student attendance and class averages drop significantly when students have access to lecture notes without having to attend. By showing up in class, and by paying attention and taking notes, students are pressured to be more engaged and to learn. While I understand the argument that a small 5% might benefit from lecture notes (e.g. the top students will show up anyway and might be more attentive because they do not have to focus on note-taking), overall it seems to work to the disadvantage of the class when notes are available. Not all students get this, and it continues to make up a large part of the negative comments about my teaching style.

I think this is somewhat of a new phenomenon. When I was in university, if I missed a class I would have just asked another student if I could photocopy their notes. But when I suggest as much to today’s students, I get a predictable response: “but professor, I don’t know anyone in the class.” Well then, I say, maybe you should briefly introduce yourself. But that sounds like a terrifying prospect to this generation of students. It seems that the age of impersonal text-messaging and a shortage of face-to-face human contact have made for a generation of anxious young adults that lack social skills. And so they either go without lecture notes, or they demand them from me (usually by email). This second response is somewhat surprising given my own experience in university. I would not have had the audacity to ask a professor for their lecture notes. You just didn’t do that. But unlike those days, where professors might have been viewed with some combination fear and reverence, there is a sizable minority of today’s students who appear quite comfortable making demands – there is a curious sense of entitlement. It’s almost as if that by paying their tuition, they believe they’ve earned their degree, and that any problems along the way must be the fault of someone else.

responsibility  (the dictionary project)I believe that some students, like me, see the value in learning for the sake of learning. But many instead view their education as only a means to an end. They paid their tuition and in return they expect to earn a degree that can help them get a better job. A degree is just another cog in our materialistic culture and the consumptive machine; it has no value other than what it gets us. So when I ask my students questions about the assigned readings, should I be surprised when almost all of them admit to having not even read them?

I invest a lot of time into my teaching efforts – putting in countless hours looking for evocative images or videos, and trying to find novel and interesting ways of presenting the material. In addition to my regular office hours, I will often skip my morning run in order to arrive early to meet with students who find it more convenient – which hurts all the more when they don’t bother to show up. It also amazes me that so many struggling students somehow avoid coming to office hours for extra help. But when many of them do… it’s not to learn something, but to argue a grade. It seems like many of these students are willing to spend more time haggling marks than they will working on an assignment or studying for a test. Again, if they do not see the satisfactory result, it must be the fault of someone else.

There are other ways that students avoid taking responsibility, which maybe aren’t so new, but still present themselves in novel ways. When students miss a test, fail to pass in an assignment, or end up doing poorly in class, you will find some of the age-old excuses: “My bus was late,” “I overslept,” or the more recent: “You forgot to remind me of the test date.” Granted there are acceptable reasons for missing classes or doing poorly that may have nothing to do with the student, but many fail to tell me that there is a problem until it is too late. If you missed work at your part-time job and did not bother calling your boss until 2 days after your absence, do you think they would have much sympathy? I don’t think so. Many of these students just don’t get it – they don’t want to take responsibility, so is it any surprise that others step in to carry it for them? Yes, I am alluding to the parents of university students. While it is rare, I do get the occasional email from a parent, notifying me of their adult child’s absence or inquiring about their poor performance, and asking me what they can do, or telling me what they think I need to be doing. I never respond directly to the parent in these cases. I instead reply to the student (while CC’ing the parent). It is their responsibility to make these inquiries – the parent is not helping them by trying to carry it for them. The problem becomes clear when we look at where many of these kids are coming from. I have a friend who teaches at a Junior High School. He says in recent decades teachers have become paralyzed; they are not allowed to fail kids and they are barely allowed to discipline them. Kids are pushed through the grades without having to do anything to earn it, and so it becomes the expectation. No wonder there is a new generation of young adults not willing to take responsibility for their education.

Screw SchoolBut one of my all-time best horror stories of students failing to take responsibility involved a situation a couple of years ago, after some partially-graded midterms were stolen from the locked office of our department secretary. Don’t ask how it happened – I have no idea and the tests never turned up. After a couple of weeks, I notified my class of the horrifying situation. Since it primarily affected them, I had an open and honest discussion about what happened and asked for suggestions regarding how we might collectively decide handle it. Given the situation, I felt like I was being very accommodating and willing to hear the suggestions from my graduating class of fourth-year young adult students. But I was unprepared for what happened next. I was floored when some students suggested, without the slightest bit of hesitation, that they get 100% for the now missing grade. It was an unfortunate event, I told them, and I understood their anger and frustration, but I told them that this would be an unacceptable solution, since they would be getting a mark that they did not rightly earn; they would still need to be accountable for their grade in my course. Well, at this point I almost had a mutiny. They had already written the test and no one seemed interested in writing another version of it. I came up with a solution to take the best average of several other marks to ‘stand in’ for the missing test mark. I decided to use whatever average worked out to their favor, which would most certainly be better than the mark they would have gotten. Still students protested, suggesting that I failed to take full responsibility for what happened. Apparently, the only way for me to take responsibility would be to relieve them of theirs by giving them full marks for a test that they might have failed. In the weeks that followed, I had students sending me rather disrespectful emails, and ultimately, some students appealing grades. None of them won their argument of course, but the whole thing was hugely stressful and took any enjoyment I had out of teaching. For several weeks I seriously contemplated giving it up altogether. What’s the point in teaching when so many don’t care to learn?

Why I Teach Versus What Many Students Want

Psychology courses have the highest attendance of any program in almost any university – it is a cash cow for the school and so they naturally encourage enrollment, even though less than 5% of psychology graduates (I think a conservative estimate) will end up doing anything directly applicable to their degree. So why do so many students take these courses? I think part of it has to do with material interest, and part has to do with the difficulty. I suspect that if the subject material was more challenging, enrollment would drop, which would hurt the university. Is it any wonder that these programs have become something of a joke? Everyone knows, for example, that the majority of psychology classes are considered bird courses by undergraduate students. They know that most of the courses test student knowledge with multiple-choice questions that they can often ‘figure out’ with minimal class attendance. Psychology programs do not teach people how to think within this field, and that’s a huge problem from my point of view. I teach not for the money (which is not great by the way), but because I take enormous pleasure in challenging students to think. I want to show people the power of logic and reasoning; how it can undo the most sophisticated scientific studies that on the surface look so convincing. But for every sincere handshake and student email saying that my approach is like “a breath of fresh air,” there are 4 or 5 protesting that “this is a psychology course, not a philosophy!” that it is “supposed to be easy,” and they “don’t have a problem getting good grades in any other psychology classes.” And, of course it is mostly the disgruntled ones that then go to anonymous websites like ratemyprofessors.com to give ‘zero-rating’ reviews. Yes, professors do read those comments from time to time, and whether we like it or not, research suggests that a large number of students use those reviews to decide whether they will take a course or not. It is unfortunate that the angry minority could discourage future students from what might be an enjoyable experience.

Many of these students do not ‘get’ what I am trying to do; as far as they are concerned, I am the problem. So I shouldn’t be surprised when some of them exclaim: “he’s so opinionated” or “the only way to do well is to agree with his opinions” – these students apparently skipped or slept through the part of the class where we discuss the difference between opinions and reasons. Anyone who has attended one of my lectures will know that I always encourage class discussions, and am very curious about the logical arguments students present. This is an important part of honing one’s thinking skills. But while I try to be polite and sensitive to student feelings, I admit that I do not give much talking time to poorly constructed arguments or student opinions. I am sorry anonymous student, but if I did not listen to your opinion, it was probably because opinions are not worth much. That’s just the way it works: as a society, and particularly in the academic world, we tend to put greater stock in science and reason. And it is probably a similar variety of student who will complain about my marking not being ‘objective,’ as if they should know a priori, exactly what words to write down. But who can blame them – these students are used to memorizing ‘objective psychological facts’ only to regurgitate them on a test or assignment or find the right answer out of a series of multiple-choice responses. But that’s not how I teach or how I grade. Of course my way of grading is not objective – it’s a theoretical psychology course! Theories are constructed by reasons, not objective facts. Most of the questions in my course involve not multiple choice, but short-answer or essay style responses. Sometimes there is more than one way to answer a question; these kinds of answers are not based on ‘objective facts’ as much as on rational arguments. But while there is some degree of subjectivity in what makes ‘a good argument,’ there are nonetheless logical rules that we must follow, so that anyone with a modicum of training in the art of rational argumentation can say: “that’s a good argument!” And if students pay attention in class, they should be able to know, a priori, what makes a good argument versus a bad one. I am not one of those ‘everyone can be right’ sorts of professors. I have more respect for my students and their education than that; my job is to challenge students. But many students do not want to be challenged. They want to feel smart, even if they are not, and they want a good grade, even if they don’t deserve it. The sad thing is that as more of these students make up the undergraduate population, professors like me are at increased risk of becoming cynical, or else we become frustrated enough that we get out of it altogether.

iStock_000017217655XSmallBut I want to end this cathartic rant on a positive note. Because the reality is that a number of university students do get what an education is about, and they do take responsibility for their grades. In addition to hopes of getting a degree and a better job, some students also want to learn for the sake of learning. They see the value in it, and you can sense how it changes their view of the world – sometimes in some profound ways, which is very rewarding. These are the students that I look forward to teaching, and quite honestly, the only reason that I continue – I just wish there were more of them.

9 Responses to “Teaching in the 21st Century”

  1. brent mosher Says:

    Students today will graduate with criminal debt loads. If they see their education as purely utilitarian, blame the banks who exploit them and the politicians who allow the banks to get away with it. Next time there is a student demonstration against higher tuition, you ought to think about joining them. Maybe ask the University President (next time you cross paths with the TRULY entitled) exactly how he justifies his obscene salary for what is essentially a ceremonial post? Be careful to wipe the slime off your shoes when you’re done…

    You think the public school system is about teaching students to think???? For a few lucky ones, maybe. For most, it is 13 years of sitting down and shutting up and doing exactly what you are told to do. And you are punished if you deviate (again, unless you are lucky). By the time they hit university, most students have long learned how to play the game. And it is a game. I used to joke that writing term papers was like writing Harlequin Romances. A few quotes here, follow the formula, a nice little summary at the end and voila, an A-. I once dared to be original, I got an F. Lesson learned. The one time I questioned the profs pet “theories, I lost marks (He said the conquistadors actually did care about converting the natives to christianity, I said it was nothing but a cover for their greed. It may have been a bit of both, but to him, I was wrong and he was right. And he was right, as in politically conservative, which of course had NOTHING to do with his response). You may be encouraging originality. But don’t expect your many of your students to react with anything but hostility. (I could go on and on giving examples of how originality and daring are punished by the school system. I hope you get my drift.) I TRIED to be original, to ask questions in my essays, rather than pretend I knew all the answers, and lost marks because of it. So, I learned to play the game. I gave the professors exactly what they wanted to hear, and was rewarded for it. Eventually, I couldn’t stand it anymore, rebelled, was punished, and quit.

    Maybe, when you go back after Xmas, you ahould take just one class, and relate your feelings to the class, and then see what they have to say in return. Give them time. Many will be reluctant to speak out. Many just figure this is how the game works, what’s the problem? And really, you’ve scratched the surface. Cheating is normalized. You have a school system that says working together is wrong. Only individual effort counts. Which is nonsense. The world runs on cooperation, but not in school. So, students subvert the BS by cheating. Students are told they live in a democratic society, but school functions as a dictartorship. Students are told to act like adults, and treated like children. schools say they want their students to learn to “think critically and independently” and then has them sit passively in classes for five hours get blah blah blah, of mostly non-controversial material. And then they are usualyy punished if they do challenge.

    And then they get to university. Where they go to classes where they are asked to “discuss the images of death in the poetry of Sylvia Plath” and one of their friends tried to commit suicide last year, but somehow that isn’t very relevant to the class, or the school, or that person’s education. I mean, why talk about what THAT means when you’ve got Sylvia’s EZ bake oven to talk about.And after class, they go to their dorm’s where in the tv lounge six jocks are watching the soaps making every misogynistic remark you can imagine. I mean, did it ever occur to you they are justifialbly BORED with what to them may seem like the complete irrelevance of much of what they are learning? Or if it is relevant, then you are failing to demonstrate to them how it is?

    Many of the things you’ve mentioned students doing I would not do. But then, by the time I quit, I saw the whole marking thing as pretty much a scam. Students can lose 10% off any test or essay simply becasue of poorly worded questions, material on the test not having been covered, and well, shitty teaching. I got high marks, even though I thought I was doing nothing more than playing a game. I had a chance to read some essays that were left outside one of my profs offices once. They were uniformly awful, and I understood why I was getting high marks. If the public education teachers want to blame the students for the lousy outcomes, I guess the administrators are happy to have them do so. If the university profs want to blame the students for their mercenary attitudes, I guess the public school teachers are happy to hear that. I often hear teachers say of a class with thirty students in it “well, if I can just reach ONE student, then I think I will have done my job.” Geez, so, if a student gets one right answer on a test with thirty questions, they get to pass? Can you blame them if they feel they should?

    Brad Reply:

    Brent, your response seems a bit jumbled in content. It also appears to involve lot of frustration and resentment, and I am not sure if it is about things that I have said, or maybe misplaced feelings related to your personal experiences. At any rate, let me respond to your comments as I understand them.

    You suggest that if students treat their education as purely utilitarian, we should blame the unregulated banks that exploit their desire for an education, and presumably those aspects of society that demand they have one. I am aware of the larger societal issues, but your suggestion assumes that students are passive participants in that process, which they are not. This attitude would appear convenient, since from this perspective, the burden of responsibility is not the students, but rather that of society, which the student then rebels against for being at ultimate fault for his/her life predicament. Your argument proves the exact point that I am trying to make. This is also the general approach of the anarchist: out of cynicism and despair they seek to tear everything down, but they build nothing positive in its place… for either themselves or for others. It is a nihilistic approach that removes them of personal responsibility while affording them a convenient scapegoat. My point is this: while larger issues may explain some of what we are seeing in the attitudes of university students, it does not relieve them of personal accountability or the responsibility they might have to do something different. A large number of students have gone through horrific public schools and nonetheless realize that some choices are in-fact theirs to make. They do not allow themselves to fall into passivity, cynicism, or despair, and do what they can to get the most of their educational experience.

    You say that for most students, public school involves “sitting down and shutting up and doing exactly what you are told to do.” I do not deny that some teachers are better than others at letting their students have a voice, but you seem to suggest that in these situations, there is nothing of value to be learned, which is another straw-man argument. It is narrow-minded and somewhat narcissistic to think that you would not benefit from the heritage of thought that makes up our early education. Critical thinking comes somewhat later, when you have been able to digest some of the knowledge accumulated through history. Sure, there is sometimes a ‘game’ to be played, especially early on when one does not have the means or ability to clearly express their own ideas… but that should not cause one to think it is NOTHING but a game. And yes, you can be original, but unless we are talking about art, that originality ought to come with sound reasons or scientific evidence; again, something that to me, comes later on. I understand what you mean about ‘pet theories’ getting in the way of being open-minded – I cover that in my first class lectures and I have articulated my thoughts on that process elsewhere on this blog. Still, if you are going to challenge something, you need to back it up with convincing reasons. Are you so sure that your reasons were better than those of your professors? Did you clearly articulate them in the form of an argument?

    As to your question, “did it ever occur to you that they are justifiably bored … with irrelevance … or if is relevant, then you are failing to demonstrate to them how it is?” Yes Brent, it has occurred to me, and continues to occur to me quite often. I am not content with having reached a couple students. It makes me constantly question what I am doing, which is an uncomfortable feeling, but at least I am taking responsibility for my role; I cannot carry it all, which is again my main grievance with a sizable chunk of modern-day students. But let me turn this back on you: Did it ever occur to you that maybe you had some responsibility to bear in what happened to you? Did you seriously entertain the possibility that maybe you could have done something different, in either your approach or attitude?

  2. Mrs. Neutron Says:

    I love ya Brent, but, I think you are way off base here. You cannot blame outrageously high tuition costs for students failure to take their education seriously. If I was paying what they are paying I would take my studies as serious as a heart attack!

    It sounds like you had a REALLY bad time at college. I had a great time, but, it was terrifying. In my day you didn’t get a trophy for breathing and you fully expected to fail if you didn’t show up, or, do all the work ON TIME. There were no excuses. It was about figuring the world out, not expecting professors to be accommodating.

    What surprises me is that it seems as bad in Canada as in the states. Our culture has failed… I thought you guys were a little better off.

    My “theory”, for what it’s worth, is this. Without discipline to till the ground in the early years self discipline never has an opportunity to grow and take strong root. If there are no consequences for irresponsibility no one learns to be responsible.

    In America we had the word “shame” legally removed from all the dictionaries. Shame no longer exists here, ergo, we are fucked. If I were you I would check out your Dictionaries. It could be your problem too.

    For proof of my theory I offer two words.

    Chinese students.

    Brad Reply:

    I think there is more than a grain of truth to that – I can anecdotally confirm that there are cultural differences in what I see in the classroom.

  3. Alicia Says:

    I remember when the tests got stolen! I was in that section. I hear you with your rant, students and teaching today is just a whole calamity. Something came to mind when you said in this post that kids are just pushed through grade to grade. It is so true. The teachers today in high school and school before that no longer want to take the effort to deal with their students. My sister had some sort of learning disability and she was pushed from grade to grade despite failing courses. I personally blame the school board for not helping her when she needed help. Her self-esteem plummeted as a result and she turned to drugs, which she died from. I think high school is ruining kids these days. It is definitely not like it was when I was in high school.

    Brad Reply:

    I don’t think it is the teachers’ not wanting to deal with students, I think it is that their hands are tied by bad policy and regulation.

    Alicia Reply:

    That too. I agree that the policies out there are bad.

  4. Mrs. Neutron Says:

    My thoughts turned to you this weekend when, in the aftermath of the horrible bloodbath in Connecticut, I heard a newscaster remark… “What can you expect from a country where it is easier to get an automatic assault rifle than an appointment with a psychologist?”…

    Alicia Reply: