Don't shift the blame, blame the shift
I groused a bit about students yesterday, which is allowed from time to time. But so too is asking myself the question I usually ask whenever I hear colleagues grousing about students: How long have you been teaching? In what world is it that students don't behave this way?
The truth is that faculty--myself included--don't really understand students today. I was reminded of this fact while speed skimming something I was to have read before a meeting yesterday (you'll note the irony of my student-like last minute preparation here). At my institution new faculty are paired with a more seasoned colleague and we meet periodically to share ideas. Once a month, too, all of the mentors and mentees meet to discuss a book about teaching and learning. This year's choice was Therese Huston's Teaching What You Don't Know, a wonderfully insightful resource for all faculty, even those who somehow find themselves teaching what they do know.
Chapter Six of Huston's book was just what I needed after a week of feeling frustrated with my students' lackluster efforts. Huston argues that there are some good reasons that we don't understand our students. First, they aren't like us. Research suggests that up to 50 percent of undergraduates operate with concrete/active cognitive styles whereas only 10 percent of faculty do. We're far more likely to be abstract/reflective in cognition. In short, we process information differently than half of our students, who are no doubt as frustrated with us as we can become with them.
Similarly, Huston notes that students today are not the same as they were even 15 to 20 years ago. They spend far less time preparing for class. In the 1980s, for example, 73 percent spent at least 15 hours per week outside of class on preparation. Today that number has dropped to 65 percent.
Why the drop?
One reason is they are working more. Financial aid has been cut and tuition has gone up. So the overwhelming majority of today's students--especially at a blue collar institutions like mine--work anywhere from 25-30 hours a week, and it's not uncommon for them to be full-time employees and full-time students. Nationwide over 70 percent of undergrads work and go to school. Indeed, the so-called "non-traditional" student today is not very "non." This is the new normal.
All this is to say nothing of the greater ethnic diversity of our student bodies in what is still a predominately monochromatic professoriate. Moreover, our students are more economically-focused and pragmatic about their majors than many of us were. They have to be. For them college is a pathway to work rather than a period of self-discovery and personal development.
I can lament this sad state of affairs and complain, but the question I should more often ask myself is this: given the world I live in, why am I surprised that my students act the way they do? As Huston notes, understanding students today is actually the easy part. All we have to do is set aside our assumptions and listen. The hard part--and this isn't about to get easier anytime soon--is figuring out how to teach to them.