They're not broken
At the same time, I have also been reluctant to fall into "the students today are broken" school of thought, an all-too seductive position for faculty to adopt because it allows us to sniff and say, "Well, until the high schools start sending me better students, there's nothing I can do."
The truth is there are things we can do to increase our effectiveness with underprepared students and they don't always involve lowering our standards (quite the opposite). They will, however, require us to change, and change is a word most faculty greet with suspicion. It comes all too often from people with agendas beyond classroom teaching.
I'm no expert, but I know that I've had to change my approach to teaching over the last ten years. These changes have been driven by necessity but also by a deep sense of dissatisfaction with the results in my classes. So, for what it's worth, here are three broad brushstroke changes I've had to make:
Assume nothing: so many of the basic academic survival skills that we take as a given are just not there anymore. A lot of students don't (and do not see the need to) read the syllabus, keep a planner, or calculate their GPA (let alone understand the conventions of academic writing, critical reading or the ethical use of source material). We can express our frustration about this all we want, but it isn't going to change anything. Last week, for example, there was a rash of all-campus emails expressing faculty consternation about students who make and then don't keep advising appointments. Anyone who is surprised by the fact students aren't tracking on meetings and due dates either hasn't been teaching for very long or hasn't adjusted to the new reality. It doesn't take much to address the problem: a simple email reminder to advisees each morning during advising week works wonders. Should we have to do this? No. Ought we do it? Why not if it gets the job done with less frustration? Like I said, don't assume they will remember.
Teach material by teaching skills: there is a long (and quite frankly tedious) debate among professors about whether we have to get students up to speed before they are ready to think about more demanding material, or whether we can teach thinking and the material at the same time. I am firmly in the latter camp. If there is some benchmark of critical ability needed before we get to the demanding content, then we are unlikely ever to get there. Yes, I teach demanding material, but I also have to teach them how to read it. Yes, I want them to think critically, analytically, creatively, but I also have to as concretely as possible show students how to do this and why it matters. My experience is students will do whatever you ask of them so long as you have been clear about what you want and why. I mean they're underprepared, not broken.
Emphasize a "growth mindset": given the profile of students in our classes, much of what we do on the undergraduate level will be formative. It's important to integrate into courses some self-assessments that allow students to measure and see their growth and development. This can be something as simple as asking them to write a note on where they see improvement on the back of a assignment just before they turn it in. You can build in self-assessment components to final projects or exams. I like to assign final reflection papers in which students walk me back through their semester highlighting the frustrations and breakthroughs along the way. The key thing is to change the conversation from point totals and grades to growth and development, which is what education is suppose to be about, right? Students really do like to see themselves getting better. The research on "mastery" as a motivator is clear.
A great resource on pedagogy for teaching to who our students are today is Teaching Underprepared Students by Kathleen Gabriel and Sandra Flake. It's a practical guide for doing the job in today's higher education landscape. Let's face it: the preparedness level of our incoming students isn't likely to change anytime soon. The only change that's likely is--for better or worse--how we approach our job. .