They're not broken

Yesterday I sat in on a meeting with a hired-gun retention expert who told us we aren't imagining it if we sense a change in the readiness levels of our current students.  I've long known about the statistics showing today's students are less well-prepared.  Only 25 percent of first-year students are hitting all four ACT readiness benchmarks in writing, reading, math and science.  The numbers for science and reading are particularly depressing (only 30 percent achieve readiness standards in science, 50 percent in reading). 

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.  .


Anti-Dada said…
This is an excellent post, PQ. I agree with you about teaching thinking and material at the same time. I think it provides the best way for students to more fully understand how and why changing thinking processes are meaningful and useful. As for the rest, bravo!

I thought of a question as I read that you've significantly changed your teaching methods and approach over the past ten years because students don't read the syllabus, keep a planner, calculate GPA, attend scheduled advising meetings, understand academic writing, critical reading, or ethical use of source materials. What I'm wondering is if you have noticed a decline in the integrity of students during that time. Do they have any sense that by asking tough questions of themselves and difficult questions of their respective relationships to the community and the larger world they enrich their experience of living? Do they have any understanding that becoming virtuous is an arduous process, extraordinarily difficult, but ultimately one of the few meaningful pursuits in life because of how it opens up a perspective on life that results in awe and wonder and a greater capacity to endure hardship and loss? Perhaps I'm going too far--I have my doubts that any of them ever consider such things. So I'll stick to the simple question of whether you've noticed a decline in the integrity of students (noting that previous generations of students probably weren't exactly paragons of integrity and virtue). I'm curious, though, because you have experiences through your work that provide you with insights that I don't have.

Anyway, keep up the great writing.
Professor Quest said…
Hi AD,

I'm not sure if there's more or less academic dishonesty today. I tend to think human nature doesn't change that much, so there's as much or as little as there has ever been. Don't really know. I did have a kid this semester who ran up three offenses in two weeks (only one in my class, though). Three, by the way, is our limit and means automatic expulsion.

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