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The Stupid Student Problem Part I

Undergraduates taking survey courses are stupid. Well, when compared to their instructors (professors, grad students, people who already have BAs, Mas, and PhDs). As teachers, we devote our professional lives to our subject area, but this one class students take freshman or sophomore year might be the only exposure they get to it. We know this. We know novices aren’t as skilled as experts and we say we adjust our expectations.

We also like to complain about our students. They sleep in class. They skip class. They don’t do the readying. They don’t study. They don’t pay attention. They don’t take notes. They’re on Facebook in class. They only write down the words on the PowerPoint. All they ask is “is this going to be on the test?”

These are all legitimate concerns for us as teachers. But how do we react? We provide them reasons to do the work. Give them reading quizzes (read or you lose points). Take attendance (come to class or you lose points). Check or prohibit their use of technology (pay attention or you lose points/get embarrassed/lose your ball/etc). These policies have value for instill good behavior, but do we ever stop and ask why students engage in this behavior?

While we greatly value the readings/class lectures/assignments we assign, students may not value them. Students might value sleep, staying up all night drinking the night before, or yes, even Facebook more than history (or whatever your subject is). As a person who as a student didn’t adequately value pretty much all of my large lecture classes (I owe apologies to my engineering, philosophy, chemistry, math, and various other professors from undergrad), I know the threatened power of the podium isn’t actually all that threatening.

I also like to think I wasn’t that stupid as an undergraduate (or now either but judge for yourself). I knew there was some value to going to class and paying attention and doing the homework before class, but I didn’t think there was enough to make me do all the work all the time. In some classes, I, like most of young college students, took the path of least resistance. However, instead of placing the blame on students, and say “they don’t value this class enough,” we should look inward first and say “how can I make my students understand they should value this more?” Maybe they won’t put in more effort overall, but they might put in more effort in your class than others.

Convincing students the value of our classes is more than saying the humanities teach skills you can use in any career (though we should also say that). We as instructors need to better articulate the reasoning behind our class structure, readings, exams, assignments, etc. We put a lot of time in crafting courses, but students often don’t realize it. Not until I was on the other side of the table (well classroom) in graduate school did I fully appreciate the effort behind making a course. Midterms aren’t just tests in the middle of the course. They’re exams over a portion of the material carefully selected for thematic and other reasons. I see this especially with study guides, which students often see as just a bunch of terms that need to be defined and memorized individually. It’s my impression that students really start to understand why these terms were chosen once it clicks that these terms go together. Maybe not all of them, but there are themes and stories in which certain terms should be placed. These terms, when connected build to a bigger, important point.

But most students don’t realize this. Unless they’re told of course. Student’s aren’t stupid, they’re actually quite intelligent, but we shouldn’t expect them to know things they haven’t been taught.

In Part II, I deconstruct some thinking of “stupid students” none of which I clearly never thought because as I mentioned earlier I was always a model student.

Published in Academia Teaching

4 Comments

  1. Rob

    Awesome rant about the importance of teaching. It is a skill. So often we approach our students as they should want to learn because I am a professor/professional/know more than you. Instead, we should approach them at humans who are making choices about what to spend their time, energy and attention on. We need to – in some way – convey why what we are teaching is cool and that they should choose our stuff over others.
    Many times this is lost on academics who have spent time learning content but not how to deliver it (teach). Teaching is what we need to do – the practiced and learned skill that is different from being an academic.

    • Brian Sarnacki

      Thanks for the comment Rob! You probably recognized that this all came out of our discussion the other day about using positive approaches to problems like students not paying attention (treating the disease, not the symptoms if you will). Like teaching, there are myriad skills we use everyday as academics (reading, writing, critical thinking) that become second nature and thus may forget the time we spent learning them (and worse, how to explain/teach them).

  2. Marcus Meade

    Interesting read. I’m of the mind that it’s not just about students seeing value in a course. It’s also about cultivating a passion for learning and understanding that what’s taking place in a classroom is in fact learning. We might call this “curiosity.” I, too, was a disinterested student. This use to make me think I didn’t like to learn because I hated school. But after reflecting on it, I realized it wasn’t learning I didn’t like; it was school. It was the conditions of school, the slow pace, the lack of discussion, the lack of personal connection. I realized that I was successful at school even though I hated it because I was curious. When I attended, I wanted to know what was going on. I wanted to have conversations with my brother after classes about what we learned in class. I wanted to keep thinking about these things.

    It might be tougher to cultivate curiosity than to explain the value of a class. It’s probably a longer process, one that needs to start young. But, sadly, I don’t know that schools are set up to do this kind of work and are probably increasingly less so.

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