Sunday, June 12, 2011

Transparency and Wants v. Need

Another contributor to the Mama Ph.D. column this week writes the following:

“While I don’t subscribe to the commercial model of education … I do want to know what my students want and expect. After all, if I don’t know what they are hoping for, or expecting, my approach may confuse or disorient them. The more transparent we can all be about our expectations, the more likely we are to achieve at least some of them—or revise them, if necessary.”

Here’s my response to her:

Two responses. First, the goal of transparency is absolutely laudable. I agree wholeheartedly that explaining one’s pedagogical decision making is valuable not only for the student but for the instructor as well. In the former case, students are provided with assurance that the requirements of the course are not arbitrary and that they have been chosen for their educational potential. In the latter case, it requires instructors to be mindful of their pedagogy, to consider why they do what they do.

I have for years created links on my course webpages with titles like “Methods to the Madness” to explain assignments. I often provide further links to articles about student study habits, the connection between time spent preparing and grades and the value of various skills such as critical thinking, effective expository skills and the ability to work with others in the wider society. I often create preliminary quizzes to test these readings to insure students have actually taken the time to read them and, hopefully, understand them.

However, I wonder about the value of inquiring too deeply into “what my students want and expect.” Certainly student preferences can be taken into consideration in the preparation and perhaps even alteration of any given syllabus. But what a good instructor must ultimately discern is the difference between what students want or expect and what they actually need.

The reality is that increasingly many students expect very little in the way of challenge or work. And most are not inclined to do more than is absolutely required of them. The recent publication of Lowering Higher Education and Academically Adrift are merely the latest of a long line of studies indicating that students may make good consumers but they often prove to be mediocre at being students on a good day. Coté and Allahar (Lowering Higher Education) provide a very helpful paradigm when they note that decreasing requirements for prep time in high schools and colleges coupled with grade inflation seen at all levels of academia result in a perhaps self-evident sense of entitlement.

I observe that my students have very strong sense of what they want but little sense of what they need. My own end of term surveys indicate that 80%+ expect at least an A- coming into my class but less than 15% report preparing two hours or more for each class and only one in three see such a requirement as reasonable. The lesson here? Take student desires and expectations seriously but always in context. And bear in mind that even the best explained pedagogy may not be well received by consumers with a sense of entitlement.

Between the time I posted that response at the Mama Ph.D. link to Inside Higher Ed, I came across a site by accident that purports to provide students with the lowdown on courses taught at the university. The site,, which purports to provide the means for students to “manage college,” offers some data for courses I teach which is fairly incomplete but interesting nonetheless.

In looking at the overall statistics of the intro humanities courses I teach, I note that grade inflation is alive and well. In the Humanistic Traditions I course I am scheduled to teach this fall (assuming students at the honors college can overcome their aversion to actually working for their grades and fill the class) the chances that any given student walking in the door of the course will make an A are 36%. Indeed, As and Bs account for 71% of all the grades. Those numbers are closer to three quarters of all students when you do not include the 4% of students who withdraw for whatever reason.

Clearly, students come expecting high grades because, in fact, that’s a fairly safe expectation. But that’s not all they expect. Only one instructor received a five star rating at this site. Here are the comments that accompanied that rating:

Pros: I love [this instructor]! All you have to do is attend lectures and copy overhead notes and you will get an A easily. Lectures are fascinating and engaging. I've taken two courses with [this instructor] and will gladly take another!

Cons: [This instructor] does not post the notes online so you have to attend the lectures to get them.

For the record, 60% of all students who rated this rating said they found it "helpful."

So what gets an instructor a five star rating? Low demands – “All you have to do is….” Insured As – “you will get an A easily.” Entertainment – “fascinating and engaging” but not so engaging that the student would not skip class to watch them online if given the option – “you have to attend the lectures to get [the notes].” Low intellectual engagement – “attend lectures and copy overhead notes.”

This is an incredibly minimalist investment demanding an inordinately maximal return. And it is precisely this sense of consumerist entitlement that makes inquiry into “what my students want and expect” a generally unproductive use of limited time and energies for professional educators.

Again, as I said above: The lesson here? Take student desires and expectations seriously but always in context. And bear in mind that even the best explained pedagogy may not be well received by consumers with a sense of entitlement.


The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., Ph.D.
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Instructor: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
University of Central Florida, Orlando

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.
Most things of value do not lend themselves to production in sound bytes. ++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

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