The Perfect Storm

I’ve been working on my paper for the upcoming APSA Teaching and Learning Conference, where I will be presenting research on students who were in different sections of my university’s fall semester first-year seminar. The survey was an attempt to compare levels of student academic engagement across sections, in the hope of showing that game design projects in my sections were associated with higher survey scores. As usually happens with my research on this kind of topic, there are no easily-recognizable patterns in the survey data. Aware of the looming conference paper deadline, I began thinking about possible alternative explanations for the data. This led me to look at the student evaluations for my seminar sections, and I was surprised to find that average evaluation scores had sharply decreased from the previous year, despite nearly identical course content. Odd.

So I starting asking colleagues what had happened in their seminar sections. I received reports of students’ problematic classroom behavior, lack of motivation, and declining academic performance. There also seems to have been an uptick in diagnosed or in-need-of-diagnosis psychological disorders among last fall’s incoming class of undergraduates.

While there is some solace in knowing that many of us had similar experiences, this could be the thin edge of a very problematic wedge. In the United States, academic ability and college preparedness correlate with socioeconomic status — unfortunate, but true. And at my university, as at others, more incoming students are being granted larger tuition discounts than in the past, which reduces net tuition revenue per student. In sum, in order to fill seats the university recruits a greater proportion of academically-marginal students by offering them greater amounts of financial aid.

To paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld, you teach the students you have, or more accurately, the students that the university brings to you. If declining aptitude is a long term trend, what practical steps can I — on the front line, so to speak — take in an attempt to adjust to what might be the new normal?

The easy way out is to abandon all standards of academic rigor, distribute A grades like candy, and make everyone happy, except me, because I’ve ethically compromised myself.

Another strategy is to explicitly inform students about even the simplest of standards when the course begins. For example, I could pair a behavioral expectations quiz with the syllabus quiz that I re-instituted a few years ago. (More on the syllabus quiz here.)

While informing students about expectations via a quiz gives me additional cover if things go awry later in the semester, one-time exposure is unlikely to produce a long-term effect. A more productive approach might be to repeatedly inform students in the classroom and in assignments why they should do what they are supposed to do — as in “You had the opportunity to practice argumentative writing by completing the assignment before class, and now you will be able to practice your oral communication skills by discussing what you wrote with classmates. These are the skills that employers look for.” Perpetually reminding students of why everything happens in a course could easily become a tedious routine. It also infantilizes them. But it might now be necessary.

2 Replies to “The Perfect Storm”

  1. I teach in an area of high poverty that is also very rural. My freshmen students often have no idea how to write an essay, lack proper grammatical skills, and don’t know how to study. I’ve learned that they want step by step instructions, so I’ve gotten better at that. They generally like my interactive activities, which are always coupled with assessments. I’ve begun to assign Class Preparation Assignments (CPAs), which are sets of 5-10 questions on each chapter that they must bring to the first class each week. It forces them to read the chapter in advance. Most of them will. As this is my first year using this activity, I’ll wait until May to compare scores from this year and last year and see if I see any patterns and improvement.
    The main thing is to not sacrifice rigor, but to alter your teaching methods in ways that will work to engage your student population. That’s really general I know, but they will likely respond to greater clarity. I too lean to tell them what employers will want out of them and what the real-world consequences are for not following through. I also tell them that they are capable of learning and knowing more than they currently do and of gaining the skills to assess the world around them in a comprehensive manner. They get those things.
    Finally, when the socioeconomic demographic in the classroom means greater poverty, (on many levels), try to get to know your students. It’s hard, but it’s do-able. I find that when I’m willing to be flexible with work schedules, child care issues, and illness, my students prosper because they feel supported, and they are incentivized to follow through on assignments and assessments. I’ve stopped bemoaning the seat-warmers and begun to see that they need compassion from me. After all, education is the pathway out of poverty. We have the “power” to help that happen without grade inflation.
    Good Luck.

  2. Thanks for your comment, Cheryl. I do something similar to your class preparation assignments — I break readings into small chunks, with a brief writing assignment on each chunk due before class nearly every time the class meets. Then there’s class discussion about what everyone (and it’s almost always everyone, but these things count toward the final grade) has already read/written. And I include many other interactive exercises also. But the reaction I got to this course last semester came completely out of left field. I don’t really know why, it could have been just random chance, but I’m also hearing grumblings from other faculty about what they experienced.

    Everything being equal, I would probably enjoy teaching your students. I am a first generation college student from a relatively poor, rural area of the country. I have a lot of sympathy for people who enter college with particular disadvantages. Many of the students I encountered last semester though did not seem to accept that learning requires effort and a willingness to challenge oneself. One can lead a student to the well of knowledge but it’s up to the student to drink from it.

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