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.