Monday, March 05, 2007

Let's Stop Whining and Do Something about Our Students

Yesterday's post had the odd effect of getting me brainstorming about what might improve the intellectual atmosphere on my campus. The conversation on my campus, for the last few years, has centered on how to raise our profile, how to foster a more intellectual atmosphere, how to make clear to the world what a truly fine place this is for study.

Unfortunately, as a faculty, we don't do a whole lot more than complain about the low motivation and poor study skills of our students. Don't get me wrong. We have lots to celebrate about many of our students, especially in the last year. But, there is still a socialization process that seems to happen to the bulk of our students once they arrive on campus. I have always called this the "tyranny of the cool," a phrase which I stole from a Harper's magazine article (whose title I forgot). While many students might show up eager and hungry for intellectual opportunities, they quickly learn that such desires are not cool. Despite that, many of our students pose as social butterflies, but secretly work their tails off.

Lately, the faculty has believed that the way to turn around our students is to find administrators who "kick us up a notch." I have never seen this as a viable route to improving the intellectual atmosphere on campus. Maybe that will purge the "dead wood" among faculty (gosh! I hope I am not included), but it does little to invigorate and inspire our students. We, the faculty, are the ones closest to these students and we know their strengths and weaknesses.

What we don't seem to ever talk about, publicly, is how poorly prepared many of these students are for the rigors of our classes. Sometimes faculty just plain fail to grasp where students are coming from. After all, the majority of us are total nerds who decided to stay in school forever. We either already knew what sort of work was required of us, or some of us are just plain gifted. A good friend of mine has always said that the best way to empathize with what your students are going through in your courses is to study something you are not good at at the same time you are teaching. Those of us who are naturally gifted at the material often fail to comprehend why our students are struggling.

What we need to do, as a faculty, is start having real conversations about what our expectations are of our students, what we think it takes to succeed and excel in our courses and then communicate this message often and everywhere. This should be part of their FYS experience, it should be folded into FYS programs, and there should be on-going lectures and seminars aimed at students. We need to give them concrete, practical advice on how to succeed in our courses.

Who's with me?

UPDATE: I agree with virtually everything that Lesboprof says here and it is precisely these sorts of techniques that we all need to incorporate into our class time/lectures that can begin to make a difference. Rather than scratching our heads over why students keep failing our quizzes, despite the fact they "read the book," we need to figure out how they are "reading the book," i.e. do they know how to tease out important information/concepts/arguments etc?