Disengaged Students

23 May 2008 at 7:52 am 16 comments

| Peter Klein |

To my colleagues who teach: how do you handle disengaged students? Paul Trout describes them thusly:

They do not read the assigned books, they avoid participating in class discussions, they expect high grades for mediocre work, they ask for fewer assignments, they resent attendance requirements, they complain about course workloads, they do not like “tough” or demanding professors, they do not adequately prepare for class and tests, they are impatient with deliberative analysis, they regard intellectual pursuits as boring, they resent the intrusion of course requirements on their time, they are apathetic or defeatist in the face of challenge, and they are largely indifferent to anything resembling an intellectual life.

I have known a few in my time. The pointer is from George Leef, who also provides this excerpt from Generation X Goes to College:

[B]y and large, students view themselves primarily as consumers who intend to study just a handful of hours a week for all their classes, and who expect, at a minimum, solid Bs for their efforts. . . . In short, they view themselves as consumers who pay their teachers to provide “knowledge,” regardless of how superficial that knowledge might be. After all, how hard should a consumer have to work to buy something?

See also: “In the Basement of the Ivory Tower” from the new Atlantic Monthly.

Entry filed under: - Klein -, Education. Tags: .

Pensées de l’Alsace Economists as Public Intellectuals

16 Comments Add your own

  • 1. david  |  23 May 2008 at 8:14 am

    I’m sure we could all post a few pages on aligning incentives. With that, I worry a lot less about disengaged students than I do about students who aren’t intellectually capable of handling the material.

    Places like Montana State are tough places to teach because the variance in the distribution of ability is so high. I found that I had to decide who my audience was — the B+ student, the B- student, the C student? If you aim too low, the good students become disengaged. But if you aim too high, the bottom of the distribution gets lost, even the students who care.

  • 2. aje  |  23 May 2008 at 8:23 am

    First step must be to view it as a problem with ones teaching methods, rather than the student per se. That’s me speaking as a freshly minted PhD. I’m sure in a couple of years I’ll have a different answer !!

  • 3. EconProf  |  23 May 2008 at 10:07 am

    Solution: Fail them. Rewards are commensurate with results. The only question before us is whether we or their employers will teach them this.

  • 4. Donald A. Coffin  |  23 May 2008 at 10:07 am

    All the complaints may be true, but it does raise the question (implicit in aje’s comment) of what we do in the classroom. I’ve always said that the hardest thing I ever had to deal with as a teacher was what the “average college student at a mid-level public institution” is like.

    I attended a small private liberal arts college, where the students were largely self-motivated. I went to graduate school, where the students were largely self-motivated. I’ve spent my academic life in mid-level public institutions, teaching undergrads (mostly) who are in college largely for instrumental reasons–to get a credential in order to get a decent job.

    The point is that, in general, the students we teach are not “like us.” They are in college for different reasons, and, if we’re honest with ourselves, that has been true for decades…it did not just become trun in the last few years.

    So we need to ask ourselves why they shoud care about what we think they should learn, and try to shape our classes in ways that make clear why what we’re doing is important. I wish my students luxuriated in inellectual challenges, but, by and large they never have (and that’s going back to the mid-1970s), and, if I want them to be engaged, then I have to engage them.

  • 5. Jennifer  |  23 May 2008 at 10:47 am

    I couldn’t agree more with Don. The Leef piece refers to the guy who got denied tenure for giving ‘too many’ Ds and Fs – it’s not a straightforward case but it raises all kinds of issues about how much responsibility for ‘learning’ is on the teacher and how much is on the student. I also teach at a state school with plenty of students who are not incredibly motivated – but I would differentiate between those who are not motivated but recognize the consequence of the resulting grades (which describes most of my students), versus those I think of as ‘the entitled ones’ – they don’t want to do any work but they still expect a decent grade. I suspect (with admittedly no empirical evidence whatsoever) that the latter are more likely found at more prestigious institutions.

  • 6. stevphel  |  23 May 2008 at 12:24 pm

    Why the desire to self-flagellate? I put the blame on the incentive system – “give me high grades for little work and I will give you a good student evaluation” seems to be the implied contract in most schools, particularly when academic promotion, tenure, and merit raises are at least, in part, based on student evaluations (and avoiding lawsuits). How many US professors on this blog can honestly say they give Ds and Fs with impunity.

    P.S. We should be thinking of the student as the product not the customer. “The iron ore thinks itself senselessly tortured by the flames but the steel blade looking back knows better.”

  • 7. jacobchristensen  |  23 May 2008 at 12:48 pm

    [students] view themselves as consumers who pay their teachers to provide “knowledge,” regardless of how superficial that knowledge might be. After all, how hard should a consumer have to work to buy something?

    This may be a bit like swearing in church here, but let me just point out that the student-as-customer perspective is the one being supported actively by politicians and education bureaucrats in this part of the world.

  • 8. aje  |  23 May 2008 at 1:41 pm

    I’d add that for business schools at least the consumer is the companies that hire the students, not the student per se. But to get the student to buy in there’s a responsibility on our part to develop engaging and active learning.

  • 9. Joe Mahoney  |  23 May 2008 at 3:28 pm

    Almost all of my students have been diligent over the past two decades.

  • 10. David Hoopes  |  25 May 2008 at 2:29 am

    I blend relatively stiff incentives to participate and read the material with tangential sidebars during lectures. The former is rather straight forward. If you don’t read the text you won’t do well on exams. Same thing with attendance and participation.

    For in-class engagement, if it seems there is some drift, I will halt the lecture or discussion for a, usually, brief comment about something completely unrelated and somewhat surprising. This can be personal experience: playing in a band, raising ADHD kids, my marriage failures; notable movie, novel, or musical “scenes”; anything else that pops into my ever drifting mind that pulls the otherwise drifting students back to the here and now.

    This is probably because I also have an attention deficit problem and have a sadly disjointed train of thought most of the time.

  • 11. REW  |  25 May 2008 at 6:22 pm

    I asked the students on my study tour to Europe about disengagement. The average student in this course has a 3.7/4.0 GPA and 2 leadership positions on campus. Almost all recounted the courses during the past year in which they cut classes regularly, didn’t complete readings (or buy the text!), or failed to complete assignments. They named names and courses. In all cases they responded to a disengaged prof — distracted, diffident, self-absorbed, condescending, or ill-prepared. They’d rather talk about the profs with whom they were engaged, though.

  • 13. David Hoopes  |  27 May 2008 at 11:01 pm

    I think REW makes some important points. Engagement is at least a two-way street. So, if students are disengaged certainly the faculty have to take SOME responsibility.

    However, I have noticed incredible variance across schools and across programs within schools.

  • 14. Bob Sutton  |  7 June 2008 at 8:31 pm

    Reading all these comments about incentives — except for one or two — just crack me up because they show how the underlying beliefs of economists all come out, they are mostly about stiff penalties and incentives. My experience is that when I teach well, and design the classes well, and don’t have an unfair incentive system, the students work like dogs. Also, the power of intrinsic motivation and combination with good teaching real;y becomes clear when you look at classes such as those taught in the new Stanford d.school, where non of the students are required to be there — they are all from other majors — and take them because they want to learn and to join a community that puts students first. They work like dogs, and do beautiful and inspired work. Sure we have grades, but the whole focus on the place is on designing motivating classes. I am not denying that grades have some effect, but not much. Indeed, it is also interesting that none of these posts seem to mention pride and embarrassment — that is a much more powerful motivator than grades for most of our students, and we design things so they constantly have to perform for each other and industry guests. I guess you could call those incentives, but that oversimplifies the effect in way that isn’t very enlightening. But back to the general point, if emphasize grades and talk about them constantly as use them as the main thing that you believe drive behavior in the class, then you get what you expect… plus the bonus of a lot of cheating as there is not emphasis on intrinsics and on taking pride in your work.

  • 15. David Hoopes  |  8 June 2008 at 3:45 pm

    I think Bob is right in that penalties and incentives have limited use. Everyone should understand that formal aspects of any organization are little more than a framework or outline. If the structure is stupid or wrong it can wreck everything. But if you think about the classes you took that got you excited it was probably because the teacher was caught up and excited in the material.

    As REW implies the onus is on the professor (to some extent) to engage the students. This doesn’t mean being nice or pandering. But, it implies making clear why the topic is meaningful or important. No one will excited about a subject merely to avoid punishment.

  • 16. SC  |  4 June 2010 at 8:41 am

    I think this issue varies quite a bit from school to school. Through my graduate teaching and first jobs, I have taught at 7 different institutions, and have seen widely variable reception from the students – in some places I saw good in-class dialogue, many favorable comments from students on evaluations, even requests from other faculty for me to teach their children. At other schools students freely admit they do no work, don’t even buy the text; I get bad evaluations in spite of hours of prep, an easygoing classroom atmosphere with lots of attempts to engage students, giving review materials a week ahead of tests, being available in office hours and the free tutoring center. A coworker who slaps together materials the morning of, is slow to answer emails and phone messages, and doesn’t post office hours till midterm (the students come to me to deliver messages to him), is more *entertaining* in class and gets much better reviews. We both use a lecture style, so there’s no major difference there. I think these students do not know how to study, and rate professors on entertainment value and whether they get an easy A.
    The administration warns me that i give too many D’s and F’s. Now what to do about this? As tenure application approaches, it’s of huge concern! I continue to talk to successful colleagues at my school and elsewhere to get new ideas, and try them – hope something works.
    But I’d also like to issue a radical challenge to university administrations everywhere – don’t be too quick to dismiss the faculty who give “too many D’s and F’s”. Look at the longer-term effects. It may be that they are a surprising force for good, for students and for the university. The very students who have failed my classes, eventually begin coming to me more and more often for serious advice, even contacting me years later for career tips. One student returned this term, after leaving the college entirely; she retook my class deliberately and declared she would make an A – which she did! We “tough but fair” types can be the unsung heroes who help the students mature; our benefits may arrive late, but they are real.

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