“Student Success” (a Cranky Post)

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Here, let me help you. Photo by iapsii via Flickr. 

There is some limited agreement about “what’s wrong” with higher education. It is currently trendy to denigrate the lecture format, the high price of a college education, the usefulness of the curriculum, and the lack of focus on individual growth. The solution, depending on your view, might be MOOCs (free huge online classes), an acceptance of non-college-educated workers (no one wants to talk about that), or a focus on “student success”.  For those inside the current college system, this last is becoming most popular.

We admit that many of our students are underprepared, overly dependent, and unmotivated. A “student success” focus is designed to deal with these failings and enable students to graduate, presumably by somehow making them more prepared, less dependent and more motivated. Student services are ramped up, early alert systems enabled to provide counseling for those failing their classes. Even professional development for everyone from janitors to administrators is designed to promote “student success”.

However, the system as it exists is not set up to provide the type of personal attention that “student success” advocates say is needed. College is designed for the prepared, independent, motivated student – that’s what makes it “higher” education. Grades are assigned to those students to determine the level of their work compared to a discipline standard, and assessment assumes that the work they do is the result of their learning. At the undergraduate level, college is designed for general rather than deep learning, in a process that forces the student to do lots of reading and pay attention.

I commit heresy now when I say that this traditional design might be a good thing.

Certainly the patching we’re trying to do to fix it is counterproductive. If we accept and condone the underpreparedness, the dependency, and the lack of motivation, we increase the tendency of these students to come to college and expect high levels of deeply personal support. We refuse to say that a student is simply not ready for college, since this could both undermine their “self esteem” and hold them back for remedial work when they need to get their degree soon. So instead it falls on professors to desperately try to hold to a standard of college-level work, while both students and administrators exert pressure on them to ensure “student success”. Part-time college profs in particular know that if they don’t have a certain level of “success”, they’ll lose their jobs.

The view that profs should be deeply attentive to individual students is also leaking into the current arguments about online education. The recent New York Times article The Trouble with Online College has caused great consternation in the ranks, but what jumped out at me is the claim that online classes do not allow for “getting to know” ones students. (In response, some commenters insist that online classes have just as much or more personal interactions between profs and students as on-site classes. That’s true but it’s beside the point.)

I am increasingly having trouble with the argument that “getting to know your students” is the hallmark of class quality. Instead, quality education should create an environment for the students to get to know the ideas and the discipline. The energy for learning should originate with the student, who needs to study and work hard to figure out both the system and the content.  Professors are experts in their discipline, not in engendering character development. Their role is to model their scholarly engagement with their discipline, not their personal engagement with their students. This doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be good teachers, but it doesn’t define a good teacher as someone who really knows their individual students well. I will “know” a certain percentage of students, in person or online, as it happens naturally. And not knowing every student “well” doesn’t mean not contacting or following up with students who are doing poorly – that’s always appropriate. It also doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be nice – I’m an advocate of nice .

But over the past decade, I have watched my own students become increasingly unwilling to analyze collective feedback in terms of their own work. Instead they want individual feedback only, preferably in a one-on-one environment with me. At 40 students per class section, I cannot meet that expectation. But it’s a symptom of the individualized attention their sub-standard work has been given thus far. They know that the current system is focused on their “success”, and I’m supposed to make that possible rather than them. Instead of overcoming their own limitations (economic class, learning disability, living situation), they are taught that I will take those hurdles into consideration and lower my expectations. Some have internalized the learning problems and even learning styles they’ve been told they possess as individuals, and they see them as justification for lowered standards. I have students who tell me they can’t do the reading because they are visual learners. (I sometimes find myself mumbling “I’ll read it for you”, a line from Monty Python’s bookshop sketch.)

I realize I sound like a 19th century conservative here, and I am no proponent of Samuel Smiles or social Darwinism. But the dependency of students is expanding within a system increasingly dedicated to enabling their helplessness. Equal opportunity and equal access are the hallmarks of democracy and public education, and I strongly believe in them. But that does not mean equal “success”, especially at the price of academic standards, massive instructor workload, increased student dependency, and an environment that caters to the underprepared and unmotivated.

So I question the current focus on the success of the underprepared, dependent, unmotivated college student. I’m getting concerned that the prepared, independent, motivated learner is being subjected to a restrictive and limited education instead of college or university learning. I have very little time to spend with the high-B student who could be an A, because I spend so much time re-explaining directions and answering individual questions that I’ve already answered collectively, or tracking down poor-performing students to recommend they get tutorial help. This focus on their ‘success” may help them do a little bit better, but at the sacrifice of leaving the better students at the same level as when they came in. I don’t have time to help them make their very good work excellent.

Perhaps “success” should be defined as self-development into an independent learner who can learn something valuable from any professor in any class. It should mean succeeding within various environments and with various teaching styles, and being able to learn something regardless – success as a learner, as someone becoming more educated. (I cringe now when people go off on the track that education reform should be based on people following their own path for learning their own way, studying only those subjects they really care about. College is for finding out the value of subjects you don’t care about, but I guess that’s another post.) I certainly want student success to mean that they come in at a certain level of understanding and increase it in my class. Instead it’s coming to mean a passing grade after lots of detailed and personal help. Thus the cranky post.

2 thoughts on ““Student Success” (a Cranky Post)

  1. Great insight—-everyone is not equipped to go to college—instead of marginalizing “higher” education–we could re-think the MOOC and badging ideas to address the accurate, cranky post!

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