College Students Better Than Professors Think?

John Beluschi Animal HouseGary Lewandowski and David Strohmetz, psychology professors at Monmouth University, argue at Inside Higher Ed that college professors have unrealistic expectations of their students.  They begin poorly, with several paragraphs of the “both professors and students have shortcomings” variety.  But they eventually hit on an essential truth:

We run the risk of using our own past experience as the default comparison group. This presents two problems. First, our recollection of our own college experience may suffer from retrospective biases where we recall things more favorably than they were. Did we really do all of our reading? Did we really avoid procrastinating? Did we truly devote ourselves to our coursework? Were we really attentive in class 100 percent of the time? Certainly, we are prone to some degree of rosy retrospection.

The second problem is that even if we have perfect and bias-free retrospection, it is likely that you were not a typical college student. In fact, it is much more likely that you went on to become a professor because you were not a typical student.

This is, of course, exactly right.  It’s a trap that I fell into more than once when I was teaching.   And Lewandowski and Strohmetz are correct that “we should be careful to avoid portraying our personal academic experiences and motivations as the benchmark for comparisons.”

And I think this is right, too:

By focusing on student deficiencies, you may inadvertently perpetuate the problem. Case in point, by developing a mindset that students have significant deficiencies, you may become more prone to developing a confirmatory bias that leads you to more easily identify and remember students’ deficiencies. Worse, negative expectations about students might lead you to act in a way (perhaps unknowingly) that elicits negative behaviors from students.

For example, if you became convinced that your class was unenthusiastic, you might devote less effort to your next lecture because quite frankly “why bother? They aren’t interested anyway.” Thus, your next lecture is subsequently less engaging, and the students are, as you predicted, unenthusiastic. By identifying and resisting this self-defeating pattern, you can take steps to avoid it. After all, you are the person with the most influence on the classroom and have the most ability to produce the desired change.

On the other hand, this misses the mark:

In reality, we are much more like our students than we care to acknowledge. Who among us can say they have read all of the recent journals in their field, have never submitted a less than perfect manuscript or grant proposal, have never procrastinated on a project, have never missed a deadline, have never been late to class, have never skipped a meeting, or have not paid astute attention while a speaker provided information? If you have any doubt about this last one, I urge you to look around the room during your next faculty meeting to see how many of your colleagues are otherwise occupied.

This is, of course, all true.  But it misses the point:  We’re held accountable for this behavior.  We’re ultimately judged on the quality of our work, our desirability as colleagues, and all the rest.

Yes, it’s unreasonable to grade freshmen in our survey courses as if they were prospective graduate students and professional colleagues.  But it’s not only reasonable but vital for professors to treat students as young adults.  Being penalized for tardiness and absence, failure to do the assigned readings, and the like can serve as a powerful incentive to behave more responsibly.  And, certainly, the consequences for doing these things in college are markedly less severe than after joining the workforce.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Steve Plunk says:

    I differ on the accountability. Instructors and professors should be accountable to their students and those parents paying for school (I’m one of those parents presently). Part of the failure of modern academia has been it’s desire to please itself more than it’s customers. The result has been cost increases well above inflation and campus political correctness run amok. Tradition has been displaced with untested experimentation. Faculty senates have become self serving boards who sometimes act like it’s the inquisition.

    Job one is to educate. Not research (though that’s a additional responsibility), not expansion of the campus, and not keeping up with other universities in some abstract measure. Educate the undergrads and fulfill the mission.

    Then fact is many professors feel unappreciated and take it out on the poor hapless sophomore just trying to get a degree instead of changing the world. Some abuse their power and prestige for things small, like humiliating an unprepared student, and things large, like that shapely lass who needs help on paper. It happens over and over every year. The standards they claim to hold are for others more often than themselves. Thank you tenure system.

    The cure for this is not complex. Do away with tenure in most cases, do away with faculty senates, and get back to teaching.

  2. James Joyner says:

    The result has been cost increases well above inflation

    That’s a function of declining state support, not anything happening on campus.

    and campus political correctness run amok.

    Mostly, you’re thinking of the 1980s.

    Tradition has been displaced with untested experimentation.

    I have no idea what this means. PowerPoint? All experimentation is untested.

    Faculty senates have become self serving boards who sometimes act like it’s the inquisition.

    Faculty senates are generally quite powerless.

    Job one is to educate. Not research (though that’s a additional responsibility)

    It depends on the school. A PhD granting institution is typically research first, teaching second. If you don’t want that, send your kid to a liberal arts college or a regional university.

  3. We’re held accountable for this behavior. We’re ultimately judged on the quality of our work, our desirability as colleagues, and all the rest.

    Sadly this is not true.

    Are government workers held accountable for the quality of their work? How about bankers? Car company executives? Insurance executives? Teachers? Doctors? Cable providers?

    The truth is very few people are ever held accountable for the quality of their work. The vast majority of people skate by, protected by inertia, by personal relationships, by work rules and contracts, by professional organizations and by a society-wide acceptance of incompetence.

    It’s true that companies eventually go bankrupt if they screw up consistently enough, but against that there’s Microsoft which in violation of every rule of accountability is still in business.

    Would that we were held accountable. The guy who put tomatoes on your burger when you clearly said “no tomato” was he held accountable? No. You grumbled and drove off and didn’t even bother to deprive his employer of your business because you know damn well they’re all equally bad.

    People are held accountable? Does the name George W. Bush ring a bell?

  4. Triumph says:

    Lets remember that college professors are about as Liberal as they come.

    With their socialist/libbie tendencies comes an elitist self-righteousness that basically treats everyone with disdain.

    Whenever you get a bunch of liberals together, the smugness accompanies them in tonnes.

    It is not surprising that these Bill Ayers, Ward Churchill-types think they students are slow–they have no grip on reality.

    Unfortuntely these liberal professors basically control the policymaking apparatus–just take a look at the fraudulent “science” of climate change.

    We basically shouldn’t believe anything that comes out of the mouth of liberal professors. They don’t represent Real America.

  5. James Joyner says:

    The truth is very few people are ever held accountable for the quality of their work. The vast majority of people skate by, protected by inertia, by personal relationships, by work rules and contracts, by professional organizations and by a society-wide acceptance of incompetence.

    There’s a lot of truth to this. Especially if you’re in a job that isn’t competitive and has no upward mobility.

    But people get fired if they don’t show up for work repeatedly. They don’t get picked for jobs if they show up unprepared for the interview. They lose clients if they don’t deliver the project on time and on target.

    Are government workers held accountable for the quality of their work?

    Quality as measured by bosses? Sure. As measured by the public? Often not.

    How about bankers? Car company executives? Insurance executives?

    Generally speaking, sure. We bailed them out this time because there was a massive economic crisis. We shouldn’t have.

    But on a day in, day out basis, these people are generally held accountable by clients and stockholders.

    Teachers?

    If you mean primary and secondary schoolteachers, probably not after they manage to avoid getting fired three years (or however long until they get tenure). College professors have to publish and whatnot for years. Once tenured, if you don’t want to get promoted any more, you can get away with more.

    Doctors?

    There are licensing boards, lawsuits, and the rest. It’s not perfect by any means but they’re generally accountable.

    Cable providers?

    Sure. People call and bitch all the time. They switch to satellite.

  6. Steve Plunk says:

    James, the cost of college rising is more than just less state support. The political correctness that started in the 80’s is alive and well. In Oregon faculty senates have exponentially more power than any other campus group, certainly more than the student senate.

    The issue of teaching being job one is a question of values. I think teaching should be the primary job even at PhD granting institutions. With those PhD’s being a minor part of the student population why would we forsake the majority and make teaching less of a priority?

    The subject of traditions versus experimentation has to do with the common rejection of traditional curriculum in favor of tripe like “Womens Studies” or other such nonsense. It also refers to the practice of thesis and dissertations that reinvent successful methods and ideas with those unproven. Look at the mess this has made in K-12 education. Colleges seem to want to create a new history rather than study the old. I know this is a poor explanation but it’s hard to put into words, it’s almost like colleges see only good in the new and only bad in the old. The results of such an attitude is mixed signals and worse education. Excuse my inability to articulate this better.

  7. Triumph says:

    The subject of traditions versus experimentation has to do with the common rejection of traditional curriculum in favor of tripe like “Womens Studies” or other such nonsense.

    Don’t knock Women’s Studies. Back when I was in Uni, all of the dudes who were Woman’s Studies majors scored the hottest chicks.

  8. BC says:

    Just my say,

    As an industry recruiter for science students, I look for universities that are just as involved in research as teaching. We want those students who are involved with the cutting edge. So pure teaching universities are at a disadvantage. American research universities are in the fore-front of cutting edge technology and American graduate students have a huge advantage because we take longer to educate our graduate level scientists – it takes time to absorb science (MScs take more than 2 years, PhDs take more than 2-5 years.)

    Liberal university professors don’t bother me, as long as they do not keep students out of the job market – if they do, we will abandon that university as if it had the plague. Kind of Darwinian.

  9. Mike says:

    How high powered are the schools? Tier 1? Tier 4? i see the name Monmouth – where the f??? is that? the problem is that some of the top schools are filled with those that have done nothing except work themselves to death to get to an Ivy league, graduate, write some obscure dissertation or law school article, teach part time and then get tenured. most students go to college to go into the real world. sorry if i don’t have a lot of faith in higher ed profs who think their students aren’t as “advanced” as they are. and no i don’t suffer from jealousy or something else – i graduated from tier 1 schools.

  10. Anon says:

    the cost of college rising is more than just less state support.

    Regardless, I don’t see that it has much to do with professors, at least at where I teach. And actually, I think you’d be surprised to see how much attention we devote to enrollments, accreditation (ABET), etc. Though, I’m in engineering, so maybe things are different.

    I am generally sympathetic to Steve Plunk’s criticism of academia, but I do think that he is usually a bit off the mark, and overgeneralizes.

  11. just me says:

    If it is the Monmouth I am aware of it is in Illinois.

    I think there is probably something to remembering things from the past as much more positive than the reality. I know when I was in college some 20ish years ago many a college student was pulling an all nighter or waiting until the day before a paper was due to write it.

    I do think the one complaint I see, hear and read about that has some merit is the lack of writing skills among current college students. I think our schools at the primary and secondary levels have really lowered the bar when it comes to expectations.

  12. Barry says:

    Triumph: “Unfortuntely these liberal professors basically control the policymaking apparatus–just take a look at the fraudulent “science” of climate change.”

    Please put such lies at the beginning of your posts, so that we know to skip everything else.

    Steve Plunk: “In Oregon faculty senates have exponentially more power than any other campus group, certainly more than the student senate.”

    I actually agree; if a student senate has one unit of power, the factulty senate has a few to several. Almost any campus administration, of course, has several dozen to a hundred units of power.

  13. Speaking as a former Faculty Senate President, it was my experience that a) we had essentially no power, and b) the SGA had empirically more power than did we.

    And, I would note, that issues regarding increased costs are typically (if not exclusively) the domain of administration, not faculty.

  14. James Joyner says:

    Speaking as a former Faculty Senate President, it was my experience that a) we had essentially no power, and b) the SGA had empirically more power than did we.

    I was briefly an SGA senator as an undergrad and never really understood why the SGA had any power. It’s nice for students to have a way to express their concerns — and to control, say, what bands come to play for their entertainment — but giving them a meaningful voice in how the curriculum is designed and so forth is nonsensical.

  15. Dave says:

    But it’s not only reasonable but vital for professors to treat students as young adults. Being penalized for tardiness and absence, failure to do the assigned readings, and the like can serve as a powerful incentive to behave more responsibly. And, certainly, the consequences for doing these things in college are markedly less severe than after joining the workforce.

    The inconsistency between the first two sentences of that quote and the unreality of the third have always irritated me. Adults (college-educated professionals in particular) are rarely penalized for absences, tardiness, or lack of preparedness on any given day. By and large, it is only habitual problems that result in penalty, and that penalty usually involves a private conversation with the boss and, eventually, being fired.

    In college, by contrast, professors often have ridiculous bright-line policies such as “if you’re late, don’t come at all” or “more than 3 absences and you fail the class”. Moreover, if a manager berates an adult employee in front of the whole office, that’s properly seen as rude and unprofessional, but many professors think nothing of chastising their students in front of the class or humiliating them by persisting in Socratic questioning after it’s clear the student hasn’t done the reading.

    Directly penalizing students “for tardiness and absence, failure to do the assigned readings, and the like” is not treating them like adults; it’s treating them like children. Treating them like adults would be to simply fail them if they can’t pass the exam at the end of the term.

  16. James Joyner says:

    Directly penalizing students “for tardiness and absence, failure to do the assigned readings, and the like” is not treating them like adults; it’s treating them like children. Treating them like adults would be to simply fail them if they can’t pass the exam at the end of the term.

    Nonsense. There’s more to the college experience than memorizing material for tests. It’s a scholarly society, not an assembly line.

    Adults (college-educated professionals in particular) are rarely penalized for absences, tardiness, or lack of preparedness on any given day. By and large, it is only habitual problems that result in penalty, and that penalty usually involves a private conversation with the boss and, eventually, being fired.

    It depends what you do for a living. Some of us have more flexibility and control over our schedule than others. If you’re an office drone shuffling papers around, there’s less day-to-day accountability.

    But lawyers are expected to show up at court on time; those who aren’t are often berated and humiliated.

    Those in client-based businesses are expected to be on time and prepared. If you’re not ready for your presentation, you’re going to lose your client and, quite possibly, your job.

    If you write for a living, you’d better get things in on deadline.

  17. Dave says:

    There’s more to the college experience than memorizing material for tests. It’s a scholarly society, not an assembly line.

    Sure, but developing and imparting knowledge is the point, and exams, papers, etc. are the means by which the success or failure of that effort is measured. And to be totally honest, the vast majority of college students aren’t there to join a “scholarly society.” They’re there to learn, get a degree, and move on (while partying it up in the meantime).

    It depends what you do for a living. Some of us have more flexibility and control over our schedule than others. If you’re an office drone shuffling papers around, there’s less day-to-day accountability.

    On the contrary, drones are the ones with the most day-to-day accountability. If you’re a cashier and you show up 15 minutes late on a random Tuesday, your supervisor gets in your face about it. If you’re a senior VP, there’s no such thing as being 15 minutes late on a random Tuesday, because you don’t punch a clock at all.

    All of the examples you give – a lawyer in court, a client presentation, a publication deadline – are accountability moments. The time in between those moments is largely self-managed. That’s what I’m advocating for college students. Their accountability moments are exams and papers, not whether they happened to do the reading or arrive to class late on a random Tuesday.