College Students Better Than Professors Think?
Gary 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.