By Tricia Lunt, English Faculty.
Here is the dark secret of the crisis in higher education: many students just don’t put forth the effort required to succeed.
Writing the above makes me a little nervous, mostly because implying that students are anything but ideal causes concern, raises eyebrows, suggests insensitivity. Often at the end of the term, professors are asked to explain why a certain percentage of students failed to successfully complete the class. The reasons are contained in this post. In fifteen years as a college instructor, I have never failed a student who did the work and came to class. Never. Success and failure is the direct result of student work. If I sound frustrated, it is because I am. The 21st century world requires a complex network of knowledge and skills, and too many students are failing behind of their own volition.
There are critical skills for success in academic life, and all professors routinely attempt to impress upon their students the vital behaviors for scholastic achievement. Recently, I created a “Student Empowerment Treatise” that I distribute and discuss at the beginning of the term in all my classes. Item #2 reads, “I understand that if I fulfill the required assignments and attend and participate in class, I can expect to earn a C or better in class.” Therein lays the mystery of success: show up and do the work.
I can encourage students to wake up in the morning, but they themselves must use their own power to get out of bed, and undertake whatever it is they hope to accomplish. I want my students to learn, but they alone must do the work of learning.
I was fortunate that when I went off to college, I had six older siblings who shared with me the paramount importance of going to class. Students who attend class regularly succeed at a much higher rate. Also, it is likely that if students come to class, they actually might learn something interesting, or meet someone exciting, or hear about an event on campus, or any other wonderful occurrence that is directly tied to actively engaging in education.
Focusing in class
Many of my more generous colleagues will blame themselves for students’ inattention, striving to be more charming or inventive. I strive to be entertaining and student-centered, but the notion that learning can always be fun is simply ridiculous. Learning is complicated, and frequently arduous. Granted, it is hard to pay attention, but accomplishing anything requires focus. Even doing the dishes entails addressing the nature and scope of the task at hand. When a student forces himself or herself to pay attention to what is going on in the lecture, the text, or the discussion, he or she is exerting the self-discipline necessary to realizing any goal.
Completing course work
These are the smaller tasks that involve the practice of skills associated with a subject or discipline. These are assignments for which a student can earn 100% just for completing the work. The work need not be perfect or completely correct. It just needs to be done. Each week, there are typically short readings assigned, Discussion Board posts related to readings, and in-class written responses on a variety of topics, either covered in lectures or other content areas. If I did the statistical analysis of the percentage of students who actually accomplish these weekly tasks, it would be horrifying.
Submitting projects on time
Each term, a few large projects are assigned per course. The nature of these projects depends on the class, but all courses require larger, more polished work that illustrates an advanced understanding of central skills and concepts. For example, HUM 120 (Introduction to Literature), consists of three course sections: poetry, short fiction, and drama. Each segment of the course culminates in an essay, exam, or presentation. I do not take late work (unless there is a documented illness) mostly because it would devastate my own grading schedule to let students submit work whenever they wish to do so. To those students who protest that they have paid for the class and should be able to submit late work, I remind them that simply purchasing a plane ticket does not guarantee the plane won’t leave without them if they fail to show up on time. Deadlines are a part of every endeavor, and time management is expected in every professional field.
Using available resources
There are scores of people working at every college in the United States whose job it is to help students in every possible way. There are tutors, administrators, librarians, advisors, counselors, coaches, and professors who are present throughout the week for consultation. Students who utilize the available resources quickly learn that spending thirty minutes with any one of these mentors can radically improve their understanding. I wish more students utilized support services.
Persevering, even when faced with difficult challenges and unthinkable obstacles
Students face day-to-day struggles that make completing studies extremely difficult, which is always the case for everyone. Every student endures a unique set of hardships. College graduates are those individuals who found the power within to complete coursework despite the overwhelming challenges that are a part of life.
I’ve Been There; I’m Still Here
Throughout my undergraduate and graduate degrees, I learned to practice the behaviors associated with scholastic advancement. I was not a perfect student; I struggled in many classes; I earned bad grades; I went to tutoring. All of my skills improved with time. My academic performance developed as my professors continually pressured me to create meaningful work. I hope my current work in the classroom serves the same fundamental purpose. I do not expect my students to be perfect learners. However, I hope my students begin to achieve their highest potential through consistent and significant effort.
As long as I am teaching, I will continue to require the practice of the fundamentals of academic success in the hopes that students are listening. There are two more ideas I share with my students on the first day of class.
I tell them, “I want you to thrive.”
I also entreat them to stop considering higher education something they buy; a product-based description is scarcely useful. I do not want them to invest in an education.
I say, “Invest in Yourself.”