Faculty Focus (the blog run by The Teaching Professor) does an annual survey of faculty asking what our biggest day-to-day challenges are. I was rather surprised to see the results, as I would have guessed that grading would have topped the list or that more institutional concerns would have dominated (you can see that institutional budget cuts did make the top three). Instead, some version of student preparation made up three of the top four responses.
The first challenge was students who come to class unprepared. This response surprised me the most, mainly because, by this point in my career, it seldom happens. Not that it doesn’t happen in every course in almost every class meeting, but there are few unprepared students in each individual course. I’ve built in enough ways for that not to happen that they can’t do very well in my courses if they come unprepared.
For example, in my first-year writing class, they have to do a short quiz at the beginning of class (some professors do an online quiz, which saves class time). It’s not a challenging quiz for students who have read, and I assign readings, which are largely impossible to find online. I also have them answer one or two questions I’ll use to guide class discussion, taking them up as soon as they walk in the door. Both of those count for quiz/daily work grades, so missing both of them regularly will start to have a serious impact on their grade, even if they’re doing fairly well on the essays they’re writing.
I do something similar in my sophomore-level survey, though I’ve given the students more flexibility there, but also demand more thought from them. Rather than a basic, factual quiz that I once gave, I now ask them only one question, asking them to apply an idea from the reading to something outside of the reading. Thus, even if they’ve tried to read an online survey of the assigned reading, they tend to struggle with the quiz (one example had them look at Magritte’s Treachery of Images and read a couple of brief paragraphs about it before class; the quiz asked them to talk about how that painting compared to Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author).
I also do online posts in upper-division classes, where students have to respond to a prompt or critical article a few hours before that day’s class meeting. These not only encourage students to do the reading ahead of time, they give me a quick snapshot of what students already understand and what they’re struggling with. I then use them to guide discussion in class, which gives me a way to call on students without cold calling on them.
Now, I know that, in a perfect world, we wouldn’t have to think about this issue, as students would be so motivated to learn, they would read or view or write whatever we suggested to them (note that student motivation hits number four). I could defend students a bit here by talking about how busy they are (sometimes because we ask them to do so much for their letters of recommendation or sometimes because they work a lot or have families or something along those lines) or remind professors that just because they were that type of student (though, honestly, most of us weren’t; we just like to think we were), but I’m not going to take the time to do so. We live in a world where many students don’t have intrinsic motivation for whatever reason, so we have to find ways to give them extrinsic motivation with the hope that the intrinsic ultimately comes.
I’m generally frustrated by professors’ refusal to see the reality of the world we live in (the academic world here). If students aren’t doing the reading or the homework, then devise a grading system that makes them do the work or do quite poorly in class. It has always seemed that simple to me. I know there are professors who claim that doing so will lead to poor evaluations, but the research shows that students want to be challenged, they just want those challenges to be fair and for there to be support when they struggle.
This frustration goes beyond the individual assignments, though. I hear professors complain that students don’t take this class or that class that they believe is vital for a student’s education. Those professors should work to adjust the curriculum to require that class, then. They complain that students haven’t read a particular book, but then they don’t assign that book.
Essentially, we have a good deal of control over what students do or don’t do. In the end, we can’t make them do anything, but we can make their choices have consequences in a variety of ways. If we’re going to say we want something to happen, then we have to make it happen. We don’t live in an ideal world, but we can make this one better.