Teaching Today

On Them: Giving Students What They Want

Why shouldn’t our students feel entitled? We've relieved them of responsibility in the classroom, writes Michael Bugeja, who suggests some more effective strategies.

June 11, 2019
 
 
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Do you waste time taking attendance? Get offended when students come late to class or leave in the middle of a lecture? Have a policy banning smartphones? Get complaints about the price of textbooks? Fret about the time you spend grading papers? Deal with grade complaints and pleas for extra credit? Repeatedly remind students about exams, projects, deadlines? Think students are entitled and irresponsible?

Maybe you’re the problem.

Why shouldn’t students feel entitled? You’ve relieved them of responsibility.

Think about it. You assess by legislative fiat, document attendance, lord over technology, interact with students 24-7 via email or text, keep students on track via Blackboard or Canvas, treat students as customers, are blamed for grade inflation, fret over student evaluations and create syllabi that pass as legal briefs.

What happened?

Last year Inside Higher Ed published a short post, “Who Is Responsible for Student Learning?” in which Erik Gilbert posited that holding colleges accountable for student success may have done more harm than good, because it shifted responsibility from student to professor.

I have reversed that trend. On the first day of class, I share my 10 Tenets of Media Ethics, which include such policies as “do not take notes,” “develop listening skills,” “do not buy textbooks,” “miss as many classes as you like,” “come and go as you please” and “focus on three assignments.”

Here’s the “extra credit” policy: “Stop worrying about grades! So much energy is wasted obsessing about that. To ease your mind, you have opportunities for extra credit. For instance, if you interact on the discussion tab on Canvas, you can earn extra points up to a maximum 50 (100 words, five points each contribution).”

I give fewer assignments and more extra credit because students love that so much. So do I. Those opportunities instill initiative. Don’t take it? Don’t complain about grades.

At first, students think my classes are easy. Slowly, almost imperceptibly during the semester, they realize that they are responsible for just about everything, including attendance.

I instituted my attendance policy in the 1990s at Ohio University. Media ethics classes usually are large -- about 100 students. One day I realized how much time I was wasting taking attendance in a large auditorium. I decided to let students miss as many classes as they wished as long as a test or assignment wasn’t due that day, provided they informed me about the real reason for their absence.

That policy actually made the news. Inside Higher Ed covered it in “Attendance Not Required.” Moreover, since 1993, I have kept data on reasons why students miss class and update it annually on my website.

 

Career

Academic

Family

Romance

Health

Overslept

Funeral

Other

Spring '19

12%

14%

6%

2%

23%

25%

2%

16%

Fall '18

8%

18%

11%

2%

42%

7%

3%

9%

Fall '16

5%

16%

8%

3%

29%

28%

3%

8%

Fall '15

15%

17%

10%

3%

22%

26%

2%

5%

Fall '14

12%

13%

4%

2%

35%

18%

3%

15%

Fall '13

14%

9%

2%

3%

27%

32%

1%

12%

Fall '12

14%

24%

10%

2%

27%

12%

2%

10%

The situations tracked in the data in this chart are pretty self-evident, but just to be totally clear, career-related conflicts include interviewing, writing, reporting and working. Academic-related conflicts are those that include work for other classes and clubs. Family-related conflicts: emergencies, weddings, outings. Romance-related conflicts: excursions and rendezvous. Health-related conflicts: illnesses and medical/dental appointments. Funerals include those for parents, relatives, friends and associates. Overslept speaks for itself. Other is everything else.

Some of the excuses are hilarious. Here’s a favorite:

“It just so happens, tomorrow is my birthday. Not just any birthday. I know you like us to be honest: it’s my 21st. At midnight, tonight. So, I have this weird feeling that tomorrow's 9 a.m. class is going to come up and hit me like a brick wall. I don't think I'll make it, but, hey, you never know! I could rally!”

Of course, I understand how distracted students become using smartphones during lecture. My research has documented that for decades, including a 2006 piece titled “Facing the Facebook.” My students can face the Facebook in the last row of my class and text as much as they please. Those “liberty” seats are reserved for that, as well as for late arrivals and early departures.

Here’s the “come and go as you please” policy: “Sit in the last rows by the exit doors. You may come late because you missed your bus or need to leave early for any reason. These are your ‘liberty’ seats. Feel free to sit here if you want to engage in social media or text friends. It’s your tuition dollar. Just do not disturb anyone else.”

Attention is more important these days than attendance. Technology has decreased the attention span of just about everyone. According to Time, people have a shorter attention span than your average goldfish -- about eight seconds -- “highlighting the affects [sic] of an increasingly digitalized lifestyle on the brain.” (Perhaps grammar is affected, too.)

At the start of every semester, I inform students that my main objective is to teach them how to listen. It’s a necessary job skill.

One of my favorite articles, “Listening to People,” is available online in the Harvard Business Review. The authors present their research, noting how educators falsely believe that listening ability is a facet of intelligence and that assigned readings teach students how to listen. “Certainly our teachers feel the need for good listening,” they state. “Why then have so many years passed without educators developing formal methods of teaching students to listen?”

If you accessed that article, look closely at the date -- September 1957 -- one month before the Soviet Union launched the Sputnik satellite that evolved globally over time to the digital cloud. The authors’ observations about listening are surprisingly relevant today.

Note taking impedes listening, especially if done on laptops or tablets. Attention is focused on hearing to copy rather than comprehend. In 2014, Scientific American published details of a study that found students who take notes by hand had better understanding of material than those who typed notes on laptops. One of the overlooked variables, especially in the age of analytics, are insistent notifications pinging on any digital device.

Note taking by hand has variables, too. Instructors are not automatons. They speak at different speeds. Some enunciate better than others. We cope with lecture hall acoustics. And a few of us profess to whiteboards rather than to the class.

I discourage note taking. All of my lectures are online. I go over them, point by point, in class. Students can access them any time they wish. This frees me to interact more with students about concepts. A 2009 study in the Journal of Educational Psychology documents how discussion increases student talk and decreases teacher talk with “substantial improvements” in comprehension.

There is no textbook for my class. Lectures are based on my own and other professors’ research, properly cited and augmented by videos and podcasts to facilitate various learning styles and further deepen comprehension.

By the end of the semester, students should have developed listening skills to discern ethical situations and intuit how to respond to them in college, at home and at work. Based on their comments in course evaluations, with typical ratings above 4.5 out of a possible 5, many also have a renewed sense of responsibility, knowing they are pilots of their own career trajectories, possessing the wherewithal to solve ethical problems when they arise.

My methods may not work in all courses and disciplines, including ones that require many writing assignments, such as English composition or media reporting classes. But they are especially effective in large lecture, theory or concept classes.

Of course, you should not feel obligated to try them. You are master of your lesson plan. But factor whether you are taking too much responsibility for student success, who or what placed that burden on you, and what modifications you can make to facilitate listening in your learners.

You might be surprised at the results.

Bio

Michael Bugeja, Distinguished Professor of Liberal Arts and Sciences at Iowa State University, is author of Interpersonal Divide in the Age of the Machine (Oxford, 2018) and Living Media Ethics: Across Platforms (Routledge, 2019).

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