One of my engineering students came to see me recently asking to drop a class late. That was not an unusual request, and since it was shortly after the deadline I was prepared to approve it. But before I did, we talked, and our conversation went right to the heart of an issue I suspect many bright college students are facing: fear of failing to be perfect, ideally an effortless perfection, versus the joy of learning.
The student explained that she had done poorly on the first midterm exam. When I asked her why she did poorly she responded, “I underestimated how much effort it would take; I thought I could get an A without studying.” Though she believed she could still put in effort and raise her grade before the end of the term, she wanted to drop the course so she could retake it and get an A.
The kicker was the class was not required -- it was Russian literature. I asked her, “Rather than retaking this class, wouldn’t you be better off putting your effort into a class you find more engaging?” And her response caught me by surprise. She liked the course and found the readings interesting. Her lack of effort did not reflect a lack of engagement but rather a desire to minimize her effort.
This issue can be a big problem for those bright students who have done very well academically in high school with relatively little effort. The young woman asking to drop Russian literature was one of them.
The reasoning she used revealed a pattern of thinking that explains why many students struggle academically during their transition to college: they are simply focusing their attention on the wrong outcome. It’s understandable why so much emphasis is placed on the measurement of their performance, GPA. Without an exceptional record in high school, their chances of getting accepted into an elite university are slim. With so much at stake, they can’t afford to not focus on reaching the main goal. Yet while these students think they’re keeping their eyes on the ball, they are actually just staring at the scoreboard.
For students who found high school relatively easy, staring at the measurement of their performance is affirming. Even more affirming is the gap between their outcomes, in the form of grades, and their input, in the form of effort. The wider the gap, the smarter they feel, and this group of students is used to seeing a wide gap. The problem with that way of thinking is that it creates an inverse relationship between grades and effort. When their grades exceed their effort, they feel smart, and the wider the gap, the smarter they feel. But when their effort exceeds their grades, which can happen as they transition from high school to college, they feel dumb, and the wider this new gap the dumber they feel. This inverse relationship creates an inherent motivation to minimize effort, whether or not they’re succeeding. If they feel like they are succeeding, the bigger they want the gap to be, if they feel like they are failing, the smaller they want the gap to be.
If students redirect their focus from the scoreboard to the game of learning, an interesting thing happens. Focusing on learning creates a direct relationship between input and outcome: the more effort they invest, the greater the opportunity to learn. However, the calculus of competence is fundamentally different depending on how you define success. When the goal is to be smart, the formula is reduced to maximizing grades while minimizing effort. When the goal is to learn, the formula becomes about maximizing learning while optimizing effort. The more effective their effort, the more they can learn.
Not long ago a young man came to see me, distraught over his prospects of getting into a prestigious graduate school. He feared the possibility had slipped away due to his lackluster academic performance. As he described his situation, it became clear that his fixation on his grades was consuming enormous amounts of his attention. Through our discussion, he was able to redirect his attention from his focus on grades and the goal of graduate school to his love of material science -- a shift made easier by his resignation that graduate school was now out of reach due to his grades.
Over the next couple of weeks, he reported feeling less stressed and more excited about learning than he ever had in college. The results of his first round of midterms were so strong that graduate school was back on the table. With that realization, his attention shifted back to his grades and calculating what he would need to score on the remaining exams in order to be a competitive applicant. His performance tanked.
Focusing on the measurement of our performance reinforces what researcher Carol Dweck calls a fixed mind-set. If students believe that how they perform at one moment in time exposes the limits of their potential rather than serving merely as a snapshot of where they are in the process of growing their abilities, feelings of struggle and uncertainty become threatening rather than an opportunity to grow. That is not to say that grades aren’t an important measurement of their performance -- measurements that influence, fairly or unfairly, their access to opportunity. But the point is, as clearly demonstrated in the case of the aspiring material-science graduate student, when students focus their energy through their attention on learning while optimizing effort, grades are a natural result of this effective learning process. In contrast, when they focus their energy through their attention on grades, learning may or may not result.
Even more important is the fact that when they set their intention to be genuinely curious and authentically excited by the challenge of finding connections between their current knowledge and new opportunities to understand, they experience the true joy of learning and all of the spoils that attend it. I will never forget the excitement that I saw on the face of the young engineering student struggling with Russian literature when it dawned on her that she got to decide how she would show up for her learning. There is no shame in going all in, and just maybe the rewards will outweigh the risks.
Joseph Holtgreive is an assistant dean and director of the office of personal development at Northwestern University’s McCormick School of Engineering.
Adjunct advocates are campaigning for a California bill that would provide some job security to nonunionized adjunct instructors at community colleges. The proposed legislation, known as AB 1690, recently passed the California Senate Appropriations Committee. It now moves on to the general California State Senate, as well as the State Assembly. Provisions included in the bill are standardized, legal evaluation of nontenured faculty members; placement of long-serving, non-tenure-track faculty members on a seniority list for assignments; a consistent workload starting at seven semesters of service; the assignment of new courses based on seniority; and due process for qualified part-time instructors.
A petition asking Kevin De Leon, president pro tempore of the California Senate, to support the bill says benefits of the bill are that it’s more efficient and cost-effective to keep faculty members than shed them for new hires. A spokesperson for De Leon did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
U.S. News & World Report, that heavyweight of the college rankings game, recently hosted a conference focused partially on diversity in higher education. I did an interview for the publication prior to the forum and spoke on a panel at the event.
I was happy to do it. As dean of one of the country’s most diverse engineering schools, I am particularly invested in these issues. My panel focused on how to help women and underrepresented minority students succeed in STEM fields, and I’m grateful to U.S. News for leading the discussion.
But the publication, for all its noble intentions, could do more to follow through where it counts. Diversity is currently given no weight in the magazine's primary university and disciplinary rankings, and it’s time for that to change. As U.S. News goes, so goes higher education.
Universities love to bemoan rankings, but we can’t ignore them. Our public images are shaped in part by top 10 lists and glossy magazine features. At my university and others, we encourage prospective students to consider how well colleges fit their goals, yet we never hesitate to brag about our standings in the rankings.
Prospective freshmen, transfer students and graduate students examine them, of course, but so do parents, alumni, professors and members of the news media. At least one or two other organizations have tried to rank some universities along these lines. But U.S. News, perhaps the most influential among ranking entities, has not included diversity in its overall quality rankings, and it is missing an opportunity to use its powers for good.
Enhancing diversity is not about political correctness. Studies show diversity enriches students’ experiences and is an indicator of quality. A 2013 report from Princeton University cited research on the benefits of diverse environments, such as greater civic engagement. A diverse environment is consistent with the core mission of a university.
U.S. News rankings at the undergraduate level consider factors such as faculty compensation, class sizes and even alumni giving rates. Graduate rankings look at research expenditures, GRE scores and faculty quality. Diversity is not given any weight, which implies that a top-tier education doesn’t require it. If U.S. News and similar organizations started paying attention to diversity, universities would start paying attention, because -- rightly or wrongly -- these rankings drive behavior.
Almost a year ago, about 100 of my fellow engineering deans and I signed a letter pledging to enhance our commitments to diversity. Many of us signed because we believe diversity is important, enhances the quality of our programs, and is part of our educational missions.
Plenty of less-heralded colleges already boast racially diverse student bodies. Community colleges in particular are unsung heroes. Nearly two-thirds of California’s community college students are members of minorities, while about half of Texas’ and Florida’s are.
One U.S. News list, which earns less attention than others, grades institutions only on diversity, and it looks very different from the publication’s more famous rankings. Yet a separate diversity ranking is not sufficient. It must be part of the overall quality evaluation.
Some institutions might argue that the demographics that comprise their typical applicant pool would make this unfair. But diversity has many dimensions -- race, gender, nationality, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status and more. Adding diversity to rankings criteria is an essential component to showing how well we value inclusive excellence in higher education.
No region has any particular advantage with regard to gender diversity, for example, and that is just as important as ethnic diversity, particularly in STEM. Already existing ratings criteria are filled with biases that benefit colleges and universities regionally (such as Silicon Valley institutions having advantages with research expenditures and private colleges with resources having advantages over publics). Why should we have to bend over backward to level the playing field with respect to diversity? If diversity is a national imperative (and it is), colleges and universities should just have to adjust, or they can focus their efforts on more achievable non-diversity-related ratings criteria.
The diversity metrics currently used by U.S. News offer a helpful start. Instead of focusing on which universities enroll the most minority students, they examine how likely students are to encounter members of different racial or ethnic groups. What U.S. News might do next is create more comprehensive composite scores that consider female and minority enrollment, retention and graduation rates, or even faculty diversity.
There are many ways to approach the issue, and organizations that rank programs should develop criteria to ensure fairness. Whatever rubric is used, though, factoring diversity into rankings will establish an imperative: attract and retain students from diverse backgrounds or risk university reputations.
If universities wish to remain relevant -- if they want to be more than job mills for the next class of white-collar workers -- they need to tackle the problems facing the wider world. We have to acknowledge the value of diversity and stake our reputations on it.
Some institutions already do this. But if U.S. News and others that rank us change the equation, plenty of other universities will start paying attention as well.
Gary S. May is dean of the college of engineering and the Southern Company Chair at the Georgia Institute of Technology.
In legal papers filed this week, the University of Texas and the state attorney general said that professors in the university system who bar guns from classrooms face discipline, The Dallas Morning News reported. The legal papers respond to a lawsuit by three professors at the University of Texas at Austin that says the requirement that guns be allowed in classrooms is vague and inconsistent with the First and Second Amendments. The Morning News article said that the legal papers from the university and the state are "a clear message" to those professors and others to follow the campus carry law, which took effect this month.
"Faculty members are aware that state law provides that guns can be carried on campus, and that the president has not made a rule excluding them from classrooms," said the brief filed this week. "As a result, any individual professor who attempts to establish such prohibition is subject to discipline."
George Washington University has settled for an undisclosed amount with a cancer biologist who alleged it mishandled an academic misconduct case against him, Chemistry World reported. The professor, Rakesh Kumar, sued the university for $8 million last year, saying he lost his chairmanship of the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Medicine outside of proper protocols. That followed the retraction of three of his papers over questionable images and two expressions of concern, according to Retraction Watch.
Kumar says all but one of the misconduct allegations concerned working conditions in his lab and that he was never accused of fabricating research data or images on his own. He also says the university’s delay and relinquishment of his research grant applications hurt his chances at finding other jobs, and that his reputation and career have been irreparably damaged.
George Washington moved to dismiss the case last year, but a judge said it would proceed, according to Chemistry World. In a joint statement, both Kumar and George Washington said they “wished to resolve and settle all of their differences to avoid the delay, expense and uncertainty associated with administrative proceedings and litigation.”
Employees of Massachusetts Institute of Technology and New York and Yale Universities sued their respective institutions on Tuesday for allegedly allowing them to be charged excessive fees on their retirement savings, The New York Times reported. Each university has several billion dollars in retirement holdings, and the plaintiffs are seeking class-action status. The employees allege that the institutions failed to monitor high plan management fees and poor-performing investments, costing them tens of millions of dollars collectively, according to the Times.
New York University said in a statement that “retirement plans offered to [employees] are chosen and administered carefully and prudently. We will litigate this case vigorously and expect to prevail.” A spokesperson for MIT told the Times that it does not comment on pending litigation. Yale said it was “cautious and careful” with retirement plans and that it planned to defend itself vigorously.