Talk to any instructor about student evaluations, and our shared unease is almost universally immediate, writes Annelise Heinz, who provides three basic recommendation to improve the evaluation process.
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.
The wave of tragic and troubling events of recent days in our country -- such as the shooting of black Americans in Baltimore, Baton Rouge and St. Paul, the attacks against police in Dallas and Birmingham, and terrorist rampages in Orlando and San Bernardino -- has brought me back to another tumultuous time: the spring and summer of 1968.
I remember it well because I was a college senior about to graduate. I remember the night of April 5, when I had planned to go into Chicago for an event. Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated the day before in Memphis, and that night, Chicago seethed and exploded: a 28-block stretch of Madison Street was left largely in ruins; 36 major fires were reported; 11 people were killed; 48 were wounded by police gunfire and 90 policemen were injured. In two days 2,150 people were arrested. Thousands of army troops were sent in to restore order.
The summer before, I had worked with teenagers in the Cabrini-Green Homes on Chicago’s Near North Side. I lived in a largely African-American church community. I felt comfortable joining pickup games on the asphalt basketball courts and visiting families in these high-rise apartments. After the spring of 1968, gunfire became commonplace from the upper floors of Cabrini-Green, and deep racial tensions made my normal kind of coming and going impossible.
On the Wednesday before graduation, June 5, 1968, I awoke to learn that Bobby Kennedy had just been shot in Los Angeles after winning the California Democratic primary. I can remember a deep sense that our nation seemed to be splitting apart -- a fear that seemed to be coming true when the Democratic National Convention met later that summer in Chicago and spiraled into chaos. Ten thousand demonstrators gathered outside and were met by 23,000 police and National Guard members. These violent clashes were broadcast live to the nation.
The current moment in America reminds me of 1968: the heightened racial tension, repeated incidents of violence, denunciations and defense of police -- all against the backdrop of an overheated political season. Then, many young people felt alienated from the system and found little hope in either candidate of the major parties.
In such troubled times, what are we to think? How are we to act? I have no grand answers to our deep problems as a nation and as a society. The fact is there are no easy answers. But what can we do as college and university leaders? What can our campus communities do? What can I do? What follows is what I am committing myself to, as best I can.
Acknowledge hard truths. The dilemmas of race continue to plague our society. Many of our students will return to campus feeling the pain of racial disparity and racial conflict, which are serious problems that we must not ignore.
Last fall, students across the country were hurt, angry and frustrated by a series of racially charged events and the unnecessary deaths of several unarmed black citizens. Some arrived at their campuses with lists of demands seeking social justice and equity. After another tenuous summer, we must again acknowledge their pain and outrage in the hopes that a modern university setting can help shape national discourse instead of simply being a backdrop for unrest and confusion. We must rededicate ourselves to the unfinished work before us: shaping a society in which everyone, created as equals, receives treatment as such.
Listen and learn. Increasingly in America today, we live in neighborhoods of the like-minded and gain information from like-minded sources. Even on a university campus, it takes effort to cross cultural and racial boundaries. I am convinced that party lines and pat answers are not sufficient to address such troublesome times. We must listen to voices other than accustomed ones. We must be open to adjusting our thinking and our behavior. We must push ourselves beyond what is comfortable, broadening our network of friends and deepening our capacity for empathy. How long has it been since we have, even imaginatively, seen the world through the eyes of someone very different than ourselves?
Like many institutions, Wake Forest University has its most diverse student body ever and is among the 10 fastest changing universities in the country, according to The New York Times. We refer to ourselves as a community in progress, which reflects our belief that we must actively practice what it means to be in community together and that regular updates must hold us accountable to each other. Our strength as a campus community -- and as a nation -- rests on our ability to listen to the voices of others and learn from experiences different from our own.
Start a conversation. Do the hard work of dialogue with those with whom we disagree. We all need occasions to frame challenging conversations and methods to facilitate those discussions. A college campus must foster honest, face-to-face conversation, however difficult, in the classroom, in residence halls and on structured and unstructured occasions. Doing the hard work of dialogue with those with whom we disagree is a common topic among college presidents today.
A recent article in Inside Higher Ed included a charge given by my friend and colleague Harry Pastides, president of the University of South Carolina, in which he urged students and faculty members to “recommit to airing our views in a way that is civil and responsible and recommit to opposing violence in all of its of forms,” including violent language and hate speech. “Come back to campus ready to learn and prepared for conversations to come,” the president wrote. “Most importantly, be ready to extend the hand of friendship to a new face.”
Conversation matters. And it must begin with us.
Retain hope. The United States has a wonderful -- and deeply flawed -- history. As the historian Edmund Morgan has emphasized, we are a nation founded both in liberty and in slavery. This land has provided much opportunity and social mobility for immigrants, and it has made progress since the 1960s in establishing broad gains for African-Americans in education, in business and the professions, and in civic life.
Yet whatever progress has been made in race relations and attitudes, racism is still a troubling reality, and patterns of poverty, particularly in urban communities, seem to extend from generation to generation. Today, we must redouble our efforts in the noble quest for which so many have given their lives: to build a society where life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness remain within the grasp of everyone.
In 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. implored those who would listen. “Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that,” he said. “Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.” As we -- on our campuses and in America in general -- walk through what feels like another dark hour, let us be people who carry the light and let us be people who choose to love.
Nathan O. Hatch is president of Wake Forest University.
Medical students nationwide, with backing from some medical schools, are pushing to kill a required standardized test that they say is expensive and adds little, The Washington Post reported. The test is known as the Step 2 Clinical Skills exam and theoretically determines whether medical students have bedside manner and problem-solving skills. Medical students complain that the test costs $1,275. Further, because the test is offered in only five cities, many students must pay additional travel costs. Students say that their own medical schools could, without much expense, test the same skills covered in Step 2.
Those involved with the test defend it. “Licensing boards have to have some bellwether to say this student has the competence to go into practice,” Kim Edward LeBlanc, executive director of the Clinical Skills Evaluation Collaboration, which oversees the Step 2 exam, told the Post. “The students bring up some legitimate concerns. But after 14 years on a licensing board, I can tell you that I would not feel comfortable giving a license to someone without this exam.”
Technology think tank says standardized testing by outside groups and alternative forms of credentialing could create helpful competitive pressure on higher education and the traditional college degree.
The University of Michigan will settle with a former graduate student for $165,000 over her dismissal from an engineering program in 2011, the Associated Press reported. Michigan denied Jennifer Dibbern’s claims that it retaliated against her for her efforts to unionize research assistants and to change the campus antiharassment policy, but said it wanted to end a lengthy, expensive legal battle.
A federal judge had dismissed most of Dibbern’s claims prior to a trial scheduled for June, based in part on documents suggesting she had been warned repeatedly that she wasn’t spending enough time in the lab, according to the AP. Yet U.S. District Judge Sean Cox reportedly said Dibbern had shown evidence of a “casual connection” between her dismissal and union activities. Dibbern also reported being sexually harassed by male students. “We resolved the case to everybody’s satisfaction,” said Dibbern’s attorney, David Blanchard.