Teaching Today

Who Is Responsible for Student Learning?

Students' ability and willingness to do the hard work are often overlooked variables in the discussion, argues Erik Gilbert.

October 2, 2018

When I started graduate school, it was with the intention of becoming a high school history teacher. It did not take me long to figure out that I would make a lousy schoolteacher. So, after my first semester, I moved out of education and into history.

I was already enrolled in a couple of education classes when I had my epiphany, so I persevered. In the end, I probably took three or four education courses. Of those classes, there is only one about which I remember anything at all. Weirdly, the guy who taught it was, by any normal metric, a truly terrible teacher.

He looked a bit like a fleshier version of Jordan Peterson, if you happened to run into Jordan Peterson on the tail end of a three-day bender. He tended to mutter ominously about plots in his department to get rid of him. If he prepared for classes, it was not evident to any of us in his course. He assigned some reasonably interesting books, but no matter what we read, he made the same two or three points in every class. And then he repeated them until class was over. In today’s climate, he would almost certainly be facing posttenure review.

Perhaps repetition is underrated as a pedagogical technique, because it’s one of his points that is all I remember from an otherwise lost semester. Whatever arguments the day’s readings advanced, his go-to point was that learning is the student’s job. Teachers, he argued, can only do so much. In the end, if stuff is going to get learned, students have to do the hard work of learning it. He even had a signature gesture he used to make this point. He would hold one hand in front of his face and push it aside with the other. Not a class went by without recourse to this gesture. One hand represented the obstacles to learning that any student might face, and the pushing hand represented the student shoving those obstacles aside and learning despite the obstacles.

Every student, we were told, faces obstacles to learning. Those obstacles might be mundane: the teacher might be a tiresome jerk, the material might be boring, the textbooks might be old and out of date, the classroom’s air-conditioning might not work well. Or they might be more serious: you might be facing eviction, you may not have enough to eat, or the religious police might arrest you if they find out what you are studying. There is never a shortage of obstacles. Still, however trivial or grave the obstacle, the student has to push it aside and learn anyway.

He was especially dismissive of the teacher-as-hero narratives that were popular then. Movies like the Dead Poets Society and popular teacher memoirs advanced the notion that students learn easily if they just have a sufficiently exciting and engaged teacher to drag them along. Those stories, he said, incorrectly shifted responsibility for learning away from students and on to teachers.

At the time, I was still planning to grow up to be a charismatic hero teacher, so I thought this was all just a way of telling us that if we didn’t learn anything in his class, it was our fault -- not his.

Now, many years later, I think he might have been partially right. There are many reasons to think that current efforts to hold colleges accountable for student learning have the potential to do more harm than good, but the implicit shifting of responsibility for learning from the student to the professor, program or college is one of the more troubling of them.

I recently attended the Association for the Assessment of Learning in Higher Education meeting in Utah. I heard lots of well-intentioned discussions about how to do good assessment, how to get faculty members on board with assessment and how to use assessment to improve student learning. I even heard some talk about why or whether to even do assessment. But I did not encounter a single person who talked about what students themselves could do to learn more.

So it was interesting to come back from Utah and to find an article in the National Review Online by Brad Polumbo, a student at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, called “Why Aren’t College Students Learning Anything?” It starts by remarking on the ideological uniformity of college faculty members. That is undoubtedly true, but I am not convinced that it explains why students are not learning. It might explain what students learn or don’t learn, but I doubt it contributes much to students not learning.

What is so refreshing about the article, however, is that, after its pro forma critique of the liberal bias of college professors, it takes students themselves to task for not holding up their end of the deal. Polumbo cites studies that say the average student misses 240 classes in a college career and that 25 percent of students skip enough classes to effectively miss a whole year of college. He notes from personal experience that when students have laptops open in class, as often as not it’s so they can check Facebook or hide the phones in their hands. You might have suspected that already.

He talks about student drinking. He points to the (no longer shocking) lack of interest students have in reading serious books.

He ends with this:

It’s time to consider policy-based solutions, such as laws protecting free speech and open debate on campus, guarantees of academic freedom for conservative (and liberal) professors, grade deflation and increased classroom rigor, and student-loan reform. But some of the necessary change must come from my generation itself. We need to take our own education more seriously -- especially in terms of attendance and work ethic.

Polumbo and my education professor may be a bit cavalier about students’ ability to just push aside obstacles and learn. But they are both right that students and their ability and willingness to do the hard work of learning are an important and often overlooked variable in the discussion of student learning.

No matter how charismatic and engaging we are, how much technology we leverage, how many classes we flip or how many pallets of rubrics we deploy, in the end, it’s still the students who have to do the learning. We may be able to make it easier to learn, cheaper to learn or more fun to learn, but students will still have to do the work.


Erik Gilbert is a professor of history at Arkansas State University.


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