The Sociology of Today's Classrooms

Moving beyond popular and misleading cultural stereotypes.

January 30, 2019

That students fall into certain stereotypes—jocks, grinds, grade grubbers, suck ups, and party animals—is part of the conventional wisdom.

Among the roles students commonly adopt are the compliant, the annoyingly argumentative, the habitual rebels, and the discouraged and fatalistic. Other student types include the careerist, the precocious intellectual, the procrastinator, the striver, and the disconnected. It is sometimes postulated that first and second generation immigrant students often fall into certain categories: assimilators, accommodators, and resisters.

In recent years, a host of new cultural stereotypes about college students have arisen: the fragile flower, the immature, censorious whiner, the militant campus activist. Meanwhile, works of popular psychology attribute these stereotypes to the way that Generation Z was raised: spoiled, entitled, coddled, overprotected, and overpraised by over-anxious parents, deprived of unsupervised, child-directed play and sufficient face-to-face interaction with peers, and engulfed in a new world of social media and screen time which impedes development of social and emotional skills and encourages anxiety, depression, and an obsession with self.

Stereotypes about the college student brain can be helpful: Reminding faculty members that many college-age students have yet to develop long-term planning and self-regulation skills, and can benefit substantially from help in structuring and managing their time.  

But such typecasts can also be pernicious. These often contribute to a kind of neuro-biological determinism that paints traditional college-aged students as suffering from an underdeveloped frontal cortex and dopamine excess that supposedly contribute to the traits and behavior that upset many adults: rudeness, hypersensitivity, and failure to plan ahead or effectively organize their time..

Concerns about the young are, of course, nothing new. A widely read 1936 article on “Our Muddled Youth” reported that three quarters of the 100,000 young men studied by the American Youth Commission "were suffering from some health defect induced by mental anxiety."

What, then, do we actually know about our students?

1. That college students are more diverse than ever along numerous dimensions: Not just race, ethnicity, and socioeconomic class, but in their age, attitudes toward politics, religion, and the purpose of a college education, their familiarity with college norms and expectations, and the competing demands upon their time, which are greater than in the past. Faculty members need to be sensitive and responsive to this diversity, recognizing that it can make many students feel marginalized.

2. That today’s students are more likely than ever before to attend multiple institutions, work substantial numbers of hours, provide caregiving to family members, speak English as a second language, have a disability, and bring a diversity of experiences and prior knowledge to their classes. Many also received uneven academic preparation in high school. These largely “invisible” forms of diversity need to be acknowledged and responded to.  

Appropriate responses include universal design principles that build flexibility into assignments and assessments; a “forward-facing” mentality that emphasizes skills development; and treating students as partners who need to be invited to bring their knowledge and personal experience into our classes.

3. That our students are more likely to experience—or acknowledge—mental health issues: adjustment disorders, anxiety, attention deficit disorders, depression, eating disorders, panic attacks, post-traumatic stress disorder, sleep disorders, According to a recent report by the American Psychological Association, over a third of first-year college students in eight countries struggle with a mental health issue. 

As a result faculty need training in how to recognize and appropriately respond to students’ mental health issues. It is important to reach out to the student, express concern for the students’ well-being, listen attentively and empathetically to the students’ response, and encourage the student to seek help from student services.

4. That contemporary students are more likely to view college as a path to a rewarding career and less likely to perceive it as an opportunity to explore various fields of study, find their passion, or develop a philosophy of life.  

This reality makes it more important than ever for colleges to open windows into multiple career options and give students opportunities, for example, through internships or site visits, to see whether a particular career is indeed a good fit. It also means that colleges should take other steps to enhance student employability, for example, through workshops that offer short-term training in high demand skills, like data analysis, technical writing, and project management. In addition, it makes it imperative to better integrate the liberal arts, and especially the humanities, into vocationally-oriented majors.

Each of these developments increases a college’s mentoring responsibilities. A number of institutions have responded by making “life coaches” and peer mentors available, especially to first-year students. Others have placed counselors in dormitories or created first or second year “interest groups,” where students who share a common set of interests can regularly communicate with one another with the help of a faculty member or near peer. 

In the end, however, faculty members are the ones most likely to encounter and interact with students who need guidance, advice, and support. It is their responsibility to identify problems at an early stage and get the student to the kind of support that is most appropriate.

In a 2002 article, two professors of Education, Amy S. Hirschy and Maureen E. Wilson, examined the sociology of the classroom. Each classroom, the authors argued, needs to be understood in sociologically: In terms of the roles and relationships that the instructor and the students assume, the nature of their interactions, and the distinctive perspectives, attitudes, emotions, norms, and cultural capital that they bring. The classroom’s dynamics, in turn, can foster or impede learning.

The classroom, from this perspective, is a site of power, privilege, and status, and the role relationships, forms of discourse, and inequalities found there can encourage or inhibit students’ cognitive, social, and emotional development.

Instructors can easily and unwittingly inhibit learning, especially among students who already feel out of place. A faculty member might, for example respond negatively to particular forms of student behavior, demeanor, or argumentation, take for granted that students understand certain uncommunicated course details and expectations, or inadvertently make students feel marginalized or disregarded.

Yet effective instructors can also facilitate and scaffold student learning, for instance, by encouraging a sense of belonging, tapping into prior knowledge, reducing cognitive load, providing higher levels of guidance, giving students many opportunities to process new ideas and information, discussing the rationale for every activity and assessment, incorporating project, problem, performance, and team-based assessments into their courses. And proactive faculty can play a crucial role in directing students to the kinds of support structures that they need to succeed.

Steven Mintz is Professor of History at the University of Texas at Austin and author of the forthcoming Higher Ed Next: Advancing Access, Affordability, and Achievement.

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