By Jason Fertig
Was there ever a time when college classrooms were completely filled with bright-eyed students eager to absorb knowledge from their sage? When educators deal with unmotivated students, such pipe dreams of halcyon days of education are likely to arise. While navigating student apathy is as old as the teaching profession itself, the apathy displayed by today's crop of higher education seekers is more serious than many think, and it reflects a dangerous trend that will only compound if not addressed.
I make this assertion not from the point of view of a professor who monotonously lectures students to sleep and then wonders why no one responds when the class is asked if anyone has any questions. On the contrary, much of my class period is focused on engaging students through provocative discussions of sensitive topics such as whether affirmative action harms the groups it intends to help or though activities like redesigning the college curriculum as a way of teaching how to teach. This pedagogy requires a certain amount of outside preparation from students; while most of my feedback indicates that I have been fairly successful in my pursuits, the decreasing engagement of the student body constantly forces me to ask why I make my job so difficult.
My concerns with student apathy are frequently greeted with yawns from colleagues, even when backed up with data. Reports of college students studying less than 15 hours per week are justified with noting how involved these students are with other extracurricular activities. I have heard a student with a 3.7 GPA state that "my professor expects three hours per class period of outside studying - I barely spend five hours a week total on all of my classes." I have also had a student with a young child tell me that her essay she submitted was of such poor quality because she only had 30 minutes to work on it for the whole week, and this was the best that she could do.
If today's students are so involved in activities outside of the classroom, shouldn't such experiences enhance their contributions in the classroom, even if they admit to less work outside of it? Unfortunately, students are generally less mature. A study released earlier this year claimed that adolescence now lasts to age 28. A recent article in the Wall Street Journal also noted the declining rates of marriage among people aged 25-34. Thus, a large portion of the students that make up our college classes are more concerned with comic books and video games than adding a new wrinkle to their brains. Book publishers do not help when they pitch "graphic novels" as a revolution in the design of textbooks. If students took their education seriously, there would be nothing is inherently wrong with enjoying their preferred choice of recreation, but the combination of intellectual and emotional immaturity leads to a disengaged classroom because many traditional students do not possess the ability or motivation to think deeply on ultimate issues.
All generalizations need examples to be valid - what does this apathy look like? Consider this anecdote from a recent class. As part of the previously mentioned discussion of affirmative action in the second paragraph, I assigned two readings to my students; one was a defense of affirmative action from the New Republic and the other was a criticism from the National Review. The day of the discussion, after initial icebreaking and informing the class that the readings came from differing ideologies, I asked the seemingly loaded question just to get the students talking - did the New Republic article come from a conservative or liberal point of view? I was greeted with blank stares and side chatter of "just pick one, you have a 50/50 shot."
Of course, I could have just called on someone, but knowing my students, the silence spoke volumes. These students did not read, nor did they even know the answer anyway. Many of them (while they are nice people) expect to be spoon-fed PowerPoint slides to memorize for their midterm. Hence, my lesson plan blew up like Mentos in a soda bottle. How can we practice true higher education when students are woefully disengaged?
I am not one to just rant. I have painted a fairly negative view of the student body thus far, and admittedly there are some fantastic students in each classroom. Unfortunately, the influx of a large population of college students seeking anything but higher education (e.g the wage premium,The Five-Year Party, etc.) has contributed to a large amount of variance between the top and bottom student in the classroom. It's common to hear gripes from professors of "if I graded students the way I really wanted, I'd fail most of my class." In turn, the pressure to maintain respectable graduation rates leads educators to "teach to the middle," which leaves the strongest students unchallenged and increasingly disengaged.
Thus, instead of sitting back, I attempt to tackle the apathy issue by trying to reach as many motivated students as I can, even if it is on a one-by-one basis. For example, in my upper-level classes, I utilize a hybrid pedagogy in which I assign weekly writing assignments and longer, complex readings in exchange for splitting the class into two breakout groups (thus I only meet with half of the class at a time). The key point of using these breakout groups is that they are based on student GPA - one group contains students above the median class GPA and the other contains the students below the median. This practice effectively reduces the variance between the top and bottom student in each group, and it allows me to better tailor my teaching style to the abilities and motivations in the classroom.
While GPA is not a perfect measure of student performance in a given class, it is fairly reliable in predicting the engagement levels of my students (especially juniors and seniors who have a larger sample size of coursework). Hence, in the higher GPA group, it is easier for me to step back and facilitate, whereas in the lower GPA group, I often have to drive the car. That practice allows for a better alignment between my classroom expectations and student ability and motivation, in addition to allowing for richer discussions with the most academically motivated.
Of course, in some institutions, this breakout session idea is too radical due to the misconception that in all cases more "contact hours" equates to better teaching; thus a well-organized honors program can be another possible modality. While Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus's, Higher Education? How Colleges Are Wasting Our Money and Failing Our Kids---and What We Can Do About It, received a great deal of attention for their advocacy of eliminating tenure, their praise of honors colleges within larger universities is an equal, if not more valuable point for college reform.
Addressing this apathy issue is especially crucial in light of much of the concerns with indoctrination on campus. I agree with much of what has been written in regards to that battle, yet I have always pondered one question - doesn't classroom indoctrination mean that students actually listen and learn from their professors? When discussing the practice of students only getting one side of a debate, I am firmly in the camp of "we need to expose students to both sides." For every assignment of Nickel and Dimed, students should also read Scratch Beginnings.
However, when we take that stance, it implies that if students hear both sides, they will then go through the mental exercises of hashing out where they stand. This may be true for some students, but I am hard-pressed to say that it would be valid for the majority of the student body today. Yes, the indoctrination battle still needs to be fought head-on, but I'm more inclined to assert that given the maturity of the majority of student bodies, Jon Stewart, residence life, MTV, and the Miller Brewing Company have more of an effect on students' worldview than what is presented in the classroom.
Granted, students are not solely to blame for their apathy. Professors often sacrifice their teaching in order to focus on publishing articles (of questionable worth). Additionally, recruiters from companies where students desire to work come to campus and tell students to build up their resume because it take more than a GPA to get hired.
Yet, much like saying that "all politics are local," if we are going to restore the "higher" in higher education, it has to start with motivated educators at the grassroots level. We cannot follow the same ineffective battle plan and expect different results. The push from our elected officials to increase the amount of college degrees will only ratchet up the enrollment of unmotivated students on campus. While the apathy train left the station a long time ago, now is the time to apply to brakes before it picks up any more speed.
Jason Fertig is an assistant professor of management at The University of Southern Indiana.