The trouble with students

I think I’ve worked it out.  The trouble with students these days is that they don’t really come to university to learn any more.  They come to be taught.  And there is a difference that goes beyond spelling and transitivity.  You see, I think it comes down to money.

Students today have to pay an awful lot of money to come to university, and they’re not shy about reminding you of it.  ‘I pay your wages’ is a relatively frequent cry of the man, woman or monster who isn’t satisfied with the responses to their questions.  To a certain extent, I suppose that could be true, but each student probably only pays me a penny or two per month, so I’m not all that worried.  However, they do indeed have to pay a lot of money to come here.

So they expect to be taught, not to learn.  They want to know what the answer is, not how to find out what the answer is.  They want to be told what to think, not how to think.  In the library, they want the three books on the reading list and nothing else.  No reading around the suject, which was one of the most interesting parts of study for me (and I’m only 27, can things really have changed that much?).  No forming of opinions.  No righteous anger at social injustice.  Just an endless frustration, for they all want the formula for how to get a first class degree handed to them on a plate, and most don’t understand that such a formula is impossible.  It’s about curiosity, imagination and reason.  It’s not about regurgitating facts A, B and C in the correct order.  It’s about disagreeing with your tutor and arguing your case, not blindly accepting what they say.  Or at least it should be.  Or is it just me?

 There are exceptions, of course.  The students who really want to learn, who want to expand the boundaries of their world view, who deliberately seek out authors with views that contradict their own.  And these are the students who make working in a higher education library worth while.  They are few and far between, but they bring a smile to my face like a breath of cool breeze on a muggy day.  The enthusiasm to learn is a rare and precious thing which needs to be encouraged.  If only I could work out how to do that…

    • Vari
    • May 23rd, 2006

    As a student, I can only but agree with what you are saying. Unfortunately, I have been caught up in a situation where the teachers accept that the students nowadays do not come in order to learn, for a fact of life.

    I find that it is quite impossible to start even a two-man discussion, that is, between a student and a teacher, not to mention with other students participating (they feel safer sitting quiet and being told). One can freely say what one thinks, of course, but the answer will be “Yes, you may have this view, but right now I am trying to teach you about this and that.” And since students are so hard to make interested enough to show any of that interest, the teachers plan their lectures accordingly. That is natural – it is all made easier for them. As simple as: they plainly recite – the students plainly put everything down – then there’s an exam – and then the students get their degree. No emotions involved in arguing – as you say, no “unnecessary” anger – injustice has always existed and always will, we’re just trying to learn according to the programme. People simply want to visit a lecture and go home. They actually find the students who want more somewhat annoying, making them do more than the minimal work. Sad but true. How does one escape that?

  1. How depressing. I didn’t realise the lecturers had caught it as well. I also wonder if this is a global phenomenon. I’m based in the UK, but I am curious about higher education outside this funny little island. D

    • Diana
    • May 23rd, 2006

    I’m over here on this big island – right in the middle of the usa – and I can tell you that it is the same where I am. I had a professor this semester who is an outstanding scholar in his field and I was really excited to be taking his class. To learn from him. But, for his lectures, he basically just read from his books. No discussion or “off the cuff” remarks. He said it was because he assigned readings for the class to read and discuss, but no one did the readings. So he had to read to us. Unfortunately, he was right – my fellow students said the readings were too deep and took too much time. It was frustrating.

  2. When I was still at Uni (in Blighty), ooh, seven or eight (no, eight. Definitely eight. Dang) years ago, the lecturers where still valiantly trying to get the students to think, but the students were getting less and less likely to want to. I remember getting in a glorious and fascinating four-way (me, lecturer, two other students) debate on something-or-other in class that took up the whole lesson. The lecturer was delighted, and said so, we three musketeers were feeling pretty spiffed, and one girl stood up and told us we were all ‘selfish’ for ‘wasting her lesson time’ discussing ‘some silly tangent’ about historical relevance instead of getting on with explaining the plot of Henry V to her.

    And that was… err… actually ten years ago (Good Lord I’m old). Then she was a worrying exception. Now she is the even more worrying norm, and I doubt the lecturer would have joined in with us any more.

    I am banging my head on the wall.

  3. Incidentally, how did you get blog stats? I want blog stats!

  4. How did I get blog stats? I dragged it into my sidebar on the ‘sidebar widgets’ page under ‘Presentation’.

    I remember many interesting debates during my course, though some tutors were more open to it than others. One hated me for the rest of the course once I voluteered the opinion that Gertrude Stein’s plays were rubbish and, quite frankly, duller than dull. I even explained why I thought that. But she’d done her thesis on Gertrude Stein, so that wasn’t really an acceptable opinion! But my linguistics, Shakespeare, international science fiction and greek theatre seminars (and even lectures, sometimes) were filled with debate.

    How long before students lack the ability to think for themselves?

  5. There. I’ve blog-rolled you. And I apologise for the dull sameyness chez Reed et al for the past two weeks. I am writing again, I promise. Your name does have somehting novel to look at as it sits there.

    I did Science Fiction at Uni too!

    My dear chap, if students could think for themselves we’d be unemployed because really, all you’d have to do then was put them in a room full of books and leave them to it.

    • Asteroid Lil
    • May 24th, 2006

    I experienced the contrast first-hand.

    I did three years of Library Science at a small state college in the eastern US before leaving the country and settling in England. After several years I started all over again, in English/Philosophy, at a redbrick uni in the midlands. The contrast was astounding.

    At the state college, I was obliged to complete a group of “core” courses that essentially replicated my high school education, courses in math, physics, english, some foreign language — what they used to call a liberal arts foundation before the term ‘liberal’ was demonized in the US. It wasn’t till the second year that I began to seriously specialize. Meanwhile, all those core courses were taught in auditoria, without seminars, and tested by means of multiple-choice exams.

    Then I entered univ in England and suddenly found that my earlier education was STIPULATED at the outset, and that I was there to learn something new from the get-go. I had seminars and one-on-one encounters with tutors, and it was impossible to hide in the middle of the herd. I loved it.

    Having said that, I must add that the most stimulating and challenging instructor I ever had was at the state college in the US. He wanted us to think critically, and worked himself into a sweat to bring us to that tipping point where we would suddenly lose our fear of standing out in the crowd. Dr. Al Thomas, wherever you are, thank you.

    I know a couple of psychologists who work in schools. I’ll ask them what they’re seeing.

  6. My lecturers were a bit of a mix. I studied chemistry. Not much room for debate, most of the time, but it’s certainly a good idea to instill critical thinking. And one lecturer in particular was excellent at that:

    “You can’t just know things! There’s too much to know! You need to understand it!”

    I think I was the only one in the class who understood what he was trying to do. He used to say that I thought differently to everyone else in the class. Not better, just differently. It’s the mathematician in me, I suppose.

    Another lecturer was a brilliant teacher. He didn’t lecture, he taught. And he taught well. Of course, he had a small class (just over twenty in first year, dwindiling to six in fourth year (they didn’t all drop out: most went into the biology stream)). And that helps. But he really was excellent. He did physical and inorganic chemistry, which is quite mathematical. My best subject, other people’s worst.

    I remember him dragging tables around the room and stacking them up in an effort to explain certain forms of crystal structure: face-centred cubic, body-centred cubic, hexagonal close packed (well, you’d need strange tables for that one, but they work for the others), et al.

    Other lecturers simply dolled out notes. One had worked in the industry (pharmaceutical science) for years and was full of amusing and informative anecdotes. You could learn a lot from him. But his lectures were written out in full, displayed on the projector, and transcribed into our notebooks. When he left the script, most of the class stopped writing. No imagination, some people. If it’s not on the screen it can’t be important.

    They were a fairly good bunch, on the whole. And the small class size meant that we got plenty of practical hands-on experience in the lab, which was nice.


  7. Found you! ( =

    Great blog, and of course I agree with every word in the above post. The situation is upsetting. I have been thinking recently about society and how it appears to be going down the pan a bit (or am I being too negative?) and this thing with students not actually wanting to learn, and people being rude (re: your other post) seems to fit into that, rather depressing, scenario. Oops that sentence was a bit long! Can I put a link to your blog on my page please?


  8. We all seem to have had a mixed bag or both good and bad educators and educatees (is that a word? I think it ought to be). Society certainly is at an interesting stage these days, but it could be worse!

    When I mentioned my ‘students don’t come here to learn, they come here to be taught’ thesis to a colleague today, her answer surprised me. She said they don’t come to be taught, they come to be spoonfed. And there are certainly some that are very much like that, which is depressing. You get the impression that they’d prefer it if we searched the catalogue for them, took the books off the shelves and perhaps even took them to their house with a few notes inserted into relevant pages. Those people are rare, though, so I expect my colleague was having a bad day.

  1. December 8th, 2009

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