28 December 2008

What It Means to Make the Effort

The results of a recent study of college undergraduates (n = 400):
  • If I have explained to my professor that I am trying hard, I think he/she should give me some consideration with respect to my course grade -- 66.2% agree
  • If I have completed most of the reading for a class, I deserve a B in that course -- 40.7%
  • If I have attended most of the classes for a course, I deserve at least a grade of B -- 34.1%
  • Teachers often give me lower grades than I deserve on paper assignments -- 31.5%
  • Professors who won't let me take my exams at another time because of my personal plans (e.g. a vacation) are too strict - 29.9%
  • A professor should be willing to lend me his/her course notes if I ask for them - 24.8%
  • I would think poorly of a professor who didn't respond the same day to an e-mail I sent - 23.5%
  • Professors have no right to be annoyed with me if I tend to come late to class or tend to leave early - 16.8%
  • A professor should not be annoyed with me if I receive an important call during class - 16.5%
  • A professor should be willing to meet with me at a time that works best for me, even if inconvenient for the professor - 11.2%
These results, if representative of college-age students, leave me almost speechless. They remind me of a conversation I had with a parent last year. Her son wasn't passing my class---he was rarely able to show any evidence of learning. Mom was convinced that they boy should get credit for the class because he was a nice person. In her mind, the fact that he wasn't a problem (behavior-wise) and did seat time should be enough. I don't know that I ever truly convinced her that it wasn't enough, but what I realized is that I was fighting years of the child (and parent) being rewarded for being nice. How many of this young man's teachers---and how many of the parent's teachers from years ago---had awarded time served for good behavior?

The information at the start of this post comes from an article in Canada's National Post suggesting "Entitled" Students Expect Better Grades (emphasis added).
The paper describes academic entitlement as "expectations of high marks for modest effort and demanding attitudes toward teachers."

It's a hot topic -- and source of much frustration -- among instructors, author Ellen Greenberger, a research professor of psychology and social behaviour at the University of California-Irvine, says.

"I would have trembled with fear before I suggested to some of my revered teachers that I wanted them to give me a higher grade," she says.

Ms. Greenberger's study reveals that students who are academically entitled are more likely to engage in academic cheating, exploit others, shirk hard work and display "narcissistic orientation."

She found virtually no connection between self-entitled attitudes and grades, meaning it's not just weak students trying to wheedle better marks out of their profs, and those who do so aren't reaping the benefits on their transcripts.

"It certainly suggests that these attitudes and behaviours aren't producing the desired effect," she says. "It's just making teachers crazy."

Ms. Greenberg was surprised that parenting appears to have little influence in shaping self-entitled students, with one key exception: students who say their parents often compare their achievements to siblings, cousins or friends are more likely to engage in these behaviours.

What interests me the most about the emphasized areas is how closely they relate to my ideas about some of the behavioral theory behind best practices in grading. If you're an oldtimer here, then I'm about to get into grandma territory---where you've heard the same story so many times you could tell it better yourself. But for you whippersnapper readers out there, the predominant theory about motivation in educational settings is Achievement Goal Theory. From an earlier post:

Without boring you to tears, the basic idea here is that students will pursue one of two goals within the classroom: mastery which values learning for the sake of learning or performance which values learning for the sake of external indicators. These students associate success with how their performance appears to outsiders, doing better than other kids, and achieving success with as little effort as possible. Performance goals lead to a greater amount of cheating, less cooperative learning, and students who pick the easiest tasks available (or are the first to give up when faced with difficult tasks). On the other hand, mastery goals have been linked with the development of new skills, an increased confidence in abilities, the preference for challenging work (and greater persistence in the face of difficulty), and a stronger sense of school belonging. Teachers have an enormous influence on the goal structure of a classroom. Even if kids walk in the door with a performance orientation, teachers can cause them to become focused on mastery goals.

When I read this article about entitled students, I see Performance indicators everywhere. These are students who have been conditioned to believe that the grade is the be all and end all for learning...and they will do whatever they have to for it. One might think that means that they're learning and engaging in significant study along the way---but that is not typically the case. Think about the responses to the survey...the sheer number of students who believe they deserve a B for showing up most of the time or trying hard.

What do we do about these sorts of values, assuming we don't like them? Personally, I think that schools need to take a long hard look at the messages they send students and parents. Are we talking about grades...or are we talking about learning? Do we set up policies and practices that serve to entrain the higher priority on concept mastery...or are seat time and smiles enough? I believe that we can get students and parents to focus their attention on learning if we set those examples. When I read pieces in the New York Times commenting on America's need to reboot, I feel like there is a connection to schools---our entitled society is not only a product of them, it models and encourages their development in our youngsters. Hedgetoad points out that

We aren't inspiring people who want to create. We're producing people who want to be famous and rich. A generation of would-be lottery winners. Not for creating something, but just for being something. I've had several would be famous hip-hop artists in my classes, but none of them want to put any work in actually writing anything. I remember one former student who swore he would be a writer as a job, but couldn't write a complete sentence. And nearly punched the luckless teacher who attempted to point this out. I could go on and on with the stories of student who expected that whatever they wanted would eventually fall into their laps with no effort on their part. Even so-called 'fun' assignments show little effort and generally end up as not much more than coloring pages glued to a poster board.

In reading the blogs of others, I can see educators fighting the same apathy and I can see people finding moments of brilliance. What kind of shift do I need to start to get more moments of brilliance and less apathy? How can my students be inspired to want to learn?
It takes all of us. It means that we as a society have to reflect on both the hidden and overt messages we are giving kids. And it means that we have to change those. We can't say that we value intelligent and creative people---and then set up the rules for school in ways that don't support this. We can't shake our heads and say "Kids these days." as if they are all in some sort of phase that they can grow out of. We created the playing field and we have the responsibility for making things better---not necessarily easier. I hope that we make efforts to do so.


ms-teacher said...

Your post hit a nerve. This year, I've had the privilege of teaching to GATE students. I've really loved teaching this group of students so far, but I've definitely seen apathy abound with this group.

Apparently, about half of my students came from the same feeder school and have basically been in the GATE program together since 3rd grade. From what I have gathered from conversations with this group of students is that pretty much since 3rd grade, they have been constantly told how smart they are, which is not necessarily a bad thing. However, where I have seen problems arise is when I am assigning them something that requires them to think beyond what's in the text. In a word, many crumble.

Quite a few are earning C's and D's (equivalent to 1's and 2's) on their report cards and have been absolutely dumbfounded. I know they can do bookwork and know how to successfully "do" school. However, what I want them do is to think beyond what's in the book and truly think critically, something I think they are being asked to do for the first time.

hschinske said...

That's so sad, because the whole *point* of a GATE class is for them *not* to be labeled all the time, but to be challenged in a natural way as everyone else is. It sounds as if that GATE program really needs revamping.

Still, better now than in their first year of college. I have heard too many awful stories of incredibly bright but underprepared students falling apart and dropping out.

Roger Sweeny said...

A large number of high school teachers fear that middle school graduation is based on the following test:

1. Is the student three years older than (s)he was when (s)he entered middle school? [If "yes," proceed to question two.]

2. Has the student burned down the school? {If "no," student can proceed to high school.]

The Science Goddess said...

I think that is a legitimate concern (and is probably echoed by middle school teachers looking at what is coming from the elementary schools).

Complicating that, of course, is NCLB. Once a student hits ninth grade, they have to finish within four years or they are counted as a dropout. Many districts are therefore putting some stops at 8th grade---but this brings up other questions about age/credit. I worked in a school where we had to have a policy that once a ninth grader turned 17, they went to the high school regardless of the number of credits they'd earned. (We had many kids who purposefully failed to stay behind and deal drugs to the successively younger crowd.) My hunch is that middle schools will have to address some of this with 8th grade.

I'm not sure what the answer is. I'm not convinced that social promotion does kids any favours, but neither does holding them back for years.