What if your sense of how hard your students work doesn’t match how hard they think they work?

There are so many times when I read or hear of a great idea that I know would help me in my work. But at the key moment when I could really put that piece of information to use, the little nugget might as well be circling a distant galaxy. So one of the things I am going to try to do better is write posts that are more relevant to the issues faculty and staff face when they face them. You’ve probably heard of Just-in-Time Teaching (it’s a great book, by the way). Think of this as just-in-time data.

Even though the spring term starts this week, many of you are probably still toying with the the details of your syllabus(es), thinking about what you might do to make your class just a bit better without blowing it up and creating an avalanche of work for yourself precisely when you are already swamped. A couple of weeks ago I wrote about evidence from our own data suggesting the potential benefits of adding an early assignment to your course. Two other items from our just-completed mid-year survey of freshmen put in mind one other important, and sometimes easily forgotten, issue that can also make a big difference in your student’s learning and your course’s success.

Freshmen were asked at the end of last term to respond to these two items.

My instructors set high expectations for my learning and growth.

never 3 1%
rarely 6 2%
sometimes 38 10%
often 163 43%
most or all of the time 165 44%

I really worked hard to meet my instructor’s expectations.

never 2 1%
rarely 2 1%
sometimes 38 10%
often 146 39%
most or all of the time 187 50%

On one level, the fact that these two items correlate so closely is a good thing (it would indeed be frightening if they didn’t!). However, as I thought more about these two response sets, I began to wonder: would 89% of our faculty (the proportion that matches our students’ response distribution) also say that first-year students “really worked hard” to meet expectations “often” or “most or all of the time”?

My guess is that there is something worth unpacking here. To be fair, it’s possible that the questions themselves are problematic.  Maybe students aren’t comfortable suggesting that their instructors didn’t push them all that much or that they “mailed it in” more often than not. Yet we have prior NSSE data to suggest that our first year students complete homework assignments and write multiple drafts of papers more often than students at comparable institutions. Because multiple data findings pointing in the same direction make it harder to challenge the validity of a general claim, I’m inclined to suspect that the data points outlined above might indeed suggest something worth considering.

That leaves us with the possibility (especially if you are one of those faculty who don’t think that your first year students “really work hard” to meet your expectations about 90% of the time) that our students either don’t always have a clear sense of what is expected of them or that maybe we aren’t always holding them to our own high expectations when we provide grades and feedback.  Moreover, and I mean this genuinely, more than a few of our students may not yet have had the kind of life experiences that teach one what it really means to work hard to accomplish something.

Of course we know from our daily work that learning is messy business. Human beings aren’t always so thrilled to be stretched outside of their comfort zone, nor are we always excited by the prospect of failure as a necessary precursor of real learning. This is why masterful teaching is a constant balancing act of pushing students beyond where they might want to go while at the same time supporting them by expressing a belief (even if it’s more theoretical than actual) that they can accomplish what you’ve ask them to do.

Most of us have probably been challenged at least once by a student who doesn’t think that they deserve the grade you gave them. That conversation is always more difficult if the student doesn’t grasp the nature of the standards you applied to their work.

I mention all of this in order to suggest that student responses to these two questions may represent the degree to which our students really (sometimes desperately) need clear, precise, and pointed guidance about faculty expectations for quality work.  Although we might all think everyone knows what it means to write clearly, students – especially freshmen – often have only the vaguest notion of what that actually looks like.

There may be lots of other things going on behind these responses.  In fact, if you’ve got an observation that you’d like to share, by all means add a comment below.  But if you want one fairly simple thing to insert into your course(s) that can pay dividends later in the term, take some extra time to clarify your expectations for your students in ways that they can understand.  Then you can truly hold their feet to the fire when you push them to “really work hard” in order to meet the expectations you set.

Make it a good day,

Mark

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