Letters to the Editor
—Philip R. Yannella, Professor of English and American Studies
November 20, 2008
Dear Professor Waldstreicher:
In her brief article on “GenEd: From Content to Cognition,” Professor Terry Halbert wrote about the ineffectiveness of lectures in promoting student learning and the effectiveness of “active and participatory learning.” She then suggested that GenEd teachers (and, presumably, others as well) need to pay attention to “cognition as much as content.”
I have noticed over the years that commentators on college student learning “styles,” instructional “delivery” methods, interactivity, and so forth, rarely mention student effort. Nor does Professor Halbert. But student effort is the predicate for learning. Simply put, a student who makes little or no effort will get little or nothing out of attending a class, regardless of the format or the teaching skills of the instructor. Ultimately, of course, he or she may learn to repeat some phrasing, or memorize some or all of the instructor’s power point bullets, or pick up just enough content to be able to write a standard essay. But that is not learning, in my opinion.
College professors have long known that some of their students come to class unprepared, that some students do not read assignments, that they study in spurts when exams loom, that papers are thrown together, that school work is not among their higher priorities. How many students can be described in those terms? That has always been the big question. We have never known whether such students are typical or atypical. Now we have information which, as I read it, suggests that they are the majority.
Each semester, on the fourth question of our Course and Teaching Evaluations, we ask students to report how much time they spend preparing for class. Responses have been remarkably consistent for the past several years: across the university, about 58% of our students have reported that they spend less than one or one to three hours each week preparing for each of their courses. In lower level courses such as Core and GenEd courses, 66% of students across the university have reported spending less than one or one to three hours each week preparing.
Data gathered by the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) through its surveys of fulltime freshmen and seniors at several hundred four-year colleges and universities indicate that our students are not unusual. On its survey, NSSE defines “preparing for class” as “studying, reading, writing, doing homework or lab work, analyzing data, rehearsing, and other academic activities.” Its 2008 report, based on data from 769 institutions, shows that, at doctoral research universities, 59% of surveyed students said they spent less than fifteen hours each 7-day week preparing for all their classes combined. Among freshmen, 11% reported preparing one to five hours, 24% reported six to ten hours, and 24% reported eleven to fifteen hours; the corresponding figures for seniors were 15%, 24%, and 20%. The NSSE results have been quite consistent since 2000. There is, incidentally, little variation between types of institutions. For example, students at arts and sciences colleges self-reported about the same amount of effort as students at doctoral institutions. (NSSE reports are available at http://nsse.iub.edu; the 2008 data on student course preparation appear on p. 34.)
Telling them beforehand, with a wink and a smile, that I had no doubt about their extraordinary effort in my classes, I showed thirty of my students the data about student effort that I have recited here. I asked them whether it seemed fair and accurate. Every one of the thirty indicated that it was. A number spoke about their experiences at gaming the system, schoolwork avoidance, campus malingering, playing cat and mouse games with instructors, or simply refusing to put effort into required, redundant, “stupid,” or “highschoolish” classes. A few indicated that they could not spend more time studying because they had to work so much.
I know I did not conduct a scientifically sound survey. Talking to my students about effort was just a way of checking on whether the data, or my reading of them, was, from their points of view, outlandish or wrong-headed. I will add here that I am sufficiently skeptical to think that, as several said they do on course papers and essay exams, they may have told me only what they thought I wanted to hear. I will also add that over the past several years I have had dozens of conversations with undergraduates about their observations of student work avoidance.
Based on both anecdotal and statistical information, a number of questions have occurred to me. How can so many students successfully complete college courses with so little effort (responses to the second question on our CATEs indicate that about 90% of students expect to receive “Bs” and “As,” but I have not recently seen actual grades)? Or, is it simply the case that many instructors do not require very much work and that their students do everything that is demanded in a couple of hours each week? Is there a positive correlation between instructor demands, student effort, and student evaluations of those instructors? Some students make significant efforts. What do they think about their slacker peers? What do they think about their courses and their college experiences? What do they think about paying high prices for a college education, with the expectation that they will be taught by professors, people with important things to say about their subjects, and then sitting, regularly, in classroom circles and discussing, say, a reading assignment with peers who may only have skimmed it? How fair and just is it that decisions about the future employment of the mostly low-paid lecturers and adjunct faculty who do so much of our undergraduate teaching are based in part, or in large part, on evaluations written by students whose learning efforts are, typically, so paltry and shallow?
I wrote this letter to raise the issue of student effort, or lack of effort, as a predicate for learning, or lack of learning, whatever the instructional “delivery” format and teaching skills of the instructor. I think we have a big problem at Temple. I think our industry has a big problem. The questions I raised above are not for me to answer. But I hope that some of them, or similar ones that go to the same issues, are addressed by my colleagues before we discuss such higher-end issues as the effectiveness or ineffectiveness of particular formats, student learning styles, cognition, and the need for interactivity and interdisciplinarity.
Philip R. Yannella,
Professor of English and American Studies