I’ve been teaching at the college level for a long time. My first class was a statistics class taught to marriage and family counselling students (masters level) at Pepperdine University in 1984; since then I’ve taught exclusively at the undergraduate level at both state and private colleges. Here I address a change that I have noted in recent years. I believe that this reflects a sudden change–not a gradual shift.
Students are far less willing now to take chances in the classroom. I routinely ask students to answer questions as we cover new material. These questions require thought, guided by the material under discussion. The questions are not difficult; in many cases there are multiple possible answers that could be correct. The purpose is to get the students thinking. Over the past two years or so, maybe even more recently than that, it has become clear that students are not willing to answer.
I don’t think that the reluctance is the result of ignorance, or fear of being wrong. Instead I believe that it reflects the students’ lack of experience with this kind of situation. K-12 education is so focused on standardized testing, on ensuring that students get the right answer, that students have not learned to think. Memorize facts, demonstrate that the material has been learned by answering multiple choice questions… that approach does not foster an ability to think. It does not foster an appreciation for the possibility that there are varied ways of thinking about a problem, or even that thought might be brought to bear in a productive way.
I am sad about this. I am sad not only because it impacts the students’ (and my) experience in the classroom, but also because it adversely affects their test performance. My tests (and I am not alone in this among my colleagues) typically ask students to apply what they have learned. It is not enough to memorize material–they have to understand concepts. Students are less capable of doing this now compared to a few years ago. Many students have asked for study guides before exams; by this I now understand that they mean a list of facts that they need to know. I do not offer such guides, for two reasons. First: the guide would suggest to students that its content is all that they need to know; on my tests all the material that we have covered might serve as the basis for a question–how can I offer a study guide that includes everything that we have covered? And second: life does not offer study guides–students need to learn to filter, organize, and extract the relevant material for themselves.
Beyond that, I am sad because few of these students, if they cannot overcome this tendency to want to be given facts rather than to think, will succeed in positions where they are expected to synthesize material and generate original ideas. I tend to think of the next step for many of my students: graduate school. Until they learn to think, and recognize that answers are not always available, many of my students will face serious problems in graduate school. The few current students who are willing to think stand out as exceptional. That is unfortunate–they should all be willing to think.
And a final note to students: If you have read this far, take heart! There is hope. Begin by asking questions. Ask your professor an absurd question related to the material under discussion. Listen to the answer; listen as s/he reasons away the absurdity and explains why the question is unanswerable (or ridiculous – depends on the professor). You will learn from this. You will see the thought process in action, and you will overcome your hesitancy to ask questions. Over time you will recognize that you, too, could probably have offered that response. Realize that you are capable of thought, despite not being encouraged to do it in the past. And you will learn.