On Struggling Students

While I have been amazed with some of my students’ work, occasionally I have a student who is completely unmotivated or does not apply him/herself to learn or even pass. From my discussions with other educators in the US system, this experience seems to be shared by most, regardless of institution.

However, one of our first impressions with Swiss university students was that they demonstrated a business-like approach to their studies. Before integration of the Bologna Process objectives, many schools delivered lessons in the “sage on the stage” format where an expert simply lectured and students were expected to self-regulate their studies so they could pass a final exam. While this approach doesn’t benefit from the advantages of learner-centered design, it places a clear responsibility on students to take their studies seriously because there would be no “hand-holding” to help them pass their exams.

In a previous post, I discussed my concerns about encouraging similar personal responsibility in a learn-centered design. I also recently finished reading Herbert Kohl’s “I Won’t Learn from You” and Other Thoughts on Creative Maladjustment which challenges my perspective on instructors’ responses to students who are not meeting expectations. He discusses (and gives examples) of students who are often labelled as “at-risk,” “underachiever,” “dropout-prone,” “remedial,” or similarly described. However, Kohl advocates cases where an instructor can practice creative maladjustment by strategically breaking school rules and challenging status quo to enable these individuals to engage in something that really motivates them, even at the sake of neglecting standard curriculum.

With this in mind, I think a lot of discussion needs to take place in regard to the responsibility of both instructors and students with particular attention to struggling students. As instructors, should it be our responsibility to find a way to engage even students who would not even show effort or desire to pass our classes? What becomes of these students and what is the eventual impact on society? We got some notion that while these types of students are more rare in Swiss universities, they may be more common in the universities of applied sciences.

Where should the line be drawn where instructors’ duties to encourage and enable students end and students’ personal responsibility to fit within the guidelines and expectations of the instructors begin?

Higher Education’s Preparation for Independence

During a discussion about the European Bologna Process , we learned how, generally speaking, their students take heavier course loads and are held more responsible for their own education. Consequently, lectures at European universities concentrate more just on content delivery and involve fewer graded activities while students are expected to study and practice enough to pass a final exam. In the American school system, there seems to be increasing responsibility on instructors to make their courses fun and engaging, especially as active learning pedagogy gains popularity. The differences make for an interesting contrast in roles for both students and teachers.

Meanwhile, my respected colleague and computer science (CS) professor at Virginia Tech, Dr. Eli Tilevich brought up an intriguing contrast between our undergraduate CS education and the experience of music majors. Specifically, he drew attention to the music student’s experience at a senior recital:

The student giving the recital had to deal with all the stress and unpredictability of playing a solo recital in front of a live audience […] The recitalist had to handle all these issues completely independently without any help from anyone. The student’s clarinet instructor was in the audience, but only as a passive listener. Overall, I find senior recitals an excellent avenue for music students to demonstrate their proficiency in their chosen field of study.

While the objectives in academic music education are considerably different than those in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields, Dr. Tilevich addressed that CS education does not have a comparable experience of strictly independent, professional assessment:

Even in our capstone classes, in which it is recommended that students accomplish a project for an external client, professors are always present ready to step in to help students deal with any issues that may arise.

This concern particularly piqued my interest. I have embraced an active instructional role where I do my best to assist students reach class objectives. However, do tests and class assignments adequately assess how well a student can perform a real, practical skill after the class is over? That’s tough to say.

A truly professional experience could serve as a final milestone in undergraduate education. An analogy can be drawn to the apprenticeship model of learning. A demonstration of professional performance would indicate reaching the goal of scaffolding: gradually decreasing the amount of help offered as the student grows in developing independence. There are unique challenges in each discipline to implement this type of experience, but it is an intriguing prospect.

A bigger question is though, how would a practical, apprentice experience as a capstone fit into the different teacher-student dynamics? In American schools, I imagine it would be a tough transition for students to go from traditional classes to taking full responsibility to work independently and professionally. My expectation is that the transition would be more natural for students used to taking greater responsibility — either through Bologna Process-style education or through previous exposure to internships or other professional experience.

I’m curious to others’ thoughts, especially since at this point I have no first-hand experience with European schools. I am also interested to hear how others think a professional capstone would apply to their disciplines. Lastly, it also makes me wonder if active learning pedagogy is particularly susceptible to “coddling” students too much and failing to teach them responsibility and accountability.