Prior to starting my PhD work at VT, I worked full time at a private, elite four-year institution. One of my roles was to serve as an academic advisor. I met with freshman and sophomore students’ multiple times a semester until they declared their major (all undergraduate students except for “engineering track”-who come in to college undecided (no prescriptive classes, instead all must take diverse classes, and other requirements, until they declare a major in their second year (sophomore year)). If I could get a penny for every time I heard from the students that, “my undergraduate education is just a means to an end”, I would have several dollars by now. Anyway, what most of the students meant was that the way they view undergraduate education is that it is a stepping-stone for the next important thing that is waiting for them. For a majority of that student population it was: Medical school, Law school and or some other professional degree. Most of them were high achieving students and the way they experienced their classes, they way they engaged on campus (clubs and organization) and the people they networked with, all connected back to the question of “What do I need to do to get to that next step?”
From the beginning of their educational careers (high school or undergraduate), they have been trained (by family or teachers) to keep the end goal is mind, stay competitive, get the highest grades as you will be competing with other talented students (nationally and internationally) and find ways to give you an edge on others. That is not a terrible mentality, but what this process misses or lacks is the conscious involvement and imagination that Eric Liu and Scott Noppe-Brandon discuss. These students come in with too much focus on the next step, and not enough on the daily experiences. Some of these students miss out on all the other experiences that are thrown at them, or if they do engage it is not because they enjoy them but it is because these experiences will look good on the resume. For most of them college GPA is everything, because that number measures their success in college and their path to that end goal depends on how their grades reflect their intellectual capacity and if they will be able to get to that medical school or law school. This tunnel vision and competitive mentality forces them to see each class, each lecture and each experience as “get it done well now and you will never have to think of it again”.
This raises the question of – How do you engage students in classes and challenge them to learn for the sake of learning and not just for a high GPA that will get them in to the next step?