I just read an article which, taken together with a couple other recent articles, helps me understand what I’ve been seeing in students lately.
The most recent story indicates that New York students are not meeting standards for college preparedness: “just 5 percent in Rochester” meet these standards, to take a non-random example. I look at my students (two different schools, neither of which I need to name here), and say to myself, yes. Most of my students don’t come from Rochester, and of course I have good students in all of my classes. But there does seem to be a lack of preparation for college: do they know what they’re getting into?
The next story is something I read a few weeks back, but was on NPR this morning, regarding student performance. There are two factors here. The first is that teachers seem to be demanding less of their students; this makes sense, given that student evaluation is largely correlated with perceived grade, and there is a large segment of the population (such as myself) who more or less depend on those numbers for continued employment (I’ve never been explicitly turned down for a job based on them, but I worry about it). I suspect the second factor is correlated to the first, because students will complain regardless of what you ask: the second factor being that studying is down by half from a couple of decades ago. (That means the average amount my students are studying really is less than what I was doing at their age: I’m not just being cranky, I have statistics.) And another “correlation-does-not-imply-causation-but…” piece: they aren’t learning as much. Is this because they’re not being challenged, or because they’re not studying, or both? And they’re not measuring general knowledge: they’re looking at critical thinking skills (you know, the reason you not only don’t listen to Glenn Beck, but don’t understand why anyone does). Although a friend of a friend chided me a few months back for lacking “critical thinking” with regard to certain economic policies, this is one of the main things I teach, regardless of the course title. I don’t care if you know what Empiricism is, but I don’t want you to get your information about it from Swami Krishnananda, or a website built by high school students over a decade ago. Which is to say, be able to find out who is putting out the information, then evaluate whether it’s reliable or not. You know, critical thinking. It's a good thing.
What do we have so far? Students are unprepared for college, studying fewer hours and learning less. Where could we possibly go from here? The Chronicle of Higher Education, of course. Students today “give themselves high marks for ambition,” higher than in the past, but also – and they do say these things are linked – report record low emotional health. Well, duh. Perhaps it's the cognitive dissonance catching up, compounded by the realization that they don't really know what to do about it. (That's my job of course, but a surprising number of the students don't seem to recognize it.)
Now you have a snapshot of my classes: they are ambitious, they want to achieve. But they enter college unprepared to actually do the work, don’t do the relatively short reading assignments that I give them, and then are anxious and depressed.
And yet, somehow I still enjoy teaching.