You are a good teacher. You work hard to prepare classes that will enable your students to learn. And I bet you are frequently frustrated by those who don’t seem to do their part to benefit from that hard work. They don’t do the readings. They don’t put any effort into that small assignment you created to prepare them better for the more heavily weighted assignment they’d need to do later. They don’t follow the guidelines. etc. etc.
An article by someone who came to academia after a professional career picks up on this point:
4. Your students are not you. I was a nerd who loved school and reading and writing and history. Most of my students are not interested in the same things, and they don’t think like me. A small fraction of them, maybe one a year, are total disasters: They skip class, blow off assignments, and then claim “they didn’t know” about whatever it is they screwed up. The majority of my students are trying to do well but might just not know how to do school or act professionally. I have to work to think like them because, like a good manager, a good professor tries to find what motivates each student. The goal is for every student to be better at the end of the semester than they were at the beginning.
Aileen Gallagher, “Things I Wish I Knew Before I Became a College Professor”, Cosmopolitan, Nov 6, 2015
You were the kind of student who loved learning.
Like Gallagher you were “a nerd who loved school and reading and writing and history.” You wanted to get As. You have a passion for your subject that probably extends back to when you were an undergraduate. If you didn’t you never would have done that PhD and pursued an academic career.
“What came next” for you was graduate school. Only a small percentage of your students will go on to graduate school. An even smaller percentage will go on to graduate school in your specialism.
Being an excellent teacher does not mean turning everyone in your class into the kind of student you were. It means, as Gallagher points out, that every student will be better at the end of the semester than they were at the beginning. Even that is a pretty tall order.
What kind of students are in your class?
Some of your students just want a certificate that they think will improve their chances of getting a “good job” (variously defined). They are probably skeptical about how whatever you teach them will contribute to that. The culture at large feeds their skepticism.
Some of your students are interested in other aspects of the university experience in addition to the classroom aspects.
- They are involved in student politics.
- They play varsity sports.
- They are involved in a student society.
Universities are about more than just book-learning. Politics, sports, culture, social events, and so on are an integral part of the university experience. Furthermore, they often provide crucial skills and networks for taking whatever you teach them in the classroom into a future career.
Some of your students are a bit like you but are really passionate about another subject. They may be taking your course to fill a breadth requirement. Or the most important thing they may learn in your class is that they don’t want to pursue this subject.
And, as Gallagher points out, “The majority of my students are trying to do well but might just not know how to do school or act professionally.” Some of them may be working hard but doing the wrong things.
Not all students want an A
Most of your students do not work equally hard in all of their classes. Not everyone wants to be a straight-A student, and that’s not a bad thing.
Learning to set priorities is important. Setting an achievable goal and only doing enough work to achieve your goal is also an important skill. Both of these things will serve your students well, whatever their future holds. The student who has decided they only need a B in your course, and does exactly what is required to get a B should be recognized for having acquired these skills.
You may see evidence that they could do better if they put more effort in. You need to accept that they may be saving that effort for something that is more important to them. That higher priority thing may not be another class. It may be sports, or politics, or their social life. The vast majority of employers really don’t care at all about grades. They care about the certificate. And relevant skills and experience.
Your student is not you. Not being able to get into a masters program or law school may not matter to them at all.
Let’s ignore the few who seem to think they deserve an A just for turning up. And let’s assume that those really are the few.
You need to teach more than content
There are a whole set of skills that feel natural to you that are not natural. You learned them, too, though you probably forget how and when and where. They may never have been taught to you explicitly. The fact that your students don’t have those skills does not mean that they cannot acquire them. Sometimes you need to figure out how to teach them. (Mary Lea’s work on academic literacies may be helpful here.)
- What do you mean when you say “do the reading”?
- What does effective seminar participation look like?
- What do terms like evidence, argument, etc look like in your discipline?
Think more carefully about what specifically is frustrating you and see if you can figure out what’s going on under the surface. What skills may they not have?
You also need to make it clear what your expectations are.
- What are your objectives for this course?
- How will you assess the extent to which they have met those objectives?
- How do the various aspects of the course (lectures, seminars, reading, short exercises, etc) help them meet those objectives?
Being clear about these things — in the course outline, in classes, in individual interactions with students — enables students to get more out of your course. It also takes a lot of the frustration out of grading.
When it comes to grades, most students want to be rewarded for the effort they put in. What they think constitutes an appropriate mark for their effort is based on their past experience. What they think constitutes an appropriate effort is based on their past experience. Neither of these things might be in line with your expectations.
Don’t do your best applies to you and the students who are satisfied with less than an A
An earlier version of this post was published on September 3, 2010. Most recent edit March 28, 2016. Related posts added 13 August 2019.