Yesterday I wrote about some of the opinions experts have on college standards. Many think that college today lacks academic rigor. This topic was highlighted today in an article in The Washington Post that claims that college may be too easy, based on the decline in the amount of study time students put in. The Post cites the experience of one student at George Mason University, who said of her college experience, “I was expecting it to be a lot harder. I thought I was going to be miserable, trying to get good grades. And I do get good grades, and I’m not working very hard.” From this and other media reports, there seems to be some consensus emerging about college, that neither students nor their professors work all that hard.
Is this what the majority of students think? My own students seem to do a lot of complaining about how much work they have, so maybe that article in The Washington Post isn’t the whole story. Students are important players in the ongoing debate about college quality; therefore their experiences and opinions should be central to the issue. But students do not have much access to mainstream media outlets, so their voices are often absent from the debate. The observations made by non-students are therefore often based on limited information. For example, an article in The New York Times about student opinion on college value, showed that they (and their parents) are, on the whole, convinced that college is a worthwhile endeavor. Last year, a similar piece in the Times garnered similar responses.
Most of the students justified their New York Times comments by pointing out the value college provides for employment in the future, not necessarily for intellectual development. So, just for fun I checked out the comments students make about college on one of their main venues, Twitter. Using a completely unscientific method without a control group, quantifiable process, or even a notepad and pen, I perused tweets that used the search terms #college and #professors. Aside from the obviously political, racist, or just plain vulgar, three main themes emerged from tweets that appeared in the past few days, summed up in selected quotes:
- Professors are lazy. One student’s statement represents many that were posted recently: “I always go to class, but I’m so tired of having professors that just read their slides word for word. Why do I pay for you to do that?” There are also dozens of complaints about professors not posting grades “on time” (though the time frame is never specified.) These posts contradict those by students who say, as this one did “I hate when professors make you stay the full time!”
- Professors are weird: One tweet relayed the always sobering reality that professors exist outside the classroom and should always be on guard: “Been following one of my professors from UC for 30 minutes now on the highway… He has some serious road rage problems.” There are also tweets about professor wardrobe mistakes, hair, mood changes, political opinions, and any other personal characteristic you can name.
- Professors are mean: It is always surprising to me that students do not keep the big picture in mind when they consider their grades. The student who tweeted that “Poli sci professors WILL fail you the semester you’re supposed to graduate and not care at all” speaks for many similar tweets by students who do not seem to realize that, unlike high school, college graduation is not a holistic decision. It is based on the work done in individual courses.
Any Good News?
Some would argue that it is, to borrow an old military trope, a student’s right to complain, because they are doing a lot of grunt work. And then there’s that old saw that the “squeaky wheel gets the grease.” But the most shocking thing revealed by student opinions on Twitter about their college experience was that they were mostly complaints. There are a scattered number of posts that honor professors for being “nice” and allowing extensions, but those are rare. Even more rare are posts that discuss, from the student perspective, what they learned while in college this past semester or year. There were no “professors are smart” or “professors helped me learn” tweets.
However, an informal study by Jeff Selingo, vice president and editorial director of The Chronicle of Higher Education, gives us reason to be optimistic about what college students think about their educational experience. In his column, he recently highlighted the results of his own informal survey of student opinion on six colleges across the nation. He noted three themes that showed up in his discussions with students:
- Students value face-to-face education more than ever.
- Students need more help with career choice before starting college.
- The choice of major is less important than we thought.
In addition, Selingo pointed out that even despite the rise of alternative educational credentials, “the degree still matters” to today’s college students and that, for many students, the major was less important than the worth of each individual class. He reported that “most of the students said they were less concerned with picking the right major than they were with choosing the classes that would expose them to new subjects or help them connect ideas across disciplines.” Given this, Selingo concluded that “the future of higher ed should not be a one-size-fits-all online world where students are directed to a small set of career-focused majors.”
Maybe, if we listen to students a little more, there might be less complaining on Twitter and more enthusiasm for learning. When that happens, professors can feel confident that what they do is not always viewed as a one-way ticket to employmentville and can instead focus on making their courses the best they possibly can be, regardless of the perceived market value of the course.
I’ll give that some thought later, after I take the luxurious nap I need because I am exhausted from celebrating the high number of failing grades I turned in-late.