Different students bring different levels of preparation to class
To assume that every single classroom will be filled with students of exactly equal experience in a subject and mental acuity would be foolhardy. Regardless of the prerequisite system in place, a variety among the students present is naturally occurring. But that does not prevent it from becoming an annoyance, especially for those located at the poles of the bell curve.
For a student who finds him or herself overwhelmed by the difficulty, this might just mean having to throw in a little extra proverbial elbow grease to catch up and stay on pace with the rest of the class. When “extra hard work” escalates into self-teaching an entire course, then the situation becomes dire enough as to be unacceptable.
Students who find themselves stranded in a classroom where they have already achieved some level of mastery over the material are stuck in an equally frustrating experience. It is no secret that college is becoming an increasingly expensive investment. Enrollment in a class of this sort can feel like tuition is being taken in exchange for questionable returns.
This dilemma is further muddled by a fair desire by all parties involved – students, faculty and administration – to preserve the academic independence of professors in their classrooms. Surely students recognize that the people who stand before them in class have earned that place by demonstrating a mastery of the topic they are being paid to teach somewhere along the line.
While that academic independence undoubtedly must be preserved, it need not also interfere with a student’s ability to receive the type of education he or she has paid for. That is not to say that a collegiate education should be treated solely as a service industry in a manner similar to a local restaurant or retail store. But it is unavoidable that an element of “we want what we pay for” seeps into the student perspective, especially in instances like those described above.
If the question is how to fix the problem, then the answer is a complex one that will likely require efforts from students, faculty and the administration. But if the query is generalized to what professors should do to help control this frustration, then the answer essentially can be distilled down to flexibility. If it is clear that the bell curve of the class is skewing closer toward either side, then perhaps try to correct for it as best as possible within the allowable confines of the syllabus. If a particular student makes his or her concerns known to you, don’t merely brush them aside and tell them that they should have been more judicious in his or her course selection.
Despite what I perceive to be an expanding reputation for misplaced priorities among outside parties, students do care about more than just the final grade. The process of learning is important, too, and a classroom environment should work to foster that, regardless of who is sitting in it.
Students have diverse motivations for being in classes
In a utopian education landscape, grades would be considered merely a means to the greater end of learning. I don’t doubt that there are numerous students and faculty members who believe that is still the case. But it would be foolish to say that grades don’t matter at all when it’s such common knowledge that they carry incredible weight. Any remnants of doubt about that went out the window in June 2010, when the New York Times published the names of 10 law schools found to be inflating student grades because they “seem to view higher grades as one way to rescue their students from the tough economic climate.”
Because of the importance infused into the grading system, it naturally becomes the topic of conversation when discussing the professor-student dynamic. Complex and difficult questions sprout left and right. The entire matter seems to exist in terms of sliding scales and degrees, perspective dominating the entire exercise.
From the student position, the issue can be summed up as a matter of prioritization. There are absolutely students attending Temple who chose classes with a mindful eye on RateMyProfessor.com or a keen ear listening to friends and classmates, searching for professors with reputations as A factories. But there are plenty of others who legitimately are seeking intellectual betterment. To say that all students want to be graded generously or sternly is to commit a sweeping generalization, ignoring the classroom composition at Temple that consists of vastly different people with different expectations.
Likewise, professors have different expectations, and what makes a particular professor “good” or “bad” cannot be summed up by their grade distribution. What can and should be considered is the transparency with which a professor makes his or her grading intentions clear. Students want their intellectual guides to tell them right from the beginning what the expectations are so they can plan accordingly.
Some students do legitimately have full plates
At this point I seriously doubt there is anyone at any university in the U.S. that hasn’t heard a student yell, “Don’t they know that this isn’t my only class?” It’s become hackneyed, and it is so overly simplistic that it doesn’t deserve a serious place in this discussion.
No, students don’t deserve nor should expect sympathy concerning the quantity of work they must do. Asking for a reduction in the workload is not a fair request to make. But asking for flexibility on a case-by-case basis shouldn’t be.
Just as professors need to balance their responsibilities of teaching, mentoring on an individual level, researching and producing works relevant to their respective fields and volunteering their expertise elsewhere, students need to balance myriad obligations. The issue of workloads isn’t as simple as the number of classes. Students are often preparing to enter a highly competitive workforce, and therefore need to occupy themselves with pursuits like internships and student activities that can further their post-collegiate goals. There has been much talk about student expansion into surrounding neighborhoods, and for good reason. But one consequence of students living on or near campus is that they now see monthly rental and utility bills that need to be paid.
These time commitments add up, and they can do so quickly. For those students who have four papers all due the same day and are trying to conduct research during lunch breaks at work, an extension or a chance at a revision can make all the difference.
Some students, inevitably, would come forward with some story about their dog eating their flash drive or some variation of a classic excuse. Abuses are to be expected and accounted for as best as possible.
Everyone knows homework assignments and papers don’t exist in a vacuum. But sometimes it seems as though professors don’t really respect the quantity of clutter invading students’ lives. Applying discretionary leniency would alleviate this dilemma.
Zack Scott can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @ZackScott11.