We lead students to the fountain of knowledge.
Some will drink deeply, some will take a few swallows, and some will just sip.
An increasing number will, as at the dentist, merely rinse before spitting out
— an American college teacher, 1995 (2)
The roots of this essay lie in my noticing, half-a-dozen years ago, that my freshman-chemistry students were preparing less and less for the final examination. I circulated locally a succession of reports about it (3) and talked with other teachers, finding that they too had felt a deteriorating attitude on the part of students – not only less studying but also treating instructors as though they were supposed to provide students with learning and grades in the absence of effort on the students’ part. I wrote to Walter Deal when I saw his letter about this in Chemical & Engineering News (4), and sent the journal a follow-up (5). That brought me much mail. A preprint of this essay brought still more. The present article is based on that material and on various relevant items from magazines and newspapers that happened to come my way during those years and since; I have not sought to cover systematically the vast literature on students’ performance in college, grade inflation, and the like. The book, Generation X Goes to College (6), published after I had written my preprint, tells much the same story; as does J. E. Stone’s “Inflated Grades, Inflated Enrollment, and Inflated Budgets: An Analysis and Call for Review at the State Level” (7).
Here are my theses:
1. An increasing number of college students do not study seriously.
2. Their attitude is increasingly a “Gimme!” one: they expect good grades without working for them.
3. The students expect to be respected even as they offer their instructors little respect.
4. With the rarest exceptions, educational administrators and leading spokespeople have not acknowledged these circumstances.
5. Morale among teachers is low and getting lower, as they are caught between the rock of declining studiousness and the hard place of getting no support from their institutions if they try to maintain standards.
There are some necessary caveats that ought to be understood whenever one generalizes in so sweeping a fashion:
1. A general tendency is being described, which affects some students more than others and some hardly at all; thus:
2. I continue to encounter students whom it is a true pleasure to have in class.
3. Moreover, the failings that I draw attention to, which reflect the characteristics of a large and increasing proportion of students, are surely not the simple fault of those students. We are facing a new cultural phenomenon.
But those caveats make the problems no less real or worrisome. The first necessary step is to “raise consciousness”, to use a fashionable phrase: to bring to wide public realization the fact that college students in increasing numbers do not study in appropriate college fashion. Only when that comes to be widely enough recognized will we then be able to go further: by attempting to understand first, the priorities and values of the non-studying students and second, why this has come about; and finally to conjecture how to rescue education as a socially useful activity.
There is another reason for publishing this collection of experiences. I had been getting quite demoralized, especially since my ratings by students had fallen below 3 out of 4 for the first time in more than 3 decades of teaching, indeed by 1993 to less than 2.5. I found it difficult not to presume that it was my fault that the students were becoming less and less interested and were learning less and doing less well. Through the correspondence following my letter in Chemical & Engineering News, I have come to realize that there are many others around the country who also feel it is their fault that their students are working less; and who are encouraged in that belief by administrators. When a member of the physics faculty at George Mason University read my preprint, he realized that perhaps it was not, as they had thought, a problem unique to that university which has recently increased its enrollment very rapidly – earlier they had thought the speedy growth might have been responsible for the high proportion of students who seemed unready for college. It has finally saved my self-respect, to know that professors all across the country are having the same experience – including demoralization through not knowing that the problem lies in the culture, in the students, and not in the instructors. I think it is important to spread this awareness.
There’s nothing new in complaining that students aren’t as good as they used to be, and so it’s easy to dismiss such complaints. But I happened to use a grading scheme that delivered hard facts. In assigning course grades, during-the-semester quizzes and final-exam scores were differently weighted depending on which was higher; so I was constantly comparing the two. When I began this in 1986 (having returned to teaching freshman chemistry after 8 years as an administrator), I thought I might have to change the practice, because most of the students were “acing” the final – as of course they should have done, the questions on the final being on the same material and the same type of multiple-choice question as on the quizzes. But then I began to see a progressive decline in the number of students doing better on the final, and the number of students who failed the course increased in startling fashion (Table 1).
|Higher score on final||
|A-, B+, B||
|B-, C+, C||
|C-, D+, D, D-||
|At least C||
I offer this as indisputable evidence that students are now less willing or less able to study, to learn what quizzes have shown them they don’t yet know, to review the material systematically for the final examination at the end of the semester – what I had all my life thought was the commonly understood, taught, and practiced way of learning (8).
The drop in average grade from 1986-87 to later years may in part reflect our University’s change from quarters to semesters commencing in 1988 (students are required to learn about 50% more in the first semester than they had to in the first quarter). However, that switch would hardly influence relative performance on the final exam compared to quizzes during the term. Nor does it seem possible to ascribe to a lower quality of the entering students a change from better than 60% of a class improving on the final to only 30% doing so. Average SAT scores of entering freshmen were 1065 in 1994 as against 1101 in 1986, not a large drop. The average high-school rank declined from about 22nd to about 24th, again not a major change (but the proportion of students in the top 10% of their high-school class decreased almost steadily from 37% in 1986 to 28% in 1994 while those below the 30th percentile increased from 18% to 23%). Still, the change in performance in this class was much greater than any of those measures would lead one to expect.
Letter grades are inevitably somewhat subjective. I kept trying to find
excuses to make them higher, for I feel no more comfortable than other
instructors do with low grades and high percentages of failures, nor do
I enjoy low ratings by students and comments about that from my department
head. So I tried a number of things:
Many people have commented on poor class attendance. “80% of the reasons given by students as to why they did not attend class reflected spontaneous or short-term decisions based on energy level and interest rather than the professor’s ability”; “students who attended more classes were significantly more likely to have higher grade point averages … [yet] only 13% [of the students]… agreed … [that] ‘students who attend classes get better grades’” (12).
“[S]tudents often excused their lack of class attendance as a reaction to poor lecturers” (12). But in my freshman chemistry classes, attendance always declined after the first few weeks of the semester, it was always lower on Fridays than on Mondays or Wednesdays, and it was always lower at 2 p.m. than at 11 a.m. None of those variables is instructor-related. Other than giving a scheduled exam, the single most significant factor influencing attendance was the weather: on a sunny Fall Friday afternoon, I might have as few as 25 percent of the enrolled students present; more typically it would be between 60 and 75 percent (13).
By contrast, attendance in the Humanities classes that I teach runs at 80% or more. To me, both subjects are fascinating and interesting and I doubt that there is much if any difference in my expressed enthusiasm about “chemistry” and “science and society”. And in these Humanities classes, too, studying is not top priority: on the Thursday before the week-long Spring Break in 1996, attendance at both afternoon classes was under 50%. One student explained that a storm had been forecast and students wanted to make sure they got away before it arrived – it seemed obviously more sensible to this student (an excellent, highly interested one, by the way) to definitely miss a couple of days of class than perhaps a day or two of Spring Break.
It was also in a Humanities class that, toward the end of that Spring
Semester, one of the very best and most conscientious students in my class
sent me this e-mail:
That there has been cultural change, and that I’ve changed at least a little with the times, is demonstrated by the fact that I smiled to myself when I got that e-mail note. Indeed, I felt rather flattered that this bright young student felt comfortable enough with me, knew me well enough to believe that I would gladly allow her the day off in view of her excellent performance throughout the semester.
On the other hand, I don’t feel quite comfortable with adjusting like that to these cultural changes that I’m living through. I don’t really believe that it’s OK to skip a class in order to enjoy the sun. My dilemma reminds me of the time when one of my daughters was going to college. My wife gave me a doctor’s bill to pay – she told me it was for a required pre-college physical examination. But a little while later, I came to know that the bill had actually been for contraceptive pills: and I was bemused to find my reaction one of relief rather than horror. I was and remain glad that, within the prevailing culture, my daughter was being relatively sensible. But I regretted and continue to regret that the culture we live in has come to this.
In the freshman chemistry course, each year I would come to take particular
notice of a mere handful of interested students, no more than a few percent
of the class (though roughly an equal number would quietly get “A”s without
ever making personal contact with me). These noteworthy students were almost
never the average American eighteen-or-so-year-old, rather they were:
Whereupon a check of the records showed, as is typical in these cases, that K— had lied to her mother: she had been in class on only 1 of the 4 occasions when unannounced quizzes were given, and had gotten the question wrong on that occasion; she had not submitted a single question for extra credit during the semester; her quiz average – after dropping the lowest score – was 49% (on multiple-choice questions with 4 choices!) and her final exam not much better at 54%.
It isn’t only freshman chemistry, as I’ve already indicated. I’m disturbed that more and more frequently, a few students in my Humanities classes (which I’ve been teaching for a decade) fail to show up when I’m giving or distributing a quiz; more and more frequently, if they mention having missed class they just say they had to, they feel no obligation to give a reason (16); more and more frequently, they expect me to e-mail material to them or get it to them in some other way that makes it unnecessary for them to come to class. In Fall 1995, one student (who had not been to class for some time) e-mailed me: “Are you anywhere to be found, I have misplaced my copy of the quiz” (17). It isn’t all that long ago – though it does seem like another era altogether – that such an expression from a student would have seemed unpardonable impertinence. Nowadays we shrug: just another example of what the world has come to.
1. To get the grade I want in this course, I will have to
Still, it isn’t enough to know what you should be doing: you must actually do it as well. And since only 43% of these students were getting a “C” or better at mid-term, they were surely not doing it. I got rather specific information on that by setting essentially the same problems, about the “mole” concept ( ), on 5 of the 6 quizzes as well as on the final: on the first quiz, 49% answered correctly; on the second quiz, 56%; on the third, 70%; on the fourth, 55%; on the sixth and last, 72%; on the final exam, 75%. Perhaps I should have been satisfied with this improvement from about 50% to about 75%? But again, what about the other 25%?
The Department of Animal Sciences became disturbed by their students’ poor performance in my course. Starting in 1992, they mounted tutorial sessions in freshman chemistry. As a result, the Animal-Science students performed one full letter-grade better than the rest of the class: an average grade of 2.38 compared to 1.28 for the rest; only 9% failures as against 32% of the rest. Again in 1993, Animal-Science students had an average grade of 2.07 as against 1.17 for the rest, and 11% failures as against 36%. Yet before the Animal-Science faculty became involved, their students had performed at most a fifth of a letter-grade better than the rest, with average grades of 1.95, 1.69, 1.79 as against 1.67, 1.61, 1.62 in 1989-1991.
Were the Animal-Science faculty doing the teaching that I should have done? Hardly. Those tutorials were held only once every week or two and they were not mandatory. The faculty who arranged them believe that they simply served as a motivating device, making plain to the students that this course was relevant to their major and that they must take it seriously. That motivation is involved is also illustrated by the fact that 48% of the Animal-Science students, as against only 32% of the others, submitted questions for extra credit.
Overall, fewer than half the students availed themselves of extra credit
by submitting written questions. Twenty banal, trivial ones, or 10 reasonably
relevant ones, or 5 insightful or surprising or counter-intuitive ones
over the whole semester, could gain the maximum 5%. The average for those
submitting questions was only 1.5%. Each year fewer than 10 students took
the trouble to submit enough questions to gain the maximum credit – and
those who did were almost invariably the students who would have received
“A”s anyway. Each year several students had final scores above 100%.
In 1993, 75% of the students said they had never looked at a book I had placed on reserve for them, which contained (as I had told them) excellent summaries and solved example-problems (I had distributed a list of which were directly relevant to the course).
Our Chemistry Department staffed a “Resource Room” open on the order of 40 hours a week, with study material and graduate assistants available to help students without advance notice. Those students who used the facility were enthusiastic about it – but they represented fewer than 15% of the freshman-chemistry enrollment (20).
My letter about “Students’ bad attitudes” (5) brought more immediate and passionate fan mail than anything I’ve published (which includes [well-received] books (21), articles, essays, and an anti-PC newsletter(21)). I had been stimulated to write by the earlier letter (4) from Walter Deal of the University of California at Riverside who had observed that “the fraction of students with very low scores [less than one-third of the score of the top 1%] tripled from 1981 to 1986, and almost tripled again from 1986 to 1994 … [The] score for a student in the 75th percentile of the 1994 class would have been barely over the average for 1986”.
Deal had observed that the distribution of scores had shifted to a progressively larger hump at low scores
even though there had been no apparent drop in SAT scores or high-school grades nor a change in the course, and the absolute performance of the very top students had remained as good as ever. That is entirely consistent with my data showing the top 5-10% of students remaining as good as ever but the average grade decreasing and the grade distribution taking on a bi-modal character. Another chemistry teacher, at South Dakota School of Mines and Technology, has also independently seen (24) that “students rarely do better on the final than they have done during the semester … even though the questions are similar” (Table 2):
|First Hour Exam||
|Second Hour Exam||
|Third Hour Exam||
Those data, like mine, cannot be explained by low-quality students: “the average ACT scores of our students are higher than the national average …[But] over the last 5 years or so of the 27 years I have been teaching general chemistry … my class average in the first semester of the two-semester sequence that I teach (one year of HS chem and one year of algebra as a prerequisite) has fallen from slightly above 2.0 (about 2.1) to less than 2.0 and ranging from 1.62 to 1.98 since fall of 1989.… I have a good reputation as a teacher, as reflected in student evaluations and a few scattered awards over the years, and I do tell students in no uncertain terms what it is I expect them to be able to do (I even put this in writing by handing out detailed lists of objectives). But the averages have been slipping” (25).
The failure of students to learn what they have missed on quizzes, and
to review material for final exams, may be related to other lackadaisical
behavior like the following:
One of my colleagues taught freshman chemistry in 1993 after having taught only upper-level classes for a number of years. He was stunned when his class averaged only 51% on the first exam. He allowed them to re-do it, open-book, giving them 48 hours for it: the average improved, but only to 70%; and 30 of the 180 students did not even bother to re-do it (24).
In an 8 a.m. junior-level Chemistry class, the 28 (out of 48) students seated at 8 a.m. had an average of 86% after two tests. The other 20, who arrived 2-10 minutes late, had an average of 64%; “the majority of unsuccessful college students are unsuccessful because of a lack of discipline, maturity, dedication and responsibility, and not because they work real hard but just can’t get it” (26).
“The anonymous note left under my door … was like a slap in the face: ‘How can you justify giving 13 A’s in a class with over 200 people. You are just an old [expletive deleted].… Burn in hell.’ At the bottom … was a drawing of a hand in an obscene gesture.… its author felt entitled to an A” (27). This sort of thing is not restricted to chemistry or the “hard” sciences: that episode was recounted by a sociologist.
“As one young man graciously explained to me, he had no desire to take my course but had enrolled in it merely to fulfill a requirement that he resented. His job schedule made it impossible for him to attend at least 30 percent of my class sessions, and he wouldn’t have time to do much reading. Nevertheless, he wanted a good grade. Another student consulted me after the first exam, upset because she had not studied and had earned only 14 points out of a possible 100. I told her that, if she studied hard and attended class more regularly, she could do well enough on the remaining tests to pass the course. This encouragement did not satisfy her. What she wanted was an assurance that she would receive at least a B” (28).
A student in a history course at Harvard “told … [the instructor] that
he needed a better grade … because he needed to get into medical school.
‘I may not be very good at history,’ he said, ‘but I’m going to be a very
good doctor, and I really reject the idea that you have the right to keep
me out of medical school’.… Students are more likely to contest grades
now. For many instructors, grading is the most distasteful thing they do.
Often students help to make it unpleasant” (29).
On “course-evaluation questionnaires … 72 per cent of the students say they deserve an above-average grade (i.e., an A or B), only 44 per cent anticipate getting such a grade, and, finally, only 34 per cent actually get [one].… Students whine, cry, damn me to my superiors as an elitist swine, and demand I be fired.… The cunning among us never have a problem, and our profession is fast proving to have no standards” (30).
One of my colleagues teaching freshman chemistry continued mounting
help sessions long after I had stopped. He surveyed the class after offering
16 of these poorly attended sessions. Only 1% had attended more than 11
of the 16, and 46% had attended none of them. Other questions revealed
that the students on the whole understood the positive correlation between
attending class and getting a good grade, and that instructors who forced
their students to study hard were doing them a favor – but they did not
(by more than a 2 to 1 margin) want such stimulus as unannounced quizzes.
On the whole, in other words, students know what is good for them, but
they don’t actually want it (31).
In an optional help session in a large classroom, my colleague was working a problem and asked the class, “Now, how would we do that?” A voice from the back responded, “Who gives a s_ _t?” (38)
“I’ve been teaching chemistry at a major university for more than 25 years, and I feel burned out.… [F]ewer and fewer students know what it means to be curious … and … this prevents them from accepting the inconvenience associated with learning. Fewer and fewer are willing to stick with a research project when things do not work out the first time …. Why do they spend more time telling me how important it is that they pass this course than they do studying the material and working problems?” (33).
“I am a professional chemist who just completed my undergraduate degree over a period of 23 years and 4 universities. (Work and life got in the way.) I … speak from experience in Big Ten schools and MAC schools.… [I]n 1972 … my classmates had much higher exam scores and the competition was tough. Over time I have been disappointed in the lack of interest by my fellow students. And I have indeed noticed a lack of education from their high schools.…students are undisciplined, ill mannered and apathetic” (34).
Another “older-than-average” student thought “the professor was an excellent lecturer and you could have written a textbook from his notes … He did a fine job. But if you listened to the ‘regular’ students … you would have thought he was terrible. This seems to equate to ‘I’m not getting an “A” with no work’. In the … lab … I was the only one keeping a lab notebook in a bound book. One other (oriental) student kept a lab notebook on a steno pad. None of the other 20 students kept notes on anything except loose-leaf paper … No one seemed to know how to label beakers and test tubes. No one knew to turn on the fume hood when they were using solvents. I thought this reflected very badly on the chemistry department because all these third-year students had taken two years of chemistry” (35). It seems that “taking” a course in these grade-inflated days guarantees no learning of what the course is about. (It cannot help, of course, when a Nobel-Prize winner lauds an associate who kept notes on odd scraps of paper: “Baltimore testified that Imanishi-Kari kept her raw data … scattered in folders and drawers. ‘Some were yellowing on her window sill’. But her record keeping met the standards of the mid-1980s, he claimed”; “notes were scribbled on paper towels and other random bits of paper …. From this chaos … [she] could reliably summon data on specific experiments. ‘It was a rare talent,’ he said” (36).)
“For several semesters, H— and M— had been … moaning about the students’ increasingly sullen and non-participatory attitudes. I … figured they … were just doing the standard grousing about students.… Then I taught the class … after several years of not having it. [expletive deleted], were they dyspeptic and whiney. There was a qualitative difference from 2-4 years before that.… [T]here seems to be the pervasive attitude that if a student fails or does poorly, then it’s somehow the instructor’s fault” (37).
“I too have had problems with students’ bad attitudes, so much so that I am taking partial early retirement” (38). “95% of the students would not be taking the course were it not required …. They don’t want to be there. … they are taking bad medicine.… they faithfully notify me that if they flunk my course, they will not be able to graduate, they will miss out on their superior job opportunity, and I will have scarred them for life.… This semester’s class includes … two students who are learning disabled so that I am obliged to give them extra time and a distraction-free environment for taking tests …, an Oriental female who claims to be ‘sensitive to cold weather’ so that she often cannot come to class, and a female student who missed several of the early classes because she and her roommate were being ‘stalked’ by her roommate’s former boyfriend.… Almost all … bring seemingly legitimate excuses for missing class… scholastics …have a low priority … They study … only if they have nothing else to do, and only before exams. Seemingly, I am the one who must accommodate to them, to their need to be gone from campus when quizzes and exams are scheduled.… [M]any students come to class anyway when they have nothing better to do, perhaps hopeful that while they nap or read a newspaper, the answer to a test question will somehow sink in by osmosis … [S]ome students strike up a conversation as though my classroom is their favorite spot to visit with their friends. Some even bring their children …. I once inadvertently administered a student the same quiz I had given him the previous week, but I needn’t have worried …. He never noticed that it was the same, and he made exactly the same grade he’d made the week before.… Once an older female student simply refused to turn in her paper …. When I pressed for it … she … glared at me and deliberately tore the quiz down the middle.… When I asked again for it, saying I would tape it together, she slowly and calmly tore it to small bits” (39).
“My last five years of thirty years of teaching college chemistry were at a small, private college in the midwest. The first-year students’ quality decreased noticeably each of the last four years. I was very happy to be able to retire in 1987” (40). (This correspondent also referred to one of my own favorite books about the disaster in our schools: The Graves of Academe by Richard Mitchell, published by Little, Brown in 1981.)
“I just retired from Marquette … after 30 years of teaching general and physical chemistry: teaching had become unrewarding … emotionally.… [S]leeping in my classes was common and attendance was under 50% except before tests. Some students talked and some read newspapers during lectures” (41). “As a retired Sociology teacher at … Southern Connecticut State University, I couldn’t agree with you more. Every year I taught I found my students progressively more ignorant, inattentive, inarticulate, etc. … I recommend … highly: Jane M. Healy’s Endangered Minds: Why Children Don’t Think and What We Can Do About It” (42).
“I have been teaching general chemistry for science majors for almost forty years at a SUNY Community College and have observed a gradual lowering of ‘drive’ to do well re homework and exams. There are always the ‘better’ students (roughly the upper third) who have drive and a good attitude, most of the time” (43).
“Marion Miles at NC State … agreed with you and had come to similar
“I (and several others) read your letter re: student attitudes with great interest. Things don’t seem to be a whole lot different here [University of Guelph, Canada] …. There is a distinct lack of discipline (aka doing homework) … and very poor high school preparation” (45).
“I retired in June of 1993, after 30 years of (mostly) teaching chemistry. It is no surprise to me that you find student achievement and attitudes diminishing. At ChemEd meetings, this was always noted by teachers across the country. Causes for this abound …: 1. Television viewing … [In] 3rd grade essays on … ‘What I do at home after school’, 24/24 students wrote that they turned on TV. One girl who served … on a committee to select a new teacher always asked ‘What are you going to do to keep me interested?’” (46). “At the start of the 1995-96 academic year, some of my colleagues informed me that peer counseling … had taken on a new dimension. If a student feels ‘traumatized’ by classwork, he may leave class (without the instructor’s approval), and go to peer counseling where they will console the poor student! I am NOT making this up” (47).
“Growing student apathy … forced me out of education after 11 years of teaching high school chemistry and physical science” (48);
“similar experiences … [in] three years at Texas A&M University
and one summer at Tulane” (49);
“there has been a remarkable drop-off in the numbers of students who come in seeking help.… out of 187 students … only two came in for help the entire semester” (24).
“My attendance half-way through the quarter has declined from about >90% to about 65% in the last 6-7 years; other lecturers who don’t do as many demonstrations or tell as many jokes have gone from 75% to less than 50%” (50).
According to a student: “since the answer sheets are posted in the hallway a week later, it is a lot to assume that the student will take the time to compare his answers to those on the answer sheet and to detect (and learn from) mistakes” (51).
The Central Institutional Research program of the Higher Education Research
Institute at UCLA has since 1966 surveyed freshman. Here are some items
from 1991 or 1992 (52):
The “real problem: students who won’t study” (54).
“Duke [University] has embarked on an ambitious effort to invigorate intellectual life on the campus … [in the face of] ‘the prevailing cloud of indifference, of frequent hostility, to a thoughtful life’ … But … some students printed up T-shirts reading, ‘You can lead me to college, but you can’t make me think.’” (55)
“My 28th year of college teaching is drawing to a close. Never before have my classes been so unpleasant … unprecedented numbers [of students] rarely come to class.… they have not read the material and have scant interest in learning it.… As I talked to other faculty … I was … disheartened to discover that the pattern was very common.… A friend of mine had zero attendance at a class for the first time in a third of a century of teaching (15 students on the roll).… Many of our students, perhaps as many as 30 percent or 40 percent, are basically all right, though perhaps somewhat depressed and inhibited by contact with their peers …. But a majority of students is more or less disaffected and an alarming number (10 percent? 15 percent?) seem positively alienated.… students are defective both in civility and rationality.… lack of concern for others [is] shown in classroom misbehavior and even occasional active surliness.” That’s from a colleague who teaches philosophy (56).
Barry G. Schuler, a “former community-college president, … was ready to quit higher education because of litigation and lackadaisical students.… ‘Discipline is a part of the outside world. It’s important everywhere – except in most schools’” (57).
“The problem is exacerbated by parents … an increasing number … [complain when] their child is unhappy because of a grade or a roommate.… A student might go to every office from the state ombudman’s office to the Governor’s office to try to get a decision changed”; “college officials grope for … ways to make students more responsible, … accountable for their actions, and how to teach them basic moral values, like civility and honesty” (58).
I started college in 1982, and left after completing my second semester because I did not feel … ready for college. I returned … two years ago [i.e. in 1994], and was astounded to find the attitudes of the students very much changed …. I have witnessed the decline in performance you describe from the other side of the lectern, and I assure you, it is no less disheartening from this perspective.… In a recent science course … I could ‘ace’ the exam by using the study guide with the lecture notes, textbook, and lab notebook. Many of my classmates, however, routinely complained the tests were too hard.… [For] a research paper … [s]everal students were furious … that … [the instructor] would be grading for grammar and spelling, as well as content.
[In] … a Communications course … the instructor has the students complete a practice test immediately before taking an actual test. I was quite surprised to find that some of my classmates were making as low as 60% on the actual test.…
One of the students was complaining … that her college algebra instructor was a horrible teacher. He reportedly refused to answer questions or otherwise help students succeed…. I asked her if she had made an appointment to speak to the instructor outside class. She had not. I asked if she had visited the tutoring center (which is free of charge), or checked out the videotapes available in the library (also free), or picked up a copy of the Cliff’s Review for Algebra. She had done none of these things, and told me that she saw no reason she should have to spend so much of her time working on a stupid class that she didn’t want to take anyway.…
The general apathy of many of my fellow students troubles me: they appear
afflicted with a profound lack of interest in their own future. I realize
that some instructors aren’t good teachers, but my own experiences lead
me to believe that more often, it is the student who is to blame for poor
progress. (59) On a Friday, the instructor A. W. (60) told the class to
learn, into what three sections Dickens’ novel Hard Times was divided.
The quiz on Monday contained a question to that effect. One student complained
this was unfair, that she had carefully read the book, took copious notes,
knew all the characters, but didn’t know the three sections. Hadn’t she
heard professor A. W. talk about it on Friday and tell them to learn it?
Yes, she had, but he hadn’t said it would be on the quiz…
Professor A. W. offered help sessions from 8 to 10 p.m. every Wednesday night, to classes totaling 80 students. One student came 5 times, the maximum number who came to any session was three, and on 7 of the 14 nights no one came.
A. W. also offered extra credit for letters published in the student newspaper: one such letter earned an automatic “A” for one of the required essays, about 20% of the total grade for the semester. Not one out of 60 students in the composition course took advantage of this.
In 1985 … I successfully taught this very course, at a higher level
and at a faster pace, to a “trailer section”…. My examinations now are
shorter and simpler … and yet the students perform unsatisfactorily.… In
1985, the best students had difficulty with applications of quadratic equations,
with antilogarithms, and with multistep syntheses of compounds; the worst
ones had trouble with exponential numbers. Now, the best students struggle
with linear equations, logarithms, and addition of two chemical equations;
the worst ones have difficulty with fractions and negative numbers.
About one-fourth of the students attended the review session the night before the examination…
Before the second examination … Only about 20 students (out of ca. 150) attended the help session…
I gave a supplemental examination…. There were four problems … [and] students were to choose only two problems and to work them out over two days … using any books and notes… there were many excellent and very good answers, but there also were many wrong and nonsensical answers. The mean score of those who turned in the answers was 61%; if those who did not take the supplemental examination were included, the mean score would be slightly above 50%. (61)
From a colleague who taught German: Student K.C. had 8 absences from
class in the first 9 weeks of the term; missed altogether the 12th and
13th weeks and 2/3 of the 14th, and then sent her instructor this e-mail:
“My short teaching career began in 1990 … I have no reference point from which to judge whether there has been as dramatic a change as you argue. I can attest to the fact, however, that the majority of the students … fall into the familiar pattern you lay out: generally uninterested in actual learning, concerned to do the least amount of work possible, thinking themselves entitled to special attention, etc. … I have taught at … Joliet Junior College …; The College of St. Francis; the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee; and the University of Chicago. At only the last would I say that a good portion of my students were sincerely interested in learning, in mastering the material” (63).
A casual inquiry to faculty members at Cornell met the response that what I had observed with undergraduates, they (64) had not. On the other hand, the graduate students (in one of the hard sciences) were less dedicated and hard-working than they used to be (65).
In the U.S., concerning math and science achievement, “students in the highest performing states – Iowa, North Dakota, Minnesota, Maine, and New Hampshire – performed at the same level as students in the top-performing countries – Taiwan, South Korea, the former Soviet Union, and Switzerland… [whereas] the students in the lowest performing states – Alabama, Louisiana, and Mississippi and the District of Columbia – performed at or below the same level of students in the lowest performing country – Jordan” (66).
A former professor, department head, and dean, who in all those roles was one of the most widely beloved people I’ve ever encountered, in his last two decades before retiring had several teaching stints between administrative duties. In the early 1990s, his last stint, he had found the students – in freshman biology – appallingly rude as well as unwilling to work (67). A retired engineering professor told me that his colleagues who are still teaching insist that class attendance is noticeably lower than a few years or a decade ago (68).
From former journalism professor and dean of journalism at several colleges, Gordon Sabine (69): “trying to teach Journalism history to upperclass students…. By the end of the second week, a contingent of three coeds had visited the department chair to complain: ‘We took this course because we knew it was a Mickey Mouse, and now this new guy is giving us assignments!’ … Worst teaching experience I’d ever had.… I’m pleased I’m not teaching now”.
From an undergraduate in a humanities sophomore-level course: “Most kids nowadays just go through the motions of getting a college education.… [and] colleges and universities go through the motions of teaching students” (70).
From “an elementary school teacher … in the W. Mass Berkshires (hardly a troubled area). … She agrees with you about the students’ lack of study habits.… ‘a significant portion of my 5th graders have such a poor attitude about wanting to do well in school. Many of my assignments have to include an added consequence if not completed. When I return graded projects and give a chance to resubmit for more points, the students willing to put in the effort are few and far between’” (71).
“Class is a low priority. Students expect faculty to give them everything.…
[In] … the Fall 1995 Freshman Class … 20% … scored at the eighth (8th) grade level or below in reading, and 19% scored at the seventh (7th) grade level or below in mathematics (although they had completed three years or more of high school mathematics instruction)” (72).
The most detailed account I have come upon, of how demoralizing the attempt to teach college nowadays can be, is by a successful journalist who turned – briefly! – to college teaching (6). He “discovered that nobody in the system had much of a stake in shoring up educational standards. Indeed, … just the opposite was the case”; “many teachers saw an increasing number of students as practically unteachable”; students who “harbored a strong sense of being entitled to easy success and good grades, even though they were often unwilling to work to achieve them. And … quick to put the entire blame for failure on the shoulders of their teachers”. Which fortunate teacher has not had the following experience:
Scattered mostly in the back and far side rows were young males with professional sports baseball caps, often worn backwards. Completing the uniform … was usually a pair of baggy shorts, a team T-shirt, and an ample attitude. Slumped in their chairs, they stared at me with looks of disdain and boredom, as if to say, ‘Who in the hell cares where you worked, or what your experience is, or what you know? Say something to amuse me.’
I would encounter this look and The Attitude often. It was a look of
I [had] … made certain assumptions about college and college students … [that] they would read the assigned books, take notes when I lectured, and show up for class. I expected students to be adults and that I could therefore treat them as adults. I now realize just how naive I was.…
A lot of the students had the habit of always asking the same questions … that should have been resolved … by … just reading the course syllabus.… two or three students, apparently in the habit of high school, would invariably ask me, ‘Do you have a stapler?’… a colleague … said, ‘I had a student come up to me once and ask me for a Kleenex.’
… some students would read newspapers [in class] … some students would pair up … and maintain their own little chatty powwows …. When I would interrupt them and ask them to pay attention, they’d give me these looks like I was the rude one …. Quite often … a student … would simply get up and leave in the middle of the class …
a student … [came] to class one day … to watch TV. He set up one of
those tiny portable TV sets on his desk and started watching it during
‘Do we have to read the text? Why are the chapters so long?’
‘I won’t be in class for three days this week and two days the next week; will I miss anything important?’…
‘Upon awakening, a loudly slumbering student who was asked if he was tired replied, “My coach says I have to be in class every day, but he didn’t say I had to be awake the whole time”’ (respectively pp. x, xi, xiii, 9 13, 14, 16, 78 in 6).
The distinguished organic chemist Ernest Eliel in 1975 won an award
“mainly for classroom teaching at the undergraduate level, and I must remark
sadly that I doubt I could win such an award today, 14 years later. Although
I still teach undergraduate courses regularly, I enjoy them less. I find
in today’s students a lack of ability to reason, to express themselves
in writing, and to make good use of supplemental written material …. [T]his
problem will never be resolved unless we turn an entirely new leaf in our
junior high and high school education, at which levels English, history,
geography, foreign language, and a good dose of mathematics (including
logical thinking) must be taught!” (73)
At Rice University, students can satisfy their science requirement by taking 4 semesters of a standard introductory science or a special 2-semester Natural Science course. “As soon as you get into anything requiring quantitative reasoning, students believe, the fun is out the door.… [Some] students … don’t really want to take the course, … see no immediate value in the course, or … hope to pass with minimal commitment. Nevertheless, in evaluating the course, roughly half are at least grudgingly satisfied” (74). Most administrators, though, take quite a dim view of course evaluations showing only about half the class only grudgingly satisfied (see below, Killing the Messenger).
The declining student performance I had noted was accompanied by a decline
in my rating by the students (75): from between 3 and 3.2 out of 4 in 1986
to below 3 and finally to about 2.2 or 2.3 by 1994. I am far from charismatic,
but I am systematic and conscientious. In earlier days at the University
of Kentucky, my rating had gone from around 3 in 1966 to between 3.5 and
3.7 by 1977. So now I worried that perhaps my age was showing: in 1990,
my rating by students had dropped below 3 for the first time in 30 years
(76). But a young, very lively and enthusiastic instructor who taught the
same students in the second semester of the same course, received from
them even lower ratings than I had received (77). I tried to advise him
to do what I try without great success to do: take pleasure from the praise
and ignore the unfair bitching by the lazy disappointed ones (78).
In 1991 I added to the course-rating form a question asking for a comparative rating with other instructors: compared to other professors I was rated slightly above average at 2.2, even though on the “absolute” scale I was rated only 2.6/4!
The caution with which student judgment ought to be treated is illustrated in many ways, for instance by the student who once wrote that the text was much better than the previous year (obviously he had flunked the previous year); in point of fact, the textbook was merely a new edition with changed title and color treatment: most of the figures and tables were unchanged, as was the written text for 90% of the material covered. Yet many administrators and theorists of education ignore the fallibilities and misleading aspects of teaching evaluations (79), to the extent of pandering to student requests that evaluations of teachers be made public (80). Those of us who were present when these evaluations first came into general use in the late 1960s and early 1970s recall, of course, that it was far from being envisaged that they would be publicly accessible; they were sold to us then as private information for instructors to improve their teaching and we were assured that they would not be used in considerations of promotion, tenure, or salary.
Here are the comments of a hugely respected teacher (81):
Formalizing the student evaluation of teachers (which I argued against when it first started in the sixties …) has had some unfortunate consequences, such as grade inflation … [and] contributed to the lack of respect shown by some students for their teachers. They feel empowered by the fact that the administration of the university asks their opinion …. I remember having students … tell me that professor so and so had been ‘put on probation’ because of low student evaluations.…
When immature or academically deficient students take note of society’s redress of the legitimate grievances of oppressed minorities, they might be emboldened to demand redress of illegitimate and imagined ones.
And from Oscar Handlin, Carl M. Loeb Professor Emeritus at Harvard (82):
Dependence upon the ratings produces the same effect in a teacher as in an anchorman – anxiety. For the young performers the strain is bad enough; they must keep an eye fixed upon enrollment figures to preserve their jobs. For older teachers … the need for vigilance is fully as serious; the distinguished scholar with an international reputation, who for years lectured to a class of two hundred, suddenly finds his audience dwindle to fifteen as a result of a snide, ill-informed, comment on a tip sheet. Those unwilling to play to the crowd all too often surrender to disgust or cynicism and give up as they serve out the years to retirement. Or worse still, they … inflate their grades. They lighten their reading assignments.…Student quality drifted down, perhaps not in terms of scores or self-esteem, but certainly in terms of willingness to follow a sustained line of thought or ability to venture beyond high-school slogans. I could teach but no longer learn.
Richard McKenzie (83) found “a negative relationship between student ratings and improvement in the course”, as had four earlier studies he cites (84). “If two professors are equal in every other respect … the professor with the highest grading structure … will tend to receive the highest student ratings. [And] … if two professors are distinctly different in the eyes of the students, … the instructor who would have otherwise had the lower rating, can (partially) offset the differential by easing up in his grading practices” (85).
Journalist Peter Sacks cites student evaluations he received that will sound familiar to the vast majority of professors: a few grateful comments from students who have learned through being challenged, and an overwhelming number complaining about hard grading and the instructor not making the class interesting or exciting enough (86).
Surely it is obvious that the evaluation of teachers by their students fuels the inappropriate attitudes that more and more students display, and makes grade-inflation virtually inevitable. Imagine what would happen to the Army if raw recruits could so evaluate anonymously their drill instructors. Imagine what would happen to seminary training in Christian, Buddhist or any other religion, if the rankest novices were empowered to evaluate their trainers.
What is the purpose of these ratings? What benefit can they bring to counteract the demoralizing effect on instructors? It must be the rare instructor of large classes who does not receive, among a few hundred responses, a few really spiteful ones. It is easy for outsiders to say, “Just ignore the obviously biased, ungrounded complaints”; but it is hard for dedicated people, often with perfectionist tendencies, to do that. Several times I have suggested that such comments be purged before the evaluations are handed back to the instructor, but of course then one would still worry about the influence on the administrators of those comments. Outside academe, common sense is less rare. I took a week-long bus tour of Ireland some years ago. When the trip was over, our tour guide gave us evaluation forms to mail in. I asked her whether those were later shared with the guides, and she said, “Yes. But after my first year, I stopped reading them. If you get even one nasty comment, it tends to jaundice you for the next group of tourists.” Just so do the anonymous student ratings jaundice the faculty, year after year, making it progressively more difficult not to treat their students as potential complainers and nuisances.
The hypocrisy of administrators who defend student evaluations is amply demonstrated by the fact that the very same administrators resist being similarly evaluated by their own faculty. They insist nevertheless that professors be evaluated “by the very students who might have a hard time getting out of bed to go to class, or trouble distinguishing a comma from a semi-colon in written English” (87). Isn’t it really extraordinary that we invite students, who have never learned in school to respect learning or teachers, in college beginning with the first semester to evaluate their professors, anonymously so that they need take absolutely no responsibility for what they say and can’t be held accountable for it?
Few people use grading schemes like the one that opened my eyes to how student performance has declined. Most instructors “curve” their grades to the same class-average norm each year. I looked at the average grades in all courses at our university (openly available on-line) after a University Committee was established to consider the problem of “killer” (88) courses: in only a few lower-level mathematics and chemistry sections was the average grade appreciably less than 2, and many were so close to 2.00 as to indicate norming to that figure. Such norming and curving will, self-evidently, conceal the trends I observed.
I am mildly curious as to when and why this “curving” and “norming” started. Other than in education, is there any activity in our culture that tries so hard to mask poor performance, to assert that actual performance doesn’t matter, to bolster the self-esteem of non-performers? Would we not laugh out of court any such attempts in football, baseball, basketball? Would we dream of awarding trophies in sport for claimed effort by contrast to actual result? Would we put on coaches the onus of making their players interested in playing? Are players invited to comment anonymously on the performance of their coaches, to rank them as to knowledge of their subject, fairness, reasonableness of expectations, and so on?
At Harvard, “considering one particular student for honors, … [a] professor admitted that she had given him ‘only’ a B+, but added that she didn’t think that should prevent him from getting a summa. When pressed, she admitted that she had awarded him such a ‘low grade’ because he had failed to hand in a term paper – the only written work that she had required of students in the course. In other words, this student had ‘earned’ a B+, Harvard’s third-highest grade, for class participation.… [W]e gave (and I use that verb deliberately) the 26 students 7 summas, 18 magnas, and a cum. [see Table 3]… [A] few of my colleagues insist that the precipitous drop in the quality of the students has forced them to abandon standards altogether.… I find it amusing to ponder the possibility that we can attribute the rise in grade-point averages to the decline of the quality of the student body” (89).
|Summa cum laude||
|Magna cum laude or Magna with Highest Honors||
|Cum Laude or Cum Laude in General Studies||
At the University of Michigan, “‘Their approach seems to be working. In a class of nearly 1,000 students, nearly 75 percent earned an A or B’.…[So] I’ve decided to give everyone in my course an A. I’ll be happier, the students will be happier, and my university will be recognized for another innovative contribution to science education. Can’t we find a more reliable measure of accomplishment than grade inflation? … Did the students learn anything?” (90).
“I have found, from my experience, that it is possible to pass … a college level course … and gain absolutely nothing from it” – graduating senior in Engineering, Spring 1996 (91).
At Harvard, the average grade rose from 2.85 (midway between B- & B) in 1966 to 3.36 (>B+) in 1990-91. The rapid rise in the late 1960s had leveled out and even retreated a bit by the end of the 1970s, but from 1980 on there has been a steady rise again (29) – see Table 4 and Figure 3.
“Twenty-five years ago at Harvard, the average grades in all … academic divisions … hovered between B and B-minus. Now, humanities majors have average GPA’s between A minus and B-plus and natural-science majors average between B-plus and B, with social-science majors somewhere in between.… [At the] University of Washington … 70 percent of the grades … were A’s or B’s (up from 60 per cent in 1983).… [W]hen you try to coast through a class, doing the minimum amount of work possible … ‘In engineering, you’re likely to get a C … [but in] the liberal arts, an A is not out of the question’” ( ). At “Rutgers 43 years ago, A’s constituted 13% of the grades …, B’s 29%, C’s 34%, D’s 12%, and F’s 6%. In 1971 about a quarter of the Rutgers grades were A’s and about a third were B’s. By 1990-91, A’s and B’s were two-thirds of all grades.… About 90% of the grades at Stanford and 73% at Harvard are A’s and B’s. Stanford, Brown and Oberlin abolished the F, and Brown and Oberlin abolished the D for good measure” (27).
How did all this come about?
Garry Trudeau’s comic strip, “Doonesbury”, reported very accurately on grade inflation for several months from about December 1993: the student who “says he’s been ‘stigmatized’ by his low grade, which perpetuates a vicious ‘stereotype’ of his culture … the ‘Greco-American Athletic Community’”; law suits filed on account of low grades; administrators “reasoning” with faculty about the need to attract customers; the professor who “thought it was still possible to assign a grade based on performance and merit” (9 January 1994). But how can one satirize these circumstances? Imagine what an extraterrestrial intelligence would think of humankind, were it to hear the chair of the biology department at Stanford University say in all apparent seriousness, a few years ago, that there’s a growing sentiment that “grades ought to be an honest reflection of student accomplishment” (93)? Where, when, and why had that stopped being taken for granted?
Does grade inflation matter? “The dean of admissions at a top-six law school says that his office ignores cum laude and magna cum laude honors from Harvard since they are so ubiquitous” (29). In a nutshell, “By rewarding mediocrity we discourage excellence.… [W]e have to get rid of letter grades and replace them with something equally simple but with less baggage, such as the rating system now used by a few institutions: ‘excellent,’ ‘very good,’ ‘good,’ ‘pass,’ and ‘fail.’ In theory, these words correspond with A, B, C, D, and F; in practice, we could start out afresh, using ‘good’ as the average grade” (89).
Illustrating the “integrity crisis” in which our society finds itself are “teachers who inflate grades to avoid hassles” (94). “Mr. Carter recalls giving a commencement address in which he said that he would talk about integrity, whereupon the audience broke into applause. ‘Just because they had heard the word integrity – that’s how starved for it they were’” (95).
Colleges of education … don’t teach how to handle a 15-year-old with
a gun. This must change, educators say, to fight a new level of violence
in schools …
one in every seven teachers … had been threatened or attacked by a student [in 1994], … up from one in 10 in 1991. (96)
“If you think discipline is difficult in a classroom … you ought to
ride a [school] bus …. [There was a] recent hijacking of a bus in Roanoke
by a knife-wielding teen-ager…. ‘Children talk back more .… They fight
more. They don’t show as much respect as they used to’” (97).
So-called educators are not willing to say plainly that schools are
for education and that education is good for children; for example, they
suggest that middle schools begin to participate in competitive inter-school
sports as a way of lowering the drop-out rate (98)!
In “the early 1990s, only one U.S. professor in five judged undergraduate
students to be ‘adequately prepared in written and oral communication skills’…
The number of first-time freshmen … equals approximately 90 percent of the previous spring’s high-school diplomas – and nearly twice the number of high-school graduates who passed through the academic – or college prep – track.
[In the] California State University system … Three-fifths of entering students now fail one or both of the university’s tests [in college-level math and English], even though the system requires four years of high-school English and three years of math for admission” (99).
The present “generation of students … lacks the attention spans, social skills, and study habits needed for college work. According to a 1991 survey … roughly 692 of 1,064 institutions offered college credit to freshmen for orientation courses [in] … such basic topics as study skills, ‘learning styles,’ time management” (100). “Spending on college remedial programs in Texas has nearly quadrupled over the past eight years … to $153-million … from $39-million in 1988-89” (101).
The “situation well known to high school teachers for the past decade is now evident in our universities” (102).
“When teachers in an Albuquerque, N.M., middle school tried to establish an honor society for students with grade-point averages higher than 3.5, they found that two-thirds of the students qualified – about half of them enrolled in a special education program” (103 ).
“A short examination on ‘math skills’ was given to … students in the first semester of general chemistry (one year of HS chem and algebra are prerequisites).…[of 110 students] 27% did NOT answer … correctly: Solve for c: a = b/c.… Less than 50% answered … correctly: ‘a jar weighs “y” grams which is 10 grams more than the weight of its lid. Express the weight of the jar and lid together’. (Both of these questions were in a multiple-choice format)” (104).
Of my freshman chemistry students in 1991, 96% had had at least a year of chemistry in high school and 84% had had more than that; still, 18% failed, and 24% would have had I not “curved” more than in 1990. Increasingly I was asked questions about things students really ought to know:
One of the most important things for students to learn in high school and bring to college is the ability to study, which includes the self-discipline to set aside the appropriate number of hours. As shown by the case of the Animal-Science students in my class (above), even a modicum of prodding can raise the average student’s performance by a letter grade. My 1991 survey revealed that 45% of the students believed that high school had not prepared them adequately for college-level study (107).
Nationwide, SAT scores of the middle and top students have declined substantially over the last two or three decades. In a 1989 poll, 75% of college professors found undergraduates ‘seriously underprepared in basic skills’ whereas only 15% did not. Students read less, and retain less of what they read. ‘They are always ready to tell you how they feel about an issue, but they have never learned how to construct a rational argument to defend their opinions’ (108).
In Virginia, “one in seven … freshmen … needed remedial classes”; a survey of 15 Southern states found that “One-fourth of the [college-entering] students … needed remedial course work” (109).
Immigrants often do better than children whose families have been acculturated
to the U.S.: “their grades are superior, they score higher on standardized
tests, and they aspire to college at a greater rate than their third-generation
peers”. A “plague of pessimism … has infected tens of millions of young
Americans. That plague’s main symptom is a cry-baby culture, a national
orgy of whining and self-pity.… This depressed and nihilistic attitude
toward life could be the biggest threat to America today – and the most
pressing problem in American education.… Human beings will not learn, will
not grow, and will not develop good character traits if they believe that
discipline and hard work are pointless, that life is meaningless and unfair,
and that the outlook for the future is grim” (110).
Among “Asian 11th-graders [asked] what were the most important factors in math performance, the vast majority ranked ‘studying hard’ at the top and ‘a good teacher’ near the bottom. Results were totally reversed with American 11th-graders. ‘American students expect the teacher to bring knowledge out of them …. It’s supposed to be effortless on their part; Asians emphasize the diligence with which they apply themselves’” (111).
“The German academics’ biggest complaint was students …. Many … were not adequately prepared for study at the university level” (112). A science teacher in Australia, one generation younger than I, wrote: “I can only add my voice to the chorus of affirmation…. I have experienced the same … including the stupid comments” (113).
“Something fundamentally changed after the mid-1980s.… there was a qualitative shift”; “few of the faculty members … [are] smiling in their private moments.… in the views of many experienced college teachers, we … [are] in the midst of a profound cultural upheaval that had completely changed students and the collegiate enterprise from just ten years earlier” (pp. 29, 67 in 6).
“U.S. industry is more worried about the inadequate state of science education than are educators…. About 60% said that … most young adults lack adequate science preparation for entry-level jobs in industry today, such as auto production. And 84% though that science literacy – defined as the ability to understand newspaper articles about science – will soon be a requirement for all entry-level jobs.… ‘If a kid entering school today were given the very best education that any [high] school had to offer, he would still not be trained to adequately function in society upon graduation’” (114).
Surveys carried out since 1966 revealed by 1987 “a number of disturbing trends…. the science training of secondary school science and mathematics teachers has deteriorated dramatically over the past two decades.…today’s students … are greedy and materialistic, preoccupied with making money and making it fast; … intellectually docile, demonstrating more concern about their grades than about challenging intellectual issues; … apathetic about pressing social issues …, devoting more time to making life better for themselves and doing little that might benefit others” (115).
That the problems are everywhere doesn’t mean that they are equally
everywhere, of course. I have gotten some indications that they seem to
have appeared more recently among engineering and other professional students
and earlier or more markedly among those majoring in the humanities and
social sciences; and more recently or less so among the most highly selective
universities – the top 20 or 30 in the United States, that is to say. However,
grade inflation and such politically correct absurdities as eliminating
“F” grades were almost pioneered at such “flagship” universities as Harvard
It is rare nowadays for teachers who try to maintain academic standards
to get support from their “leaders” in the face of students’ unwillingness
to work: it seems generally accepted that students’ opinions are as valid
as anyone else’s; that diversity, sensitivity, and extra-curricular activities
are more important than academics; that colleges and universities should
strive, like any other business, to satisfy the perceived wishes of their
customers and their owners. If students find a subject too difficult, fire
2. and students had been complaining (however, he never told me of any specific complaint. No doubt it was one of those I mentioned earlier);
3. and moreover it is always a mistake for a given instructor to teach
the same course for more than about three years, according to a book for
department chairs that he was reading (120).
A Professor of Education, Director of a Center for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching, asked a group of present and former administrators for suggestions. I broached the matter of changing attitudes and performance by the students. “I don’t believe it”, he said flatly and showed no desire to look at the evidence I had mentioned. When talk turned to good and bad teaching, I asked what conclusions one would draw if an instructor was rated 2.3 in one course and 3.6 in another. “Bad teacher”, was the succinct rejoinder.
“I received my doctorate … in 1986 and taught statistics and mathematics for five years. It was the worst experience of my life. The students were exactly as you described them. When I failed a large proportion … I received low student evaluations …. I was given a terminal contract because of ‘ineffective’ teaching (although my lectures were applauded by colleagues attending my classes and – interestingly by my Native American students). I had been warned repeatedly that I had better inflate grades …. When I complained … the assistant to the president told me ‘we sell degrees here’” (123).
The “Dean … and other administrators have been constantly on our backs about the GPA in gen chem lecture courses” (37).
“I, too, have noted similar behavior and results which you describe
in your letter and the administration is in a snit as to what to do about
it.… [O]ur department head is pressing for ‘alternative approaches to teaching
general chemistry’, whether it is from a material science approach or organic
chemistry approach is of no concern, but he believes that this would make
the course more interesting.…
My failure rate … has been as high as 24% … which is not quite up to the 30% you mentioned in your letter (which, by the way, I passed on to our dept. head: no response) .… Although the seeming lack of motivation on the student’s part is discouraging and disheartening enough, I am more disheartened by the response of the administration who immediately assumes it must be due to something the instructor is doing.… [N]ot to ask ‘what’s wrong with the patient’ but instead ‘what’s wrong with the doctor’? … It is quite a challenge to respond to such messages as ‘we don’t want you to lower standards, but we don’t want to lose students’” (24).
Some faculty “were told by an administrator not to discourage students within the major by setting standards too high” (124).
College administrators enforce “an unwritten rule: A faculty member
… must exert near Herculean effort to make the necessary accommodations
to ensure that students are happy”; “a memo … from a dean’s office [informed]
… instructors of the phone number for students to fax in their homework”;
“faculty members were reluctant to uphold grading standards because they
believed they wouldn’t be supported by administrators when push came to
shove”. One professor reported, “The pressure I have had … ranged from
the administration changing my grades to the threat of a lawsuit”; “some
people in higher education are … beginning to adopt the same rhetoric as
their counterparts in elementary education, that good teaching is tantamount
to entertainment” (pp. 17, 15, 75, 80, 147 respectively in 6).
It should be clear that many things have gone wrong in higher education
as well as in secondary and perhaps primary education as well:
Many people have pointed to changes in higher education that began in
the 1960s. There certainly seems then to have begun an abandonment of standards,
a weakening of general-education requirements (126), as well as adoption
of the perverse view that the opinions of not-yet-learners should be given
as much weight on matters of learning as the opinions of experienced and
accomplished learners. It is since the 1960s that college students have
been invited to evaluate, in safe anonymity, those who instruct them. Thus
we have been teaching and continue to teach our students that their opinions
are worth taking into account on matters that they have no grounds for
understanding; that what they feel, even as they have barely begun to learn
a subject, is as valid as what experts in the subject have come to understand
after a decade or two or more of teaching, studying, and thinking. If now
they don’t take our advice on how to study and how much to study, that
is largely our own fault for continuing to agree that their opinions should
count on such matters.
It is far from clear, however, why those tendencies would have helped generate a distinct change in about the 1980s.
A Student Affairs administrator insists that “We need to make students understand what you do outside the classroom is just as important as what you do inside the classroom” (127). Not if one cares about academic performance, though. A study of those few high schools whose students’ performance has not declined while those of most of the nation’s has, found the reason to be “‘a singular commitment to academic achievement’ [without ignoring] … the other dimensions of student life.… [They] sought to be excellent in everything else. But academic work came first.… [And they had kept] a dogged reliance on a traditional liberal-arts curriculum … [with] year-long courses … [and] the practice of grouping students by ability in as many subjects as possible”. That runs counter to the standard current “philosophy” of education: “In place of ‘stretching’ students, the key objective in previous eras, the goal has become not to ‘stress’ them”. We concentrate on “how … [to] reach the least-able student …, the slowest one … to help the culturally disadvantaged and the learning-disabled … while … the gifted receive no more than token interest. The prevailing ideology holds that it is much better to give up the prospect of excellence than to take the chance of injuring any student’s self-esteem” (at p. 65 in (108)). “If we don’t force students – through rigorous grading – to make the curriculum the centerpiece of their agenda, they won’t. The shift of focus away from academics and toward extracurricular accomplishments … cheats students” (89).
This focus on extra-curricular matters connects with the unthinking
promulgation by educational administrators, legislators and others of an
absurd “consumerist” philosophy in which it’s assumed that whatever the
student-consumers want should be delivered to them; even if that means
degrees based on no learning. Peter Sacks (6) attributes the recent changes
to a Generation X that is postmodern in attitude, lacking any firm convictions
other than that they are entitled to be amused and to consume. Trenchant
arguments that lead to much the same conclusion have been given by Neil
Postman in several books that should be read by anyone who wants to understand
our contemporary cultural climate: Amusing Ourselves to Death; The Disappearance
of Childhood; Technopoly (128).
“There’s a general conception in the literary-academic world that holding
things to high standards – like logic, argument, having an interesting
thesis – is patriarchal, Eurocentric, and conservative. If you say, ‘This
paper is no good because you don’t support your argument,’ that’s almost
like being racist and sexist.… The ideology of liberation from constraint,
hierarchy, authority and the establishment was applied not only to politics
but to culture and the academic curriculum’” (at p.39 in 29).
Orientation for new students focuses not on academic issues but on matters of “diversity”, “sensitivity”, and so on. Our university won a gold medal from a national group for its orientation video with skits depicting “harassment of a bi-racial couple, sexual harassment, date rape, and an attack on a homosexual woman” (129). Yet never has there come to public knowledge any actual instance of harassment of a bi-racial couple or a lesbian on this campus! Indeed one black lesbian said upon graduation that she had never in four years been harassed – but (of course!) that she remained nevertheless convinced that racism and homophobia are rampant here!! (130)
“Students at the University of Nebraska … will soon be asked … whether their professors discriminated against individuals or groups in the classroom” (131). The Department of Anthropology at the University of Virginia asks students to answer, anonymously of course, to “Did the instructor create a classroom atmosphere where students of all kinds felt equally welcome and valued?” The Astronomy Department there invites students to rate the instructor on “Freedom from culture/gender/race bias in class”.
Administrators as a class are hugely culpable, if for nothing else than for not backing up their teachers. What can be accomplished even in inner-city public schools by a determined Principal is periodically illustrated in television programs like 60 Minutes (132).
Perhaps the greatest gift that education can deliver a person is the understanding that “there are consequences to our actions.… we have to learn to accept the consequences of our actions. The consequences of not doing homework … or keeping up with the material.… [College students should] be treated as responsible adults” (24) – as, of course, they so loudly demand.
We hear much from university administrators about being accountable, for example to our “customers” the students and to their parents and, in public colleges, to the tax-payers. “Many colleges and universities treat them like customers in a department store when they ought to be treated like clients in a health club – no effort, no result. No one shapes up simply by taking one exercise class, and no one learns by merely enrolling”. Students are very peculiar “customers” indeed, because the less substance the instructors give them, the better they like it, just so long as they get high grades to graduate with; whereas they would not like it if their auto mechanic did nothing substantive for their car while awarding it a certificate of high performance. Most students love it when lectures are canceled, or cut short 5 or 10 minutes or more early (133).
Administrators change failing grades to passing ones without consulting the instructor because his “expectations of his students were too high” (134).
What is the irreducible function, mission, purpose of higher education? Surely it is precisely education: offering students the opportunity to learn, helping them to develop their abilities, assisting each one to become as capable as possible. Our accountability can only be to that end. It is the responsibility of administrators to arrange that the best possible environment for learning exists. That entails:
Anyone with experience of colleges knows that there will be no major initiative taken by faculty collectively unless they feel they have the blessing of their administrators. Faculty complain about grade inflation, but continue to participate through fear of the consequences, from complaining students and parents, if they do not, because they know that administrators will side with the “customers”. Faculty complain about declining standards but, for the same reason as with grades, will not set appropriately high demands for their students.
As I noted at the outset, the students cannot be blamed because what they are is the result of how we have trained them, at home and in primary and secondary schools. By the time they are in college, the room for alternative training is narrow.
As just adumbrated, I think the real sickness to be cured is the blatant self-serving that is not only the norm but the accepted, even the praised norm nowadays: we are exhorted to seek self-fulfillment, to do our own thing, to get assertiveness training, to demand our “rights”. But I think the earlier wisdom was truer which held that humans achieve the greatest satisfaction when they accomplish something good in some wider sense than a purely personal one.
If all would be mindful of the effect on others of what they do, and were to practice restraint and respect for others’ “space”, then every individual could experience a maximum degree of personal freedom. Instead nowadays everyone clamors for their own individual maximum “rights” even when exercising them impinges on others’ freedom; thus the direct seeking of maximum freedom produces less freedom all around than a thoroughgoingly self-effacing approach would.
What happens in elementary schools, high schools, and colleges is so interconnected that change is needed almost simultaneously throughout. Were colleges to require that students come appropriately prepared, that might eventually persuade the high schools to prepare students for college by training them to study. Yet it may well be that there is not much the high schools can do unless the right ground-work has been laid in elementary schools. Moreover education is so interconnected with other aspects and institutions of society that major change in the educational system can hardly occur without changes in society’s attitude towards education.
At the same time, no part of the system should stay “as is” while awaiting change elsewhere or overall, for then nothing will change. In the colleges, it would behoove us to find out as much as we can about why students are behaving as they now do. Especially given grade inflation, perhaps it is increasingly rational, sensible for them not to attend class? In which case remedies could surely be found. (50)
Those who can produce change in the educational system must cease discussing only “how” – uses of information technology and the like which is nowadays so prominent as though a panacea were available here. Instead we must start afresh from an understanding of why society requires that schooling occur – see Neil Postman’s recent The End of Education (135).
The facts are awfully simple: “The reason teaching has to go on is that children are not born human; they are made so” (136); “none of us is born human; each is what he learns to become” (137). Anything we don’t like about our society, we can rightly blame at least in part on the manner in which we have raised our children.
Yet children are born learners. In their first few years they learn a staggering amount, and they are ready to learn staggeringly more. Elementary schools merely need to reward and encourage learning instead of hindering it by deliberately holding children back from some things that are judged too advanced.
We must stop regarding differences of intellectual ability as more pejorative
or undesirable. than differences in athletic ability. Intellectual skills
like physical ones can only be developed by practice and training. The
best way for all to achieve their maximum capabilities is through contact
with others of comparable talents. We do not for football train 300-pound
offensive linemen by practice against 150- pounders. As a high-school teacher
used to say (in Australia, where horse-racing was the major spectator sport),
“We don’t train race horses by running them against draft horses”. Just
so with intellectual skills. In high school we were assigned to different
classes for every subject, depending on our aptitudes: thus I might have
been in class “A” (the “brightest”) for chemistry and German and in “E”
(the least “bright”) for calculus, say. Thereby I, and my classroom peers,
all felt relatively at home with one another, not too intimidated but also
not too bored. The current practice of including the whole range of children
in the same class makes it impossible for teachers to give any of the students
the attention best suited to their abilities and stages of learning. The
supposed (unproven, and on the face of it implausible) social benefits
of intellectual diversity in classrooms are surely outweighed by the intellectual
crippling for life of all the children: for we know that if young brains
are not trained linguistically and mathematically in elementary school,
that cannot later be made up for (138).
We must push each child, from the very earliest age, to learn as much as possible. That is the best for every child, and also the way to a better society. Is there anything more lovely than the happy face of a young child proudly displaying knowledge of something recently learned?
No matter how discouraged or infuriated I become over the behavior of individual students, even a moment’s reflection brings me back to the realization that the greatest victims of low standards, low expectations, grade inflation, and the rest, are those very students – our very own children and grand-children. And then I come to treasure all the more, those few students in whom I generated some spark.
And then I become doubly angry – implacably, impenitently, unalterably angry – at those who bear the prime responsibility for the corruption of higher education: those many administrators and faculty who lack ideals, who lack conviction, who in Australian are called gutless wonders. We’ve come to the sad pass that the reform of education must come from the outside, because the rottenness inside has now reached so far that it will not and cannot reform itself.
Let me close with a quote from Christopher Lasch (139):
Society for Return to Academic Standards
A Campus Without Tenure is Dubbed Fire at Will U.
Last updated: 15 November 1997