Motivation, The Science of Learning

I Can’t Get My Students to Read

This is heard often from professors at every level. Students just won’t read or write anymore. They are right. Students just won’t read or write anymore. In addition, they don’t study anymore either. The data show that this is true! Students, for the most part, won’t do any of the above.

The average number of hours that students study is about 12 hours a week outside the classroom. More shockingly, 37% spend less than five hours a week studying outside the classroom. It’s no wonder they don’t read, they don’t have the time. They are busy doing everything else that students do.

Higher education has some expectations for courses. On average, a class should expect about 100 nominal hours of work, including class time, across a semester. Given an average of five classes per semester, that means that the expectation is about 33.3 hours per week of their time to do a degree. If a student spends three hours a week in class, that means that, on average, they are spending 15 hours a week engaged in academic, with the 37% spending eight hours a week. For many of us, eight hours of work defines a workday. Is it any wonder that the vast majority of today’s students fail their degrees?

They don’t write either. There are myriads of students who, excluding written exams, have written nothing for classes during an entire semester. Nothing! They just won’t write. Or will they?

Do we ask them to read and write in order to get a degree? Since 85% of the students entering university in 2016 were there for the sole purpose of getting a degree, why aren’t they fulfilling the requirements that would include reading and writing? Maybe it is because we don’t ask them to read or write.

First-year students aren’t asked to write, with 83% reporting that they had not been asked to write a 20-page paper (6000 words) over the course of the entire year. That is eighty-three percent. Can you get your head around that one? Why would a student want to either read or write when it isn’t required of them. Even for final year students, only 51% had been asked to write a 20-page paper in their final year. It is no wonder that they don’t read or write. We don’t ask them to.

Above I asked the question, “Is it any wonder that the vast majority of today’s students fail their degrees?” The answer is that they don’t. They pass, many of them with good degree qualifications, working, on average, 15 hours a week, reading almost nothing, and writing almost nothing. How can this be their fault? That is all we ask them to do.

Students’ come to college or university to get a qualification. In 2017, in order to get a qualification, all you have to do is go to 40 classes (often (and increasingly) large lectures), listen as the professor reads you the PowerPoint slides (she or he has already done the reading for you and boiled it down to a few important points), with the professor adding a little bit more (for you to write down) from the script that accompanies the textbook. Download the bullet points from the university’s online learning environment, cram the bullet points into your episodic memory the night before both the mid-term and final exam, and pass the class. Sometimes a professor, who is disliked by the vast majority of the students, actually asks you to write an essay during the semester as well. Students’ know exactly what is required, “Don’t take 3450 because it really sucks. Three times the work as 3370 and you get the same credit.”

Who’s fault is it that students won’t read. If they can get a degree without reading (or writing) why should they?

And then we, who pass them on from class to class, complain that the students don’t know how to read or write. In fact, the data say that you are exactly right. The thinking and writing ability of students across a four-year degree increases marginally. Arum reports that in the first two years of a degree, students increase in these skills is about 0.18 of a standard deviation, with 45% showing no significant difference from when they entered college or university. Forty-five percent make no measurable gains in their thinking and writing skills in the first two years. He then goes on to report that the increase in the final half or a four-year degree is marginal if any. In fact, in the final two years, the majority of students show a decrease in motivation and interest in their academic performance.

How shocking! But more shocking still is that they get degrees, and many of them get good degrees!

How can we complain about their lack of engagement? Their lack of reading skills, writing skills, let along any of the higher-order skills like critical thinking? We don’t ask them to improve at all in order to pass our classes and get degrees. And a degree is all that most of them want.

As a senior administrator once remarked to me when I was raising concerns about the lack of engagement on the part of both the students and professors, “We don’t ask too much of them and they don’t ask too much of us. A good arrangement that works out for all of us.”

Given this arrangement, I’m certain that we are on the cusp of seeing our graduates solve the problems of global climate change, early onset Alzheimer’s, extreme wealth disparity, or starving children. How much responsibility do we have to teach our students to think or to make our society a better place? How much responsibility do we take?

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