Discard the student caricatures

Negative assumptions about undergraduates distract from the debate over the responsibilities of educators, says Sarah Moore

March 13, 2014

Source: Paul Bateman

Plagiarism happens when students see too great a gap between their abilities and the standards they have been asked to reach

Students aren’t what they used to be. They’re disengaged, passive, absent and unable to summon an original or critical thought. Plagiarism is rife. Writing standards are atrocious.

Sound familiar? Not everyone contributes to the proliferation of such speculation about learners in higher education, but it is hard to deny that such caricatures exist. At best, these are simplistic mantras that don’t get to the heart of our responsibilities as educators. At worst, they disparage the people whose intellectual development it is our job to nurture. Some of the glib assumptions made about teaching today’s students need some serious questioning.

First, let’s take plagiarism. It is certainly a serious problem. Not only is it unethical, but just as worryingly, it prevents and obstructs learning. The temptation and opportunity to plagiarise may be greater than ever now that information and text is so easy to access.

But plagiarism has always been a problem. It happens when students see too great a gap between their abilities and the standards they have been asked to reach. Our job is to help them navigate that gap and avoid the panic that can result in deception. Students often receive the following kind of message: “Sound like academics, think like academics, talk like academics – but don’t attempt to copy academics.” An intimidating mix of signals indeed.

It is too easy to say that plagiarism indicates a problem with students. Good teachers identify ways in which assignments can be ­plagiarism-proof. Great teachers also help students to realise that often you have to write badly before you can write well.

We should not paralyse students with demands for grammatical perfection, analytical acuity and expressive brilliance straight away. We need to give them time and encouragement to redraft their work – to show them how each draft can uncover another layer of insight, precision and understanding that they might never have known they were capable of.

Some of the problems that students encounter with academic writing have to do with our ambivalence about our own writing struggles. By being more open about our own failures and battles we can help to demystify the learning process and invite students to become confident participants in a world that they are only beginning to understand.

Of course when engaging in this kind of conversation, class sizes are pedagogically and politically important issues. Sadly, the students who tend to require the most support – those in early undergraduate, large class contexts – are often the very students who do not get the one-to-one time they need.

Student absenteeism is another familiar complaint. There’s plenty of evidence that attendance remains linked to performance, but that link is increasingly complex.

Absence from class is not always a sign of disengagement. Students’ lives are complicated and the ability to be present at the times and places that institutions dictate is compromised for many, particularly those part-timers who we say we want to accommodate, and those who have to work to pay their bills. Our institutions need to think more creatively about how to achieve flexible delivery that allows students to engage and manage their lives.

And how about students’ evaluations of the performance of their teachers? There are regular declarations of concern about basing assessments of effective teaching on the results of student surveys. Feedback is often spoken of as flawed, invalid, a “popularity contest”.

But many of the things that distinguish excellent teachers are the same things that make them popular with their students. Psychologists have been telling us for years that enjoyment is an important building block for learners’ effective engagement and hard work. Popularity may be a good proxy for excellence in teaching after all.

It’s also important to confront the notion that new technology can address all our educational challenges. We need to be realistic about resources and persistent in our call to recognise the value of learning in small groups. Of course we can use new technologies and pedagogies in many brilliant ways to innovate, to be flexible and to transcend some of the difficulties that teachers and learners face. But in working to enhance frameworks and policies for good practice in teaching and learning, there is one aspect of a learning environment on which we should not compromise: the promotion of a culture of care. This underpins all good teaching. It involves paying attention to students – talking to them, listening to them, noticing how far they’ve come and helping them to see how much further they can go.

The best teachers in my life are the ones who cared about me. The feeling that your teachers have a personal investment in your success is one of those invisible but vital dimensions of teaching that makes learning feel so full of excitement and meaning.

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Reader's comments (5)

I also get the feeling that undergraduates have been conditioned in a school/societal system in which they feel they do not need to think or analyze but simply regurgitate soundbites and tick various boxes to get the marks they need, then jump through the hoops to the next stage. The increasing commercialization of higher education in Britain will only add to this. Digital culture has also changed the way in which young people access, read and think about information. I don't this issue can be reduced to the approaches of HE educators.
we have indeed been guilty of conditioning students into recognising and playing the 'academic game'. Dont let's blame them when they comply
My God...I can't stand it when students are referred to as 'learners'...is this just political correctness, or what? What's wrong with the term 'students'??
Plagiarism "happens when students see too great a gap between their abilities and the standards they have been asked to reach." This may be the case in a very small number of cases. The truth is that plagiarism happens at university for many reasons, including Because they got away with it in their previous studies Because they see other students getting away with it Because they got way with it previously in other courses Because they want the qualification, but do not want to do the work Because they prioritised their social life over their academic studies Because they thought the study skills lessons were irrelevant to them Because they never read the feedback on their previous work Plagiarism does not happen with all students. In fact it happens with a small minority. It is definitely not the fault of the academics who are setting appropriate standards and expectations for academic work from university students.
Fantastic piece, I agree with every single word! :-)

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