A student’s lecture to professors

Can students teach their lecturers a thing or two? Austin Fitzhenry thinks so

May 15, 2014

Source: Andy Bunday

I’m sorry to break it to you, but your students are not going to remember 90 per cent, possibly 99 per cent, of what you teach them unless it’s conceptual

The US government is paying me to go to college. That should be something to get excited about. But sometimes I find myself questioning whether college is worth it even if you are paid to be there.

The question “Why am I here?” often strikes in the 73rd minute of a droning lecture. Don’t misunderstand – I love lectures. But only if the person delivering it knows how to allow learning. And yes, I do mean “allow”, for academics don’t create learning – only the student can do that. Unfortunately, most if not all lecturers are crippled by misunderstandings about their students and ill-founded assumptions about education itself. If we can filter the mud from the Pierian Spring, then they will have far less frustration in their lives and students will stop wishing that they were somewhere else. So one afternoon, after a particularly frustrating day with my professors, I sat down and wrote my lecture to them. I pray that they are taking notes.

Don’t cater to students who suffer from “entitlement complex”

I am referring to those who enrol for the simple, misguided reason that it’s what you do at 18, and for the experience…whatever that is. These students are not particularly interested in your lecture. In fact, it probably never occurred to them that college is an opportunity to explore the world around them. Don’t waste your time trying to tease interest out of them: you’ll hold back the interested students. The best thing you can do for them, yourself and everyone else is to use 100 per cent of your knowledge and enthusiasm to teach your course as if every student were just as excited as you. By delivering your lecture with gusto, your interest will be infectious and some of the “entitlement students” will rise to the level at which you treat them.

Challenge the student

Have you ever wondered why your students aren’t more interested? The answer is likely to be that they are bored. What causes boredom? Slow or irrelevant lectures, those that don’t connect the dots, or that focus on details at the expense of context. Students are not being challenged. Their sense of exploration is cloistered. You may say that your students can barely keep up as it is. In most cases this is not true. Your students are capable of far more than you give them credit for. Yet most professors have a compulsion to teach at the lowest level among the students. During the introduction to one course, my lecturer explained the level of maths he would be teaching: the same maths that is routinely taught in middle school. I went to a senior academic in the department to ask if I could skip it. My request was refused.

“You have to understand: many of the students here can’t do basic arithmetic,” he said. “We have to adjust for that.”

My chin hit the floor. Is it not equally unfair to above-average students to teach below their level as it is to below-average students to teach above their level? We need to re-examine our priorities. Is university about making everybody feel good about themselves, or about delivering high-quality education?

The truth is that it is OK if a few under-prepared students get lost. I have been that student more than once. I have sat through lectures not having the slightest clue what was going on. Instead of dropping out or expecting the discussion to be lowered to my level, I worked a little harder and caught up. Don’t let lagging students pull the whole class under.

Move on – and don’t repeat. I repeat: don’t repeat

Andy Bunday illustration (15 May 2014)

Most lecturers are very conscientious about making sure that all students grasp a concept before moving on. This is great. But most ignore the inverse, and are happy to waste their time and the time of their class by labouring a concept that their students (or all those who were paying attention) understood a long time ago. I have sat for 20 minutes as a professor defined hypo- and hyper-osmotic. These are definitions that a 12-year-old could get to grips with in two minutes. Nothing destroys a student’s respect like insulting their intelligence.

There is, of course, a simple way to find out if your students understand: ask them. And once you move on, resist the temptation to backtrack and repeat material. A quick reminder about a concept taught the previous week is one thing. That’s called continuity. But far too often time is wasted repeating at length ground that has already been covered. That’s why students take notes – let us review them ourselves. Any of us who are still behind can ask for help after the lecture or talk with a fellow student. Repetition equals boredom.

Forget the textbook, and focus on concepts

Andy Bunday illustration (15 May 2014)

Exceptions exist, but textbook reading assignments are rarely helpful. Textbooks are designed to say everything about a subject with virtually no context. They go into minute detail. They are boring. If you tell your students to sit and read chapters, few will. I certainly won’t. Instead, ask us to research a particular subject in greater depth. You may say that students will not take the initiative to do the research. But inviting them to explore a topic in whatever way they like is much more tempting than a textbook.

The best approach from the student’s perspective is to focus on concepts. I’m sorry to break it to you, but your students are not going to remember 90 per cent – possibly 99 per cent – of what you teach them unless it’s conceptual. The Latin names, the special terminology, the equations, the dates – nearly everything specific will start to dissipate a month or two after our final exam. We have to move on to new material. A year later, the student will scarcely even remember that they once knew these things. However, when broad, over-arching connections are made, education occurs. Most details are only a necessary means to that end. Once the Lethean river has eroded the details, that bedrock of concepts remains.

Instead of teaching to the test, encourage creativity

Andy Bunday illustration (15 May 2014)

Some lecturers don’t bother to teach things that won’t be in the exam. They are letting their students down. The best professors range widely across their subject while also making clear what their students will be expected to know in the examination hall. This approach ensures that students are able to apply their learning in the real world, as well as stimulating curiosity and learning. Stay focused on relaying knowledge and understanding, and the test should take care of itself.

Last year I was talking with a fellow student about an unusually challenging assignment, and he joked: “Wait, I have to come up with something on my own? I actually have to think?” But it’s not a joke. Many students spend all day, every day, being spoon-fed. Those that get fed up drop out. Those that don’t usually become complacent. Intellectual flabbiness sets in. Ultimately whether or not they succumb is up to them, but their lecturers can help them fight the disease. Without exercise, the creativity muscle atrophies. Take every opportunity, large and small, to let students create something.

Give meaningful assignments – and don’t let students lecture

Andy Bunday illustration (15 May 2014)

I may seem to be breaking this rule in writing this piece, but I’m actually referring to an assignment I experienced in which students were asked to give a 10 minute presentation to the whole class. On one level this was fantastic. I thoroughly enjoyed researching and giving my presentation. What wasn’t fantastic was listening to 400 minutes of presentations from other students who, for the most part, didn’t enjoy researching or presenting. Worse, losing 400 minutes of lecture time dealt a serious blow to the depth of the course. Keep student presentations to a minimum.

Students can also smell “busywork”. This includes any output required of them that does not serve to increase their mastery of a concept. Cute class activities are for nursery school, while mindless laborious tasks focusing on painstaking details kill our passion.

If students complain about an assignment, pay attention. It’s not all whining. That complaint could be a sign that you are destroying your students’ zeal for a subject and their respect for you.

Don’t require attention or attendance

Andy Bunday illustration (15 May 2014)

Allow your students to be adults by recognising that if someone doesn’t want to learn, they aren’t going to learn. Requiring attendance is absurd. Every student entered college of their own free will. Let us decide what we want to do with that choice. This goes for texting, eating, or anything else in class. As long as it doesn’t distract others, just chill. Taking responsibility for the responsibilities of others creates adults who have never had the chance to mature. At 18 we’ve just finished a couple of decades of being told what to do, and have finally gained independence. We will judge whether your material is too basic, if it’s just repeating old ground or if it’s little more than busywork, and decide for ourselves whether to attend. The test results at the end will speak for themselves, and if a student can master a subject without even attending class, they should be applauded, not punished.

As I explore my way through college, I’m reminded of a saying my dad was fond of: “Never let your schooling get in the way of your education.” Now I see now how easily this can happen. But if our lecturers and professors get it right, learning will occur for those students willing to put in what it takes to create education.

Remember that students are your employers

Andy Bunday illustration (15 May 2014)

One final thought. For the student, college represents an enormous chunk of our lives and a huge financial investment. We are entrusting you with our most valuable asset: our youth. We think that what you have to tell us is so important that, of all the things we could be doing, of all the places in the world we could be, we choose to sit here in front of you listening to your melodious voice, breathing the stale classroom air beneath the fluorescent lights. Not only that but we dole out our hard-earned cash by the bucketload for the privilege of doing so (I did this in my first year, before I got my scholarship). I promise you, your students discuss among themselves a thousand more frustrations than the ones I’ve offered. Ask them for their frank thoughts. You will gain from their perspective and they will love you for it. What I have really been working up to is this simple plea: don’t cheat me out of my education. I work hard for it, and some day I will need it.

All this comes with a disclaimer: I love my professors. They are all knowledgeable people who truly care about their students. But in the classroom, these same individuals too often struggle to convert that knowledge and care into a quality education. I hope that they will take my observations on board. Doing so will allow me and my fellow students to feel as excited as we should about getting paid to go to college.

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Reader's comments (8)

I can only celebrate the fact that any student thinks this way. I agree wholeheartedly but can only add that with current NSS drivers too few UK lecturers risk going this route. I full well remember why I chose my career. It was being inspired and asked to think by one lecturer in particular that transformed me and opened doors to a scientific research world which I have been privileged to be part of
I agreed with the author, more or less, until the final point. Students are not, nor should they ever be considered, the employer of an instructor. That's the mentality of "for profit" schools which are a shell of their non-profit counterparts. Some of the problems you mention (catering to the lowest common denominator, teaching to the test, etc) come from the mentality that students are customers, clients, or employers. You may give money, but so do many others, so do donors, so does the government (though less and less in recent years). The primary employer of any university employee is the society in which they live. Research, the primary activity of most lecturers, readers, and professors, is well beyond the scope or interest of the vast majority of students, yet it does benefit society. Students may dislike their lecturer whilst in school (say, for instance they believe the class is too challenging), only to be grateful for the gains that have been made later. Referring to students as employers, customers, or clients reduces higher education to a capitalistic enterprise doomed to fail or at least hyper-inflate costs so that someone is making money. Universities are grander, and are truly a socialist enterprise (in the best possible way). Their benefit stretches far beyond students, though of course students do receive a particular and special benefit. This does not make you, a student, the "boss" of your lecturer any more than a patient is the "boss" of a physician. He who pays the piper most certainly should not call the tune.
Hi George, great point and I agree wholeheartedly. Space didn't allow to fully explain that other side of the coin. What I intended to relay in that final point is not that universities should be converted to a free market where students could pay big bucks for an easy degree. I just want to remind professors that the school doesn't exist without the students; otherwise it would just be a research institution. So schools need to look harder at the quality of what they are delivering, and find more ways to improve. At my college, for instance, it truly appears that more effort is made toward sexy landscaping and library facilities than toward improving the quality of education delivered. Students, as the lifeblood of the university, frequently have insights about what is best for them that administrators and professors will never see on their own. It's simply the difference between being a student and dealing with students. Those who deal with students every day lose sight of what it's actually like to be a student. The professor who thinks it's a small thing to spend 15 minutes reviewing a concept doesn't understand that the same thing will happen in my other 3 lectures on the same day, and by my last class I will be bored out of my mind, frustrated, and feeling cheated. Just remember that students who are there for the right reasons - students who are trying to get a quality education - will always have valuable and unique perspectives on what will accomplish that goal.
Hi Kenneth, So what my article is asking is just to pay attention to ways to improve the quality of the educational experience for students. Please inform my how the current NSS drivers would make this route risky?
Learning objectives killed this.
Hi Austin, If we are to treat al students as empoloyers, then we need to take into account all of their motiivations, nweeds, their prior knolwedge and what that means, and not just yours. All students are employers. All employers are equal, but some are more equal than others? You argue that it;s ok to let some of the underprepeared, as you term them., drop off. But when you find things less than ideal, it's a problem? You are in a coiurse with people with multiple needs, motivations, contexts, prior knolwedge and resourcse. The educator and institution have limited time and rersources to engage with these. So, compromise, balance and imperfection are the name of the game. Sometimes things will be too slow, sometimes too fast, sometimes just right. Your list of do's and don'ts is a list fo how to teach you, not a class of people. And their needs, as employers are as valid as yours, however much you might deride their motivation ( the entitlement compelx? how vague is that? the underprepared - at the best that label lacks nuance). Your logic is that your needs aren;t being met. And you are an employer. Your solution involves not meeting the needs of other employers to facilitate yours. Which is a s wrong as the context you complain of. In addtion. Advance Organbisers, like textbook reading, lower cognitive load, and increase cognitive resources for in class learning when well used. Texbooks, though problematic, have a key place. There are ither ways to do it, but that's one. And it;s evidence backed. Turning off your phone? Lecturer is porbably being a good employee here. In programes with unstructired laptop use, students who habitua;;y use laptops distract others ( more than any other name distractor) and score lower on test score. You may mot ber getting what you want, you may be getting what you need. Repetition. Key, when well done, to retrieval and long term memory. I hate to break it to you, but with good repetition you won;t remeber 99%. You'll remember probably in the seventies or eighties, depending on a lot of other things ( prior knolwedge, how memorable the feact is, how personally important or surprising it is, how useful it is....)
ok...what else. Yes focusing on concepts and not the textbook. A somewhat arbitray binary. The more prior knolwedge you have, the better you'll learn, probably due to cognbitive load. You'll learn faster, more, and remember longer. Building that prior knolwedge is key. Using Advance Organisers, and using, often, factual knolwedge. To get to the point where you can freely, and creatively riff, you have to pass through a degree of mastery. You don't come up with general relativity without passing through addition, subtraction and Newton. I hate to break it to you, but the research shows that a good level of domain expertise - a significant which is going to be factual knolwedge - is usually a prerequisite for domain creativity. Additionally, we know that for low prior knolwedge candidates, support, direct instruction, and worked examples are good. The basics come first, the fconcepts later. Focusing on the concepts is good for some, and is probably in most cases, the long to mid term aim. But it;s not good for all learners in all contexts. That's something you need to engage with, and accept in multi level learning contexts. Like yours. I;m sorry your educational experience has been at times frustrating. I;m sorry it has at times not been as efficient as it could be. I;m sorry you;ve found it problematic, shocking, and at times damaging. Truth is, the view from the lecturer side of the fence is pretty much the same., Except with more demands, nuance, difficulty and challenge. Being oine empoloyer amongst hundreds is frustrating. Being one empoloyee for hundreds is orders of magnitude more difficult. And it requires informed, pedagogically sound compromise. Here endeth the rant.
Hi Keith, Thanks for the perspective from the other side of the classroom. A lot of your criticisms of my thoughts will be clarified by re-reading, but to some of your valid points: About the student employer concept - my point is not that professors should do whatever makes students happy. My point is that they should give more effort to delivering a valuable instead of a half-ass education to people who are paying an arm and a leg for it. They should do what is best for all the students over all, which is to push them forward instead of putting them to sleep by dumbing everything down. I don't know what it's like in Britain, but over here in the States there is an obvious trend toward making college more and more like high school. My solution is not to ignore the needs of other students, but to preferentially give priority to real needs over desires that are not in the best interest of everyone, including the student holding those desires. For instance, what I call an 'entitlement complex' student (this would not be at all vague if you sat in any of the classrooms I've ever seen for a few minutes) doesn't want to think. Everything must be spelled out in a way that he or she can thoughtlessly swallow the information. According to the same student, a good grade should involve essentially no effort, at least in lower courses. To your point about texting etc: I have never been distracted by a student texting, but if a student is being distracting, by all means let him know. Yes, repetition is key, in the quick-review-for-continuity context I mention, not the detailed, mind numbing repeat students are used to enduring. The important thing is that I have seen exactly what I envision in my article in action. I have professors who breeze through teaching without falling into any of these pitfalls. What characterizes them is a lack of authoritarianism, an ignorance of 'experts' telling them to do this or that, and a simple passion to learn and teach. Instead of obsessing over all the peripherals, they simply teach, and students either simply learn or simply ignore, according to their choice. You will know if if you ever see it. It's a beautiful thing and you can virtually see the neurons connecting in students' minds.

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