The lecture louts vs the academy's faithful

July 16, 2004

The rise of boorishness, indifference, arrogance and laziness in students is damaging all aspects of university life, according to Alan Clements.

My best students have never been better. They use modern productivity tools such as graphics packages and the internet to do work that puts my PhD thesis to shame. At the same time, however, some changes in the behaviour of young people are harming higher education.

I avoid going home when the kids are leaving school because, if I am on my bicycle, I expect abuse from the children I pass: recently, a schoolboy cycled past me and spat in my face. While university academics are spared such gross examples of bad behaviour, universities are part of the real world and trends taking place outside slowly infiltrate the university.

In the lecture theatre and tutorial, we see differences in the way groups of students act collectively, while in the tutor's office, we see how there has been a change in attitudes to education and to authority.

Good behaviour is on the decline in lectures. Students are less punctual and more of them eat in class, to give but two examples. Large classes can be noisy as the air fills with chatter - which comes almost exclusively from students who have arrived directly from school. In contrast, non-traditional students, who are fiercely proud of their second chance to get a higher education, are enthusiastic and a delight to teach. They sometimes come close to threatening their younger and more frivolous comrades. The non-traditional student is often the teacher's best ally when it comes to keeping a stable and active learning environment.

Students test the limits of their freedom in other ways, too. I teach a first-year course on the internal operation and organisation of the microprocessor. This is an intricate and demanding subject, so I intersperse the lecture with comments about the history of computing, or even tell a story. One year, a student stood up and said: "Clements, cut the personal reminiscences and get on with the job you're paid to do."

Tutorials provide another forum for bad behaviour; indeed, this is where most of the negative elements of a student's behaviour become apparent. I put all my tutorials on the internet so students can access them. Sadly, few students look at the work before the tutorial. They spend the first 15 minutes of the tutorial reading off the screen, taking out a pen, writing their name and then underlining it a few times. When the hour is up, they have done little more than answer a few warm-up questions and have not even attempted the harder questions.

I asked a student why he and his colleagues were so lackadaisical. He said:

"It's not cool to work." I once set a problem as an in-course assessment. A student complained that I hadn't given him everything he needed. I explained that he could find the information on the internet or in the library. His angry reply was: "If I wanted to read books, I'd have done an OU degree."

Another growing problem in tutorials is attendance. Last week I had two consecutive tutorials for the same module. Three out of 18 students attended the first, and 12 out of 18 joined the second. I asked my class why there was such a discrepancy. They pointed out that a lecture followed the second tutorial so they could go straight to it from the tutorial, but those in the first tutorial had to hang around for an hour before the lecture.

The shift in student attitudes causes problems not just in lectures and tutorials but also in other aspects of university life. Take the Mitigating Circumstances Board. Students can apply to this if they have experienced personal difficulties that led them to underperform in an exam. This board demonstrates the university's desire to treat students fairly and to help them when they are most in need: when they suffer the loss of a close relative, for example. Academics are worried that some students are exploiting the system. One year, a student applied for mitigating circumstances because he had been prosecuted for stealing a car and driving it without insurance.

We are witnessing a collision of two tectonic plates. One is the notion of a university as a centre of learning and academic excellence, a place of autonomous learning and high standards. The other plate represents an expanding and increasingly diverse student body that has grown up in a blame culture with a soundbite media and has come to expect high marks for minimal effort. When tectonic plates collide in the real world, the effect is earthquakes and upheaval as one plate buries the other. Which plate will dominate in higher education?

Alan Clements is professor in the School of Computing, Teesside University.

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