Tag Archives: student life

A school for grown-ups

My 6-year old is in kindergarten and fascinated by school and schoolteachers. Last week she asked me: “Daddy, are you a teacher?” I told her I was. “What’s your school?” I told her I teach at a college. “What’s a college?” I told her: “A college is a school for grown-ups.” And in that off-the-cuff answer, we have an economical way of describing the difference between college and pre-college education, and of encapsulating the hopes and goals of higher education.

College students, even the wide-eyed freshmen who show up every fall, are not kids. They are emerging adults, having worked 12 years for a high school education and who now enter a 4-5 year buffer zone before entering into the world with nothing more than the things they know, the experiences they’ve had, and the people around them. Therefore we college professors aren’t serving students if we treat them like kids, refer to them as “kids”, or in any way give them a reason to conceive of themselves as children. If we do any of these, students will simply model what we do and stay children. Indeed, I hear my own students talk much more frequently about “the other kids in my class” than “the other students” or even “the other people“.

What we hope to do in higher education is not so much to convey academic subject matter but rather, when you boil it all down, we are trying to teach people how to think like grown-ups. Of course we want our students to retain the best aspects of childhood — curiosity, energy, and so on — but we also want them to temper their child-likeness with adult sensibilities. We want them to think about other people besides themselves; to be self-motivating and responsible; to judge information objectively; to trust but verify what they see; to draw freely from a depth and breadth of experiences to make sense of what they encounter; to be able to think and act for themselves.

Since this is what higher education aims for, I’d like to give a good-natured challenge to my colleagues in higher ed, and by extension all those high school teachers who teach “college preparatory” courses. Very simply: From now until the end of classes this spring, don’t refer to your students as “kids”. Think of them instead as adults, “emerging adults” if you like, and refer to them accordingly. And take a look at your course policies and the ways you make decisions about how to deal with and treat students. If these are set up in a way that places grown-up behavior as the basic assumption, or at the very least provides a road map for younger students to ramp up into grown-up behavior, then I’d say that’s on the right track; otherwise think about ways to change.

I did this recently. I was visiting a high school class I had been working with as part of a dual-enrollment course. During my visit, the teacher allowed the students to have some open Q&A time with me, and several of the students asked me about the differences between high school and college. After spelling out some specifics, I told them, “At my college, we’re going to treat you like men and women when you come in. Not like kids. You won’t be kids and you shouldn’t be treated like kids.” Those young men and women got the message immediately — they straightened up in their chairs and more than a few got smiles on their faces. If we college profs all agree to treat students like men and women — daring students to believe in their own adulthood — I think we’ll see the same positive effect.

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A prayer for those taking final exams (bumped)

We’ve finally made it to final exams week in the second semester of what seemed like the longest academic year ever. I thought I would bump this old post from December 11, 2005 (original with comments here) to give props and encouragement to all the students out there who are getting ready for their exams.

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(Inspired by seeing so many students on AIM tonight studying for finals, which for us start tomorrow.)

Dear Lord:
Let those who are filling the library right now with their bodies and their thoughts
Study hard, but also eventually rest.
Let them realize that success on their exams comes
Not from pulling allnighters
Not from cramming
Not from losing sleep
But as the sweet fruits of a long semester
Of diligence, patience, humility, and sweat
Of losing themselves in the laborious doing
That comes when a long-held dream is finally pursued.
Let them know that their final exams not only measure their knowledge
But also, in the ending of the term, show how faithful You have been to them.
They know more now than they did in August.
They are better students, better stewards, of Your blessing of intellect.
Their thoughts are more like Your thoughts.
And no matter what happens, this cannot be taken away.
In that, let them rest
And tomorrow, Tuesday, and Wednesday, let them learn and be satisfied.
In Your Name: Amen.

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Student evaluations again

One of the reasons I brought up the notion of getting rid of our current conception of student evaluations is that I’ve had too many courses in which things seems to be going just fine during the semester, and then I get comments on student course evaluations about things that I cannot even recognize as having happened in the class. Something minor happens, for example, in week 5, and it goes unchecked, and grows ineffably until what the student sees is some huge shortcoming on the course’s part — on my part — and I get hammered on the evaluations for it, even though when I read the written comments I cannot even usually fathom what it is the student is referencing.

So this semester I decided that I needed to do something about this, namely just simply paying more attention every week to how students are doing, generally, in my classes. Especially in the freshman classes, where the expectations for college are still being calibrated and the emotions about grades and coursework run high — and where the probability of the evaluations described above is highest — I need to be more intentional about getting student feedback. And so I gave out an informal evaluation  to go with our “quarter-term exam” in my calculus courses. Here’s the form: quarter-term-course-feedback.pdf

The first page is just some questions about how the course structure is working so far. But the really interesting information-gathering part of the form is on the back. In the syllabus, I laid out a set of expectations for students in the class, and for myself. And so I just asked students to review those expectations and assess how they are doing on each one, and what plans they have to improve. And then they do the same for me. It’s been fascinating to watch people’s responses to these questions and I am learning a lot about how students are approaching the course.

I am also catching several of those minor problems that end up exploding in my face. For instance, one student said s/he felt like I was not respecting students’ time because I was always holding them over late after the class period has ended. I was puzzled because I am pretty sure I never do that. But then it dawned on me that the clock in the classroom is 3 minutes fast, so when the class lets out at (say) 3:30, it reads 3:33. If you didn’t realize the clock was fast, you’d think I was holding people 3 minutes over time. I’ve mentioned the fastness of the clock before in class, but I guess I wasn’t clear enough about it.

These voluntary course evaluations aren’t rocket science, and many of my colleagues do this on a regular basis, and so did I, once upon a time. So I don’t want to break my arm patting myself on the back here — I’m just pleased that I’m getting good information from my students in a time frame where I can work with it.

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