The Worst Students Ever…

“Ugh, I can’t believe we have to learn this crap,” said an older male student to a classmate. ”I know, right. This class is a joke," said a younger woman sitting next to him. The two of them looked liked the rest of the students in the room. I was observing another instructor’s class and he had a TOUGH room.

The instructor, who I’ll keep anonymous, tried every trick in the book to get the students engaged. He used thought provoking questions. He beamed with enthusiasm for his topic. He used engaging activities like think/pair/shares. It made no difference.

“Can you just tell us exactly what we need to know?” a student asked at one point. “Damn,” I thought to myself, “this class is taking utilitarianism to a new high.” Later during the class a student cut off the instructor with, “Are you going to make your slides available? What about some handouts, study guides, or cheat sheets? As much as I’m getting from today’s class, this isn’t going to really help me when I need to apply this information.” My eyes and mouth popped open with surprise. I had found the worst group of students ever. But here’s the thing…

This was a class full of faculty learning to use a new piece of class management software. At that moment it occurred to me; faculty are some of the worst students ever.

Finding Patience By Finding Empathy

“Students these days are awful!” is a common refrain in faculty meetings around the world. When faculty get their “shop talk” on, it’s only a matter of time before some one says, “When I was a student we had to [fill in the blank with some studious, noble, or other behavior which makes students of yesteryear sound righteous]” Frustrated faculty are certain of one thing; students today are not what they used to be.

Inside their frustration, which is undoubtedly warranted, faculty fall victim to the fundamental attribution error. When we think about why other people behave the way they do, we are prone to attribute another’s behavior to who they are as a person instead of attributing their behavior to their circumstances. So when we say “students these days” we are stereotyping based on the idea that students today are fundamentally different in character than we were when we were students.

We are sociologists who implore our students to use empirical methods to understand how the larger social context affects the actions of individuals. Then in our next breath we use our anecdotal experiences to decry the individual characteristics of our students “these days”. That’s rich, no?

The next time you have a “students these days” sentence dancing on your tongue, try to remember the last time you participated in a learning situation. Did you do the assigned reading? Did you play on your phone during the meeting? Did you have a face on that looked utterly bored to death? Did you struggle to keep from dozing off? Chances are if you think long enough about your own recent classroom behavior you may find that “faculty these days” are pretty similar to “students these days”. And when you find empathy for your students I’m betting you will find it much easier to reach them and teach them.