Thoughts on Education – 6/6/2012 – Studying in college

I wonder about this all the time.  How much work do students really do in a class?  I don’t know if my own memories are clouded by the distance, but I certainly remember working a lot in college.  Admittedly, I went to an upper-tier private school, but still, I worked on my classes every day of the week.  The only day that I took off completely throughout almost all of my college experience was Friday.  I only worked a few Fridays over the four years I did my undergraduate work.  All other days were fair game, and I usually did school work on all other days.  Now, I did not study all the time by any means, and I did plenty of other things as well, but I just remember doing almost all of the assigned readings, working on assignments before they were due, and just generally being engaged throughout the school year as a full-time student.  Of course, I did have the luxury of being a full-time student, working only enough to earn some extra spending money, so that did affect what I did.

At my community college now, things could not be more different.  We struggle to get the students to do any work, and certainly do not expect the students to work on anything any earlier than absolutely necessary.  Of course, it is a community college, and the students here are largely not that strong academically and often work in addition to going to school.  Still, it is disappointing and difficult to try and teach students like this.  I’m certainly not trying to romanticize my own background, but I think I was a pretty good and pretty diligent student overall.  I had good semesters and bad semesters, good classes and bad classes, but I consistently did my work, paid attention to assignments, and was mostly engaged in my classes.

I’m certainly not the only one who has noted this.  You just have to talk with any of my fellow instructors, or really instructors in general, and we all feel like the students aren’t doing enough.  It is easy to dismiss this, as it is the same type of thing that teachers have been saying about students for a long time.  I’m sure my own professors groaned about me and my fellow students as well.  So, I don’t know if I’m really bringing up anything new, but I have come across a couple of articles on the subject as well.

This Washington Post article is interesting, just from the perspective that it takes.  According to the article, the average student today studies around 15 hours a week, whereas in the 1960s, the total was 24.  Even at the “better” universities, apparently the average is only up around 18 hours a week.  The article then notes the 5 top reporting schools, each of which exceed this average.  Most are small, isolate, private liberal-arts schools, with the University of Wisconsin being the only exception.  I have to wonder, however, what the average is at my community college, as I’m assuming that community colleges were not included in these numbers, although I could be wrong.

Also in the Washington Post, is this article, asking the question, “Is college too easy?”  It takes these same statistics and turns it around.  Is the problem that the students aren’t working hard enough or is it that we instructors aren’t asking enough of them.  The data they have shows that the average student in the 1960s worked roughly 40 hours a week in college, while the average today is 27 hours a week.  That brings about the chicken-and-egg conundrum.  Are we asking less of students because we expect less of them or are students doing less because we ask less of them.  Or is it really a symbiotic relationship all the way around that has led to this decline?  I don’t really know.  I have taught for around 10 years now, and I can see the creep toward asking less and less.  This is especially true in an era of tight budgets and increased class sizes, since asking more of students means more work for me with no more (and sometimes less) compensation.  So, I wonder where to look to think about this problem.  Even my own wife has said to me that she remembers working harder in high school (over a decade ago) than in the bachelor’s degree program she just finished.

I don’t know what to think about it, so I’m just raising questions here.  What do you think?

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About Scott Williams

I am an educator, community-college instructor, thinker, husband, parent of four, student of life, player of video games, voracious reader, restless wanderer, and all-around guy.

3 responses to “Thoughts on Education – 6/6/2012 – Studying in college”

  1. ephraimsentries says :

    I’m currently a junior working on a bachelors in biology and I would say that, from my experience it is definitely easy to study less and not only get by but even get an A in a class. But these are usually classes where teachers do not care and either they give very few assignments or very easy assignments. And you usually do not even have to listen to their lectures to do well. Often they are oblivious of their own shortcomings as teachers in terms of actually realizing that what they are doing is not educating but actually detracting from the education of their students. There have been very few experiences and classes where I have had a great college professor and I not only got a good grade but had a great educative experience and I greatly cherished those times. I find that college is largely a marketplace for grades and less and less about learning. You ask the question “Are we asking less of students because we expect less of them or are students doing less because we ask less of them.” I think its both. I’m interested what your pedagogical style is to engage your students? I intend to do become a teacher, so I want to soak in as much perspective as possible.


    • Scott Williams says :

      Thanks for the reply. For many teachers, the dirty little secret is that we are all winging it to a certain extent. There is no “right” way to teach, and everyone has to figure out what works for them, as well as what works for their students. And most of us don’t get a lot of actual constructive feedback on what we do, which makes it even harder to figure out if we are doing it well or poorly. It is easy to blame the students, but there is a lot of blame to go around.

      I have been trying to figure out how to be more engaging and interesting in teaching, which is part of what this blog is about. I am increasingly disillusioned by the standard lecture model and am trying to find something new that will work. I will be completely reforming my class this fall to try and reach some of these goals. I am employing the “flipped’ model, moving the lecture materials outside of class and spending time in class on the application and process of history. I won’t know how it goes until I do it, but I will be putting in a lot of prep time this summer trying to get it all together.

      The question about its success will largely ride on that very quote you put in your reply. I’m going to be asking more of the students, as they will not be able to just sit back and have information fed to them. They will have to do the work ahead of time to be able to come in prepared to do the work. We shall see how effective it will be.


      • ephraimsentries says :

        As a student, I can definitely say the standard lecture model is very offputting. It’s great that realize that even as a teacher you are always learning how to be better one and altering approaches. I expect I will be doing that a lot. But unfortunately its either that students never constructively speak up, as you said, or that some teachers belive in their infallibility. I had a professor tell me I had no right to question his pedagogy, even though I was being respectful about it. Thanks for replying


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