Some years ago when I was looking for a job, I had an interview at a university on the East Coast of the US. One of the search committee members picked me up, and on the way we had a conversation. I asked what her impression was regarding the level of the students enrolled in the graduate program in her department. Her answer was as follows: “Generally, they’re okay, but you have to remember that they’re not like you or me.”
That was a very telling statement, but it turned out in subsequent interviews that I heard the same thing over and over: the students of today are not as good as the students of yesteryear.
Is this really the case? And if so, why?
Over the course of the last few years, I’ve been thinking about this more and more.
I feel that I’m in a better position to attempt to answer these questions now; I have four or five of my own graduate students at this moment, and I’ve had two that have graduated from my lab in the last couple years. In addition, I serve on our graduate (admissions) committee, I am chair of our graduate program curriculum committee and I teach and coordinate a course for graduate students.
And my conclusion? Yes, and no. I have encountered outstanding students who are as good or better than outstanding students that I knew from my own generation of students. In these outstanding students, the motivation that I witnessed was certainly not less than that of highly motivate students from my own graduate school days. At the same time, I believe that there is a general decline in the mean—in the average student. By decline, my intention is that there is a new means of perception that has crept into the ranks of many of today’s students. I call it “a sense of entitlement”. And I think it is a highly problematic view of the world for someone who intends on becoming a scientist.
As a child, I will remember the stories that my pediatrician father regaled me with concerning his own studies in medical school. The professor who chain-smoked cigarette after cigarette so that none of the students could even see the blackboard through the hazy fog in the room. The story of the anatomy professor who talked so fast that no one could possibly copy down notes on the slides he showed. The extent to which my father and his fellow students went—as far as bribing the custodian to let them in after-hours so that they could complete their notes.
When I myself was a graduate student, instructors used overhead projectors as teaching tools. When the professors would speak too quickly, we students would catch them after class and ask to borrow the overhead transparencies. We were always grateful when the instructors would acquiesce.
In the high-tech world of today, our teaching is done on “smart-boards”, using PDF or PowerPoint presentations. Moreover, it has become standard fare for professors to prepare in advance and post these presentations a week before the actual class takes place. In the classes I teach, it is rare for me to see students actually “taking notes”; this appears to be a thing of the past. I’m not sure if this is bad, or good, but my own feeling is that weaker students are less engaged without writing down key points from the lecture. I don’t want to get off target into a discussion as to whether taking notes improves learning or not—I know this is a topic that’s been debated rather frequently.
Technology has recently taken things a step farther. The lectures that I give him now are recorded automatically, synced with my slide presentation, and posted as a type of lecture-podcast online for the students enrolled in the course. Used properly, I think this is truly a wonderful tool. After all, students occasionally get sick, have personal or family issues, etc., and sometimes are forced to miss class. In addition, there are many students for whom English is a second language and the opportunity to review each lecture at their own pace is truly a phenomenal advance for them.
However, the bottom line is that I really don’t feel as though this technology is helping the majority of the students. There is this—sense of entitlement—and it seems as though students have come to expect that things automatically be made easy and simple for them. While I’m all in favor of taking advantage of technological advances to support and facilitate student learning, I see that the lack of appreciation and this—sense of entitlement—ends up leading to about one-third of the students actually not showing up for class. After all, if the entire lecture is recorded, the notes are available online, everyone can follow everything just as easily from home, isn’t it a waste of time to go to class?
While attending this class is officially a requirement, I’m not (quite) vain enough to feel that the students that I teach need to feel my presence by physically sitting in the room when I speak. They should be old enough, mature enough, and wise enough to make such choices on their own. But experience (and exam scores) show that there are a number of students who certainly aren’t disciplined enough and bright enough to be able to do this course entirely by remote control. The overall performance supports my contention that a fair number of the students are abusing these privileges awarded them, rather than taking advantage of them.
This is only one example of what I perceive to be a heightened sense of entitlement among a growing number of students from the current generation.
I know that comparisons are unfair, but when I look at my own undergraduate and graduate studies, that followed 3 tough years in the military, working 18 hour days and spending long hours studying seemed like a picnic. As long as I was dry, warm, and had access to food and drink when I was hungry, life was great. Obviously, I do not expect students to have such a world-view of their academic life.
One final illustration of this enhanced sense of entitlement: when I began to coordinate a graduate course some years ago, I found a type of loophole that bothered me. While our exams are given in such a fashion so that instructors who grade them have no idea who wrote them, students would later show up with their graded exams and appeal in person to the instructor. I found that students who made more of a fuss, complained more, cried more, or generally managed to pressure instructors and elicit sympathy, were gaining a lot of additional points compared to their silent student counterparts. I thought that this was a particularly awkward way of dealing with appeals; after all the instructor would be faced with an upset, nervous, or angry student, who would sit in the office until the instructor had read the answer again, generating a tremendous amount of direct pressure.
As a result, I soon managed to put a new policy in place whereby students would need to appeal in writing and present their examinations and written appeals to the administrative secretary, who would then send them on to the instructor. This eliminated the face-to-face pressure and kept anonymity in the system. Remarkably, the number of appeals decreased by more than 90% the first time we used this system.
One more point: in the US we use the letter grade system, with the letter “A” being the best, “B” being good, and anything below not being sufficient for graduate-level. Moreover, while these letters translate to specific percentage ranges, these percentages are never actually achieved, so the letter grades are derived from statistical formulae that are based on the normal distribution for the given exam(s).
Why am I mentioning all of this? In order to be able to relate a recent “sense of entitlement” episode that really bothered me.
I was extremely upset recently when I received an e-mail from a student who wanted to know how many points away he was from jumping to the next letter grade. His stated reason was that he wanted to know whether it was ‘worth his while to bother arguing a few points’. My answer was that if he had a valid appeal, and thought that he deserved additional points, he should go right ahead and appeal. He was upset with my answer, and wrote to me that he “doesn’t want to waste his time” unless he has a shot at increasing his letter grade.
That sense of entitlement really hammered home the issue for me. Uncharacteristically, for with students I usually display a good degree of patience, I answered: “This is not a game. Appeals are designed for students who truly believe that instructors have unfairly graded portions of the exam. If you believe this is the case, please go ahead and appeal. Otherwise, stop wasting my time.”
Do you think that was the end of the story? A few minutes later I received an angry phone call from this very student, who was upset that I had accused him of playing games. What does one make of that?
It’s clear to me that a student with such an attitude is not going to go very far in academia. But I do feel that it’s rather sad that this overwhelming sense of entitlement has managed to filter into the ranks of advanced science students. And I don’t have a solution.