A sense of entitlement

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.

About Steve Caplan

I am a Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha, Nebraska where I mentor a group of about 10 students, postdoctoral fellows and researchers working on endocytic protein trafficking. My first lablit novel, "Matter Over Mind," is about a biomedical researcher seeking tenure and struggling to overcome the consequences of growing up with a parent suffering from bipolar disorder. Lablit novel #2, "Welcome Home, Sir," published by Anaphora Literary Press, deals with a hypochondriac principal investigator whose service in the army and post-traumatic stress disorder actually prepare him well for academic, but not personal success. Novel #3, "A Degree of Betrayal," is an academic murder mystery that is now in press! All views expressed are my own, of course--after all, I hate advertising. http://www.stevecaplan.net
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20 Responses to A sense of entitlement

  1. Mike says:

    Interesting post, Steve. A potentially useful tip I heard during some pedagogical training was that any material posted online for students, derived from lectures they really should attend, is to deliberately leave some blanks that can only be filled in by attending the lecture. Students with genuine reasons for missing a lecture will find it easy to approach the lecturer and ask for information, those who prefer to slack off will find it harder to keep coming back and asking for the answers.

    I think some of your experiences reflect not only changes in students expectations of how universities should work, but also changes in the higher level administrative approach to how students should be treated. Lecturers seem to have greater expectations placed on them than previously, on a variety of fronts.

    • Steve Caplan says:

      Mike,

      Those are a couple of good points. An experienced lecturer taught me the tip about not putting everything into the handouts to keep the students engaged. However, the podcast of the lecture tends to make this less relevant.

      With regards to how students should be treated–I also agree and think there needs to be a lot more discussion about this. My own view is that particularly at the graduate level, students should be offered all of the opportunities and technology, but they need to “take the bull by the horns”. I can’t see how mandatory attendance in lectures (or even departmental seminars) helps. But I think I can do an entire blog on motivation, and on what basis Ph.D. degrees should be awarded.

  2. one thing i learned as a student about reading lecture material prior to attending lecture was that the lecture itself was a much richer experience since i came prepared with REAL questions — the questions i had after i’d actually read (and at times, mapped out) the information in the lecture material.

    as a professor, i learned that the smart and engaged students will always learn, regardless of what we do to prevent that.

  3. chall says:

    Even if I think the whole “when I was young everything was harder and we ate gravel for breakfast” might be more a thought than “true”… I do think that there are some differences in today’s attitude in “general” studies at uni (and in life maybe?). Mainly maybe because education has been opened to new groups that didn’t have access before – not as much help from home maybe? – as well as larger classes and that may or may not influence the whole education.

    As well as of course imho the whole thing with easier access to fancy tools, faster life (quicker gathering of information with just a “click away on the computer” that make it maybe a bit harder to learn from an early age that things might take time and be hard?! I know that I got a bit of a shock when I took a class in “differences in learning” and realised exactly how various ways people pick up information (visual, hearing, kinetic, voicing or how one phrases it!?) since I’ve really realised that I am greatly helped by taking actual writing notes with a pen on paper in order to remember things, not just typing on a computer (as a note taking in class for example) or listening… and that group discussions really help me.

    sometimes I wish that we had the opportunities to teach “old school” methods with small groups and discussions and time, but at the same time getting as various and plenty students as we do today. I do think that technique helps more, but I don’t know (anecdotal isn’t data and all that…)

  4. chall says:

    …and I was going to write as well that the “written form of a appeal of exam grading” seems like a great idea!

    I remember all too well the discussions with students about “I didn’t get the 5 points but only 4” and when they added one point to all questions they ended up with a different grade (if they got it). We also had the anonymous exams when I graded so you didn’t know who had written it. In my opinion, a good thing since it removed some of the thought process from me on who wrote what etc.

  5. Steve Caplan says:

    @GrrlScientist

    I agree that the top students will always fare well. It’s those that are in the middle that concern me. Since science has such a pyramidal system, of course there is a heavy reliance on ALL students for research, not only those who are outstanding.

    @Chall

    I think you are correct about the reasons for the differences. A biomedical research student today will encounter far more methods/techniques than in my day–due to the easy availability of kits and the fast-paced life that has moved into science. This makes it challenging for some students to really gain a full mastery of their work–even for PIs, you can have a rather shallow technical knowledge, yet with enough money to buy what you need, you can still do good research.

    As for larger groups–I’m not sure. I start uni in a group of “biologists” taking a 3-year program. There were about 230 in first year, and after organic, physical and general chemistry, along with physics, higher math and computer programming in first year, there were only about 150 that went on to 2nd year. It may be that universities today don’t want attrition, because it costs tuition revenue, and this has filtered down to the students’ consciousness.

  6. KristiV says:

    We’re forced to use Powerpoint for our lectures, whether to medical, dental, or graduate students; in most cases, the slides must be posted to Blackboard in advance of the lectures, and must match the content and order of the “syllabus” (printed lecture notes). In the smaller graduate classes, such as the evo-devo one I’m teaching at the moment, each student gets printed color copies of the Powerpoint slides. I’m waiting for the inevitable next generation of this: lecture notes and slides will be like one of those read-along audiobooks for children, with a bell to signal when you’re supposed to turn the page.

    I dislike Powerpoint, and I suspect that conforming to its idiosyncrasies has knocked off a few of my already insufficiently plentiful IQ points. I think that everyone who uses it, especially if you think it’s a Good Thing, should read Edward R. Tufte’s essay, The Cognitive Style of Powerpoint: Pitching Out Corrupts Within. However, because I teach primarily in the old-fashioned anatomical sciences, I have many opportunities to use other methods, and to interact with students in small groups. There’s still a place for cadaver dissections, drawing pathways and structures, and making gastrulae and thalami out of polymer clay. Our medical school curriculum will change within a couple of years, with more small group learning and less huge lecture hall lecturing. If that means less Powerpoint-mediated dumbification of my brainz, then I’m all for it.

    • Steve Caplan says:

      Kristi,

      I couldn’t agree with you more about power point teaching. Those are the same rules/system that we have in place, with “BlackBoard” etc. The only difference is that I refuse to do it in power point, so my lecture notes are given as a PDF document derived from WORD–which I believe (even without reading the essay you suggested) is a far more appropriate mode for delivery.

      I think that you are correct about the “dumbnification” of classroom teaching. It’s almost like the music groups that used to appear on television shows years ago and “play” their songs when the music was really pre-recorded. When I recall an interesting anecdote or scientific tidbit in a lecture I can really sense the fear and anger in the lecture hall that I am talking about something not strictly in the handouts. This again strikes me as part of the new sense of entitlement that is out there.

      • KristiV says:

        Unfortunately, the cognitive style of Powerpoint, with its bullets and chartjunk, has so permeated the team-taught courses, that the lecture notes now resemble the slides. Ugh. One of the students showed me another presentation format, Prezi, which looks very non-linear and interesting. I’d never be allowed to use it for lectures though.

        For neuroanatomical pathways, which I’m teaching at the moment, I use brainstem templates on an overhead projector and draw the pathways slowly enough that the students can do the same on their printed templates. I also draw the pathways from scratch in the small group sessions (“small” for me is 25-40 students). I really encourage the students to develop the ability to draw major pathways from memory – for the exams, they can spend about 5 minutes “downloading” the pathways onto a blank cover sheet that we give them, and then refer to the pathway drawings to answer complex questions about lesions. Another good thing about drawing pathways from scratch is that you can encode a lot of information into the drawing: receptors, neurotransmitters, decussations, pathologies, somatotopy, etc.

      • Mike says:

        If you don’t like Powerpoint, Pages has a really nice, old-school “Chalkboard” format 😉 Files can also be saved as a ppt, pdf, odp formats.

        The point about different learning styles ties in with the greater expectations placed on lecturers I mentioned above. During pedagogical training, I felt pressure to prepare sessions that included teaching for all types of learning styles. This is an enormous task, and it’s questionable whether spreading the teaching styles in this way benefits all students equally – there may be a tendency to increase the class mean by helping lower ability students, but not equally helping the best students achieve even better results (which is really what universities are for, in my opinion).

        This introduces a real tension between academic teachers (who want to encourage the best students to do even better) and administrators, who want to minimize attrition, keep bums on seats and money coming in.

  7. cromercrox says:

    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’

    This student will go far. He or she would be a formidabkle adversary of any editor dumb enough to reject their manuscripts.

    (runs away)

    (hides)

  8. Steve Caplan says:

    Ahhh–but to submit a manuscript the student will have to realize that the words and figures will not jump off the page and self-assemble…

  9. Martin says:

    Wow,

    Whilst on my rounds fixing university computers yesterday I had a lecturer in law make just such a comment to me about his undergraduate intake of the past couple of years, seems this goes beyond the sciences.

    In the UK this is about to get worse as many students will be spending £9000 a year for studies for the first time ever. That power as purchaser intensifies the strength of entitlement further. Curiously though the lecturer I was talking to believes the foreign students who pay even more do show a greater dedication to their studies, though this could also be more to do with the fact they are overseas students who are already displaying a stronger commitment by travellling to learn.

    note: I am most definitely not an academic type, I just make sure they have the tools to do the job

  10. Steve Caplan says:

    Martin,

    Thanks for the input–that’s an excellent point. Spending money for education definitely increases the sense of entitlement. I’ve been talking about graduate students, who are not paying anything–but when it comes to medical students or undergraduate students–well–we pay for this, so we deserve blah, blah, blah.

  11. ricardipus says:

    Hm. I was a teaching assistant for medical students for five years. Believe me, *that* is a group of students who will quibble about tiny increases in their marks. Part of the system that places future success (prime residency positions, for example) in some (large?) part on where they fall in the class rankings.

    As for lectures, let me quote the now-retired Professor Wintle (physics), who believed firmly that lectures were a waste of time and that the students should simply read the textbook instead. Not sure I totally agree, but it’s an interesting alternative dogma.

  12. Odgred Weary says:

    Your answer to Mr. Entitlement should be “In twenty years, you will remember this conversation and feel the shame you should feel now. Goodbye.”

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