Monday, August 18, 2008

The 'Over-extended Student' and Meeting Student Expectations

In the discussion of the post I most recently put up, Kevin Schulte presented a scenario of what I referred to as an example of the ‘overextended’ student. This is becoming an increasingly larger phenomenon that is placing a potential strain on the student/teacher role relationship. As educators we are aware of the changing demographics of our students. We realize that the ‘traditional’ student is on the decline as more students are coming to college with commitments that extend well beyond what we associated with the ‘traditional’ concept of a person who was 18-22 years old, taking a full load and limiting outside work /family activities in order to make the ‘college experience’ the central focus of their lives. We have people who are returning to school after years in the workforce and/or raising families to take higher educational courses either for self-improvement reasons or to earn a degree to enhance their economic opportunities. Not a semester goes by where I do not have students that reflect Kevin’s situation. The important question is how to accommodate these students without sacrificing the level of academic content or expectations associated with college degrees?

I think that we need to understand the situations of overextended students as an internal conflict within their roles as student, employee, parent, etc, as well as an external conflict between the professor’s role and the role of the student. To get straight to my main point, I do not think that as a professor I am obligated to settle the conflicts that arise within a person’s particular roles that they knowingly and freely assumed by restructuring the requirements of the course if I believe that each serves an important function in learning the material that I am teaching. I spend a great deal of time preparing for these courses as often they are the only exposure to philosophy that most students will have during their college experience. I want to make the course as interesting and challenging as I can without placing unreasonable expectations and requirements on students. But, I do want them to understand that philosophy/ethics can have a direct and profound impact on their lives. Furthermore, we all need to learn to live with and to adapt to the consequences of our choices and actions. I am not forcing people to take my course, or be in school, or have outside work, or family requirements. My course is one of many that they can choose from to meet their graduation requirements. I do have an obligation to make the material in the course I teach to be reflective of the general knowledge and trends in the field at the level of the course being offered and to treat everyone fairly. One thing I do to help accomplish this to is to post a detailed syllabus on Blackboard for each course I teach @ 2 weeks before the start of the semester so students know what they have signed-on for. Students can read the syllabus and contact me before the start of the course if they have concerns/questions or they can drop the course if they do not want to do the work. I will make accommodations as legitimate needs arise and cannot be addressed by what is stated in the syllabus.

There is a related issue that concerns what some students seem to expect in intro or Gen Ed courses. Recently I (and other teachers I have talked too) have had students who think they are entitled to get a good grade in intro courses simply because they are a Gen Ed course and therefore, in their minds, the course does not matter as much as a course in their major or a higher level course. Some students also think that the workload should be lighter in 100 level courses, not some many tests/papers, etc. I have had students complain to me about having to read Descartes’ Meditations because it is too long! Now, I will admit that these students are in the minority, but the numbers seem to be increasing. A level 100 course should not be as demanding as a 300-400 level course in the same subject. But that does not mean that a 100 level course should be a ‘cake walk.’ To help make sure that students understand how I view my courses, I have added the following statement to all my level 100 courses:

"Note: Please be aware that even though this is a level 100 and Gen Ed course this does not mean that it is easier then higher-level, non-Gen Ed courses. Philosophy, by its nature, is a difficult subject and may be unlike anything you have been exposed to before. To be successful you will need to develop a critical attitude to what is being discussed. My goal is for you to be as successful as possible in this course. If you need additional help or clarification of the material, please make use of my office hours or e-mail. I do factor in effort and improvement in the determination of the final grade."

In a sense I am, as a professor, no different then an employer. Should employers be required to be flexible in their work environment to allow people to adjust their work hours/requirements to meet their other needs or do employees need to adjust their other needs to meet the requirements of the workplace? This is a difficult question, but my straightforward answer is ‘no’. If I make an exception for a person in one situation such as being overextended, do I then have to make exceptions for those who do not have time to do the research for a project because the hours spent on doing the research may take them away from other obligations they have? Having worked in manufacturing for 35 years before becoming a full-time professor I can testify that employers expect people to perform up to the stated objectives of the organization or face negative sanctions for failing to do so. I too faced situations of being ‘overextended’ in my life and I sacrificed my business career advancements for family. I was not ‘dedicated’ enough as an employee because I placed my family 1st and wanted to actively participate in the raising of our children and to allow my wife to compete her educational goals. It was my choice to do so and it did work out for the best. I was actively involved in the early years of my children’s lives, my wife got two baccalaureate degrees, and I got my MA degree in philosophy. Eventually I did rise in the ranks to Foundry Manager, Plant Manger and Director of Operations in three different organizations so I was even successful in manufacturing, but on my terms! I did not expect my employers to ‘bend over backwards’ to accommodate my other commitments, nor did I hold it against them when they required me to live up to what I had promised them. I was able to work it out, but it did cost me professionally for some years. Consequently, I treat students as employees and the syllabus as a contract.

As a professional what exactly do I owe my students? I think I am obligated to perform my professional tasks as follows:
1) Treat people with respect. This includes realizing that some students may not be as intrinsically interested in my subject as I am.
2) Be knowledgeable in my area of expertise.
3) Be able to communicate effectively. This includes using diverse teaching methods.
4) Have clear and reasonable expectations regarding what is required to be successful in my courses. I should be able to explain and justify what I am requiring students to do.
5) Clearly state the criteria I will use to evaluate student work.
6) Make myself available to students who desire additional interaction.
7) Make exceptions/accommodations if there are legitimate reasons for doing so and be aware that if I make an exception/accommodation do I need to extend this to others?
8) Treat the syllabus as a contract between my students and me. Do not make changes in the syllabus arbitrarily, but only after discussion with those affected utilizing a method for change that is fair to all.

The changing demographics and expectations of our students places an very interesting challenge on us as educators on how best to meet the needs of our students within the context of providing a good, sound educational experience. We do not want to cheapen the quality and outcome of the experience and we must be aware that our role in providing for a good quality education is to challenge our students to broaden their conceptual frameworks and outlooks with an educational experience that is well thought out, reasonable, and attainable.

I would be greatly interested I how others think about this difficult subject.


  1. John, thanks for this very timely and thoughtful post. I would say not that the traditional students are on the decline so much as the non-traditional are on the rise, but that's a small point.

    You're certainly right that communicating clear expectations to students and adopting professional standards is the best way to deal with overextended students. At the same time, I wonder how many students really are overextended as opposed to, say, lacking dedication or focus. I suspect that many students manage to find time to surf the Web, text one another, etc., yet are surprised to find themselves 'overextended'! And I would echo your points about flexibility: In most cases, students don't have to take the course I teach, or if they do, they can take a section at another time, or enroll at another university, etc.

    In light of this overextension, I think we need to help students make choices about managing their time and energy, and I worry that sometimes we (collectively) put students in impossible situations. Let me give an example: It strikes me as crazy that universities have a final exam week, or a week when midterms typically occur, so that students have to prepare for exams, etc., in all of their courses at once. I've not studied the question, but I suspect that bunching together tasks in different courses leads to more cramming and less learning. To avoid this, I often structure my classes so that students have many choices and options as to which tasks to complete: they write a final paper or take a final exam, or there's a weekly writing assignment but students have to complete six of these during the term, etc. This way students can space out their academic work in a more manageable way. Of course, some students blow it when given this amount of choice, and end up failing. But many students respond positively to the chance to organize their time more on their terms rather than ours. Just a thought ...

  2. I don't think it is the professor's responsibility to accomodate the overextended student. The overextended student is responsible for recognizing the consequences of her choices, and I think most overextended students recognize this. I knew, even during those years when I worked so hard, that I could have performed better in many of my courses if I took fewer per semester or cut down my work hours. It is very much a conscious choice to accept that additional burden and the consequences that come with it, and if one's choices (given one's desire and abilities) entail that one can only get into a second or third tier graduate school rather than a top-tier school, well, that's the consequence of those decisions.

    I think the unfortunate source of your student's expectations that an intro-level course be easy might just be the fact that in nearly every other academic subject, they always are. One of the main things that initially drew me to major in philosophy is that the content of my papers mattered as much as their grammar and structure.

    One tip I would pass on to any third-year or fourth-year overextended students is to try to take two or three courses from the same professor in a single semester. (I never planned it, but this worked out very well for me twice.) The professor will tend to schedule papers at different times for each course to ease his or her own grading burdens, which can help to avoid having multiple assignments due the same day or week.


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