By Doug Ward

Education changes people.

Those of us who teach know that well. We see students transform during their degrees, and sometimes during a semester. Their skills improve. Their thinking deepens. Their confidence blossoms.

As it changes minds, though, education also changes the relationships students have with family and friends, adding stress to students’ lives from an unexpected source. Students generally learn to cope with those changes, but they often aren’t sure how to broach the subject with family and friends. They don’t want to anger others, or make them feel diminished. But they also don’t want to hold themselves back.

That personal aspect of learning is just one of many issues that students have brought up during focus groups I’ve led on learning, engagement, and student motivation over the past two years. I wrote recently about what students say helps them learn. Students openly admit that they struggle with many aspects of higher education, though. If we are willing to listen, they will tell us what they think we need to know.

What students want faculty to know

Some of students’ best experiences in college come from meaningful discussions with professors who have expertise in a particular field or who simply take time to learn who they are and help them find their way. Students rave about professors who “made me feel comfortable and made time for me.”

celka straughn, phil baringer and andrea greenhoot at the student learning symposium
Celka Straughn, director of academic programs at the Spencer Museum of Art, speaks with Phil Barringer, professor of physics, during a lunch session at the Student Learning Symposium. Andrea Greenhoot, director of CTE (background), led the session.

On the other hand, students say that professors who come across as unapproachable, condescending, and inflexible diminish the value of classes, majors, and degrees. Some of those professors simply won’t make time for students, though students recognize the challenge that large classes bring. Big lectures make students feel lost and anonymous, they say, and professors in those classes often have a hard time connecting to students.

Other obligations. Remember that students are taking more than your class. They also have obligations at work, family and organizations. Also remind students about office hours. Yes, they know about office hours, they say, but a reminder now and then helps.

Pointless classes. Far too many classes seem pointless, students say. They give a variety of reasons for that:

  • Some classes lack any relation to students’ goals or interests, and faculty members fail to explain the point of the class. All too often, the same professors who challenge colleagues to explain the “so what?” of research don’t ask the same question about the courses they teach. “I’m at point where I know what I want to do,” one student said. “I value the time and money I put into a class.”
  • Some courses within a major are too basic, students say. They want to be challenged, and some assignments seem like little more than busy work.
  • Some faculty members come across as pretentious and diminish the subject matter of their classes. They may think their class covers the most important topic in the world, students say, but simply saying that doesn’t make it so.

Professors also need to be clearer about the expectations of classes, students say. Some classes require more independent learning; others require students to follow specific guidelines. Students can work with either system, they say. They just need clear expectations.

What students want administrators to know

College costs too much. This is both a political and institutional issue, especially at a state university. Students understand the politics of state reductions in university financing and the corresponding rise in tuition. They also want a strong, vibrant university. Yet most have jobs to help pay college costs, they say, and some work 20 to 35 hours a week.

Advising is uneven. Most students rave about their advisors, especially the ones in their majors. They have harsh words for the general advising system, though. “For every good comment I’ve heard about general advisors, I’ve heard three bad ones,” one student said. Friends had been told to take classes they didn’t need, delaying graduation. One mentioned a friend who was told at freshman orientation that he had five minutes to figure out his first schedule. Most certainly, this isn’t a typical experience. Stories like these stand out in students’ minds, though, and cast a shadow on the advising system. Advisors and faculty members also need to keep an open mind, students say. Students change their minds about majors and classes as they learn more about themselves and their interests, and just learn more in general.

Smaller classes make a difference. I’ve heard this over and over from students, and pedagogical research backs it up. Those least equipped to handle large lecture classes are beginning students, yet those are the very students required to enroll in those classes. Many instructors have worked to overcome the weakness of large classes with in-class group work and two-stage exams, techniques that help shrink the class and improve student learning. Students at the most recent learning symposium spoke about the many benefits of that. Unfortunately, active learning in large classes is still rare.

Students generally rave about first-year seminars, saying that those types of courses help them make connections and help them acclimate to university learning. Some suggest a broader requirement for an orientation-type course that focuses on how to learn and how to structure your life in college.

Make classes more transparent. Students say they want to be able to make more informed decisions about the classes they take. Some want evaluations of courses and professors made public. They would take the evaluation system more seriously, they said, if they saw the results and knew their comments could help future students. They see the current system as opaque and don’t see that their evaluations matter much. That’s one reason they turn to sources like RateMyProfessor.com. They understand the downside of that sort of ratings system – that students who have had really good or really bad experiences are most likely to post – but they say the university has offered them no other options.

What students want families and friends to know

Students are often surprised by how education changes their relationships with friends and family members, they said. That’s especially true with first-generation college students, whose burgeoning independence, broadening views of the world, and distance from home make them wonder what to talk about with family and old friends. Those who had once anchored their lives seem to drift away as their lives change, they form new friendships, and they begin to understand better who they are.

As you can imagine, that unmooring generates stress. Students still care about family and friends back home, but they are torn between a new life and an old life. Family members and longtime friends, they say, sometimes don’t seem to value the changes the students are undergoing. Those changing relationships add to the stress students feel, and that stress can be enormous. A recent study of American freshmen found that a third felt overwhelmed by all the things they had to do in college.

None of this is particularly surprising, but it serves as a good reminder about the complexities of higher education. Students some to college to learn, and yet learning involves a tangle of interrelated components. Students at one focus group were especially vocal about something they wanted faculty members to keep in mind:

We are people, too.


Doug Ward is the associate director of the Center for Teaching Excellence and an associate professor of journalism. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.

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