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Student and Faculty Expectations about Responsibilities – Highlights from a Conversation

Posted by on Friday, April 15, 2011 in News.

by CFT Assistant Director Derek Bruff

Last month, the CFT hosted a conversation titled “Negotiating Student Expectations about Freedom and Responsibility.” We’ve found that when students and faculty have very different expectations about teaching and learning, a variety of teaching challenges can result, frequently leading to frustration for both teachers and students. We’re planning to explore this topic throughout 2011, and last month’s conversation was our second event in this exploration. (I previously blogged some highlights from our first conversation, one on expectations about grades.)

The conversation last month was exploratory in nature, designed to surface various perspectives on the different expectations students and faculty can have about their respective responsibilities but not necessarily to leave participants with concrete solutions for negotiating these expectations. We were glad to have several undergrads participate in the discussion.  It seemed important to have student voices part of a conversation on student expectations!

Below are some perspectives on three aspects of this topic that seemed to generate the most discussion, along with a list of other areas in which student and faculty expectations about responsibilities sometimes diverge.

Attendance Policies

Should instructors use attendance policies to hold students accountable for coming to class?  Here are some arguments in favor of attendance policies that were raised during the discussion:

  • Attending class helps students learn the course material.
  • A student who skips class doesn’t contribute his or her unique perspective to the class discussion, negatively affecting other students’ learning opportunities.
  • Instructors have to come to class. Why not students, too?
  • An instructor’s job is to help all students learn, not just those students responsible enough to come to class without some form of accountability.

And some arguments against attendance policies:

  • Students who miss classes are likely to do poorly on other assessments (exams, papers).  Why penalize them further through an attendance policy?
  • Requiring unmotivated students to attend class results in poorer quality discussions and classroom management problems. Better to let these students skip class.
  • The goal is student learning.  If students can learn the material well enough (or better) without coming to class, they should be allowed to do so.
  • Students should learn to be responsible for their own education and for managing their time. Attendance policies short circuit this learning process.

For one student’s perspective on this topic, read this guest blog post by Erin Baldwin, Class of 2014: “From a Student’s View: Fair Attendance Policies.”

“Doing the Reading”

Should students be expected to “do the reading” before class? Participants noted that students who don’t complete pre-class readings for discussion-based classes aren’t able to contribute as meaningfully to those class discussions.  And students who do the reading are likely to be frustrated with those who don’t, particularly if they “drag down” the class discussion.

It was also noted that an instructor who reviews the reading at the start of class (often because s/he suspects that many students haven’t come to class prepared) tacitly encourages students not to do the reading. This creates a negative feedback loop in which students are rewarded for not preparing for class, and is something about which instructors should be cautious.

Some participants questioned the wisdom of requiring pre-class readings, particularly extensive ones. They noted that it can be challenging for a novice to make sense of a lengthy reading before hearing the instructor’s take on the material. One student participant noted that she is often able to understand her readings better after class, once she gets a sense of the “big picture” from her instructor. One option for instructors to assist students struggling with reading assignments is to provide them with guiding questions for each reading, giving them a sense of that “big picture” before class.

Participants also mentioned that students are often highly pragmatic in how they approach their studies. If it’s possible to do well in a course without doing the readings before class (or without doing all the readings at any point in a course), many students will elect to use their limited time working on other courses. Other students (and instructors) see value in reading broadly for a course, however.

Exam Preparation

Should instructors provide students with some sort of exam review aid (e.g. practice exam, review guide) before tests?  This question generated a lot of discussion.  It was noted that fraternities and sororities keep copies of old exams on file, perhaps giving students in the Greek system an advantage over other students unless instructors provide exam review aids of comparable usefulness.  However, some participants argued that if a student doesn’t know the material for an exam by that point in the semester, a review guide won’t help much.

Some participants floated the argument that an instructor’s responsibility to prepare students for exams is fulfilled through class sessions, and that additional support (such as review guides) isn’t required.  Along those lines, one student said that she doesn’t expect an exam review aid from her instructors, but that she’s happy to receive one when it’s made available.

Participants identified different aspects of an exam that might be highlighted in a review guide—the course content that’s “fair game” for the exam, the format of the exam, or the level of difficulty of the exam questions (factual recall, application, and so on).

Other Points of Contention

During breakout group discussions, workshop participants surfaced a variety of other areas where students and faculty sometimes have different expectations for their respective responsibilities.  Here are a few:

  • Returning Graded Work – How long should students wait to receive back their graded work?  A couple of days?  A week?  This depends on the nature of the assignment, of course.  The length of time it takes to grade student work has an impact on their subsequent learning and performance in a course, however.
  • Make-Up Work – Should assignment deadlines be hard and fast or should students be allowed to make up work with a sufficiently reasonable excuse?  Is allowing one student to make up an assignment fair to other students who completed it on time?  If make-up work is not allowed, might that unfairly punish students with legitimate reasons for not completing the original assignment?  And what relationship does this issue have with preparation for students’ professional work after college?
  • Missed Classes – Should instructors review class material during office hours with students who miss classes?  Are students entitled to this given how much tuition they or their parents or sponsors are paying?  Or does that tuition essentially pay for an “event ticket” and if they miss the show, it’s their problem?
  • Mobile Devices in the Classroom – Should students be allowed to use laptops and other mobile, connected devices during class? Or should instructors disallow this to prevent a variety of potential distractions? Are there other options for handling the “wireless in the classroom” issue?  See these highlights from a fall 2010 conversation on this topic for some ideas.

Earlier this semester, guest blogger Mara Truslow (Class of 2013) explored another aspect of this topic in her post “From a Student’s View: Freedom and Structure Within a Course.” In her post, Mara discussed the extent to which students should be able to set their own learning objectives in a course.

The CFT will continue to explore the topic of negotiating student expectations for learning throughout 2011. Look for more guest blog posts in our “From a Student’s View” series, as well as additional conversations this fall. We hope to put together a set of suggested strategies for negotiating and clarifying expectations, as well.

Image: “Design is a good idea,” Dirk Dallas, Flickr (CC)

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