I recently finished Rebekah Nathan’s My Freshman Year, a gripping yet disturbing book. Nathan, an anthropologist, spent a sabbatical as a freshman at her own university, taking classes and living in the dorm. The book is a fascinating study of university from the studentsâ€™ perspective, at least as close a perspective as an adult can get.
What was Nathan’s primary insight?
How little intellectual life seemed to matter in college. This is not to say that no one cared about her education or that everyone cut all his classes. Rather, what I observed was that engagement in the philosophical and political issues of the day was not a significant part of college student culture.
What then is the purpose of higher education? Or more precisely, what do students see as their reason for going to college? Nathan argues that the most compelling reason given for college was â€œthe college experience,â€ not classes or intellectual ideas, per se. I asked a similar question of my first year advisees at the beginning of the school year last Fall. I asked specifically whether their primary purpose was to enable them to get a good job and career or whether it was learning for learning’s sake. Essentially all of my students said that their objective was vocational. I wonder if it is fair to expect 18 year olds to have a deep, philosophical idea of the purpose of higher education. I know I didn’t, but at the same time, I went to college with the primary purpose of doing as well as I could in my courses–not in the sense of merely getting good grades, but in the more profound sense of learning.
Nathan found quite different results:
â€¢ There is a demand for easy courses/undemanding teachers/easy Aâ€™s, but it is not principally to avoid rigor; rather it is to offset the rigor of more challenging courses, while keeping the overall course load manageable.
â€¢ Students learn to take â€œmassive shortcutsâ€ with their studies, especially in â€œnon-essentialâ€ courses. Nathan observes that the 2003 National Survey of Student Engagement reported only 13% of college students study 25 or more hours per week, while 41% study 10 or fewer hours per week. At the same time, this amount of work effort results in generally good grades, Bs or better!
â€¢ Students use what economists term satisfycing behavior extensivelyâ€”doing enough to get by or doing only what is required. Implication: Few students do optional readings or go beyond what is explicitly asked for by the instructor.
Nathan argues that students have two explicit choice variables for managing college: class attendance, and class preparation or study more generally.
1. She finds that class attendance depends on whether
â€¢ Attendance is graded,
â€¢ The class is large,
â€¢ Exams in the course are based on lecture (as opposed to readings),
â€¢ Grades in the course are based on exams (as opposed to written assignments),
â€¢ The class is perceived as boring, or
â€¢ The class meets “early” in the day, or the class meets on Friday.
2. She suggests that students are more likely to do the reading before class if:
â€¢ They are going to be directly tested on it (in class);
â€¢ The reading is necessary to complete a homework assignment;
â€¢ They are likely to be called on individually to respond to some part of the reading.
Nathan suggests that low quality work creates the time for higher priority things. [But her example of partying too late to write a good paper isnâ€™t convincing evidence of this.]
Students see a trade-off between study and leisure time. Ironically, employment hours are seen as a constraint, rather than a choice variable. Nathan asserts that students work to maintain the standard of living their families have. Is this related to a mistaken idea of what college is supposed to be about (present consumption vs. investment for the future)?
All of this points to students as behaving in what economists call a rational manner, responding in predictable ways to benefits and costs. If so, this ought to be exploitable by teachers as we design our courses.
Nathan also presents some provocative perspectives from international students at her institution, who see U.S. college classes as run in â€œa controlled way,â€ that one described as â€œforced study.â€ In their view, short bits of predigested data are presented to students and then tested on. By contrast, they indicated, in international universities â€œit was the studentsâ€™ responsibility to fully understand the [lecture] content without the benefit of outlines, projected overhead notes, and other aids.â€ â€œA British student commented: â€˜My involvement within my actual classes is a lot higher here, but as far as the content of work, itâ€™s actually a lot easier. I didnâ€™t work nearly as hard as I could, and I got Bs and better in all of my classes.â€™â€
While intriguing, I think these comments conflate a couple of issues:
1. Processing information, really wrestling with it to make meaning of it, is an essential part of real learning. To the extent that teachers design their class meetings to allow students to avoid this step, their learning will be diminished.
2. This does not imply that using innovative pedagogies (making lecture materials available in various formats) or that regular assessment of learning weakens educationâ€”remember, is our goal to teach the very best students or all/most students? That implication confuses the teaching process (what an economist would call technology) with the depth of the content.
Though much of what Nathan says resonates with my experience, her book is about a medium-sized, public university of more than 10,000 students. Her freshman courses seemed to be exclusively large (>50 student) lecture courses. I wonder how valid her conclusions are for a small liberal arts college.