yourself lucky if you don't have a class with at least one student
who drives you up the wall.
right after the cheese at college and university cocktail partiesa
little whine. Awful, funny, hard-to-believe stories about students and
how rotten they can be. To an outsider, it might seem that professors
really dislike those they teach. To anyone who has taught, however,
it is usually a welcome reliefa catharsisto trade anecdotes
and experiences with other teachers. And in that respect, it's
a healthy way to handle what might be one of the toughest jobs in the
world. Almost anyone who deals with students complains,
says Berry Perlman, who, along with a colleague in the psychology department
at the University of Wisconsin at Oshkosh, conducted a study last year
to help faculty identify and fix teaching problems. The issue
is whether teachers can keep a perspective on their own frustrations
and address problems, or whether their complaining seeps over into blaming
the students. That serves no one.
your engineering classes have a few students whose habits set your teeth
on edgeor maybe you find yourself griping more than a little to
colleagues and spouse. So, is it the students, or is it you? And what
can you do to make sure your complaints don't suggest something
more serious than a routine need to vent?
Goss Lucas, an experienced teacher and professor of psychology at the
University of Illinois at Champaign, is the author of an article for
the American Psychological Association journal APS Observer on identifying
problem studentswho, both she and Perlman agree, fall into pretty
universal categoriesand dealing with them.
have you complained about the Disaster Is My Excuse student?
They're always in your class, those students whose alarms didn't
go off for a noon exam, whose printers jammed, who broke a hand. The
forces of another world keep this studentsometimes well intentioned,
sometimes deliberately misleadingfrom fulfilling requirements.
Lucas suggests handing out in advance written consequences for missed
or late exams, papers, or projects. Recommend time-management or organizational-skill
workshops. Study groups and small class groupings have proved themselves
extremely effective at rehabilitating habitual procrastinators.
don't you just hate the I'm Not Really Here student?
They appear in class, but you wonder why, says Perlman.
Engineering students are often so intimidated by the level of difficulty
in courses that they never volunteer questions, much less opinions.
Lucas says easy ways to try to bring out a reclusive student are to
start a dialogue by writing comments on papers, learning the student's
name and saying hello, and encouraging e-mail correspondence. I
still exchange e-mail with a student who was in my class three years
ago and barely said a word, says Lucas.
Karl Smith, director of undergraduate studies in civil engineering at
the University of Minnesota, says engineering professors need to work
harder to break the ice. Students don't challenge teachers
nearly enough, especially first-year students who think the professors
have all the answers, he says. But when we have 30 or 40
percent of engineering students bailing out after the first year, we
need to take a look at how we're teaching. Understanding
the different ways students learn is crucial, says Smith. The
most important thing we do is help people learn how to think.
don't you just love the student who thinks, I'm Here,
Why Can't I Get An A'? Perlman at Wisconsin says,
Some students act like they're in school only to get their
ticket punched, an offensive attitude to hard-working and seasoned
educators. But Perlman says things are more complicated for students
today, and some of the stress is showing. They have more blended
families, more instant communication, more complex lives. Like
it or not, he says, students today are consumers, and engineering education
must change to meet that reality.
Smith at the University of Minnesota agrees, and sees a positive direction.
Medicine and business have changed the way that they work with
students, using problem-based approaches, putting students into small
groups where they have to decide what they need to know and how they
should solve a problem. That's the way engineering works in the
real world, but we've been slow to embrace these strategies because
they require quite a lot of skill on the part of faculty.
fourth, don't you just despise the What Do You Mean, You're
the Professor? student. Amazed to find that someone else is in
charge, this student questions everything. Often a high achiever, his
or her constant challenges disrupt the class flow and interfere with
other students' learning. A low-key reprimand in class or talking
to the student outside of class focuses attention on the impact on other
students. Convey that you are interested in his or her comments and
would be happy to talk during office hours, says Lucas. Rarely, this
does not work, and you might then privately ask the student to withdraw
from the course. N.L. Gage, Professor Emeritus at the School of Education
at Stanford, says, In my 40 years of college teaching, I had to
choose this course of action only once.
another type that might make you roll your eyes is the Hey, You
Made a Mistake on My Grade! student. If grading on exams, quizzes,
and papers becomes a point of contention, a written policy can help,
says Lucas. She helped develop a one-page form that students may fill
out if they feel unfairly graded. Verbal confrontations can be handled
by listening, nodding, and maintaining eye contact. Acknowledge anger
and summarize the points made by the student. Usually a calmer discussion
you know you've been a little ticked off by the Unidentified
Problem student. Lucas cites the instance early in her teaching
career of a student who consistently came to class, seated himself in
the front row, and as soon as she began her class, fell dead asleep.
Lucas privately asked the student what she could do to make the course
more engaging for him. He almost started to cry, confiding in
me that he was just totally overwhelmed with his schedule of work and
university life. A time-management course helped him sort things
out, and he completed the course. If I hadn't talked to him,
I would have just gotten angry, she says.
that you've gotten it off your chest about who drives you crazy,
maybe it won't surprise you to find that many educators say the
best solution is to strive for excellence in teaching. Engineering
schools get the best students, says Karl Smith of the University
of Minnesota. If we're not successful with them, it can't
be entirely their fault.
often, if students don't perform well, faculty is being asked why.
Legislators are putting pressure on state schools for more faculty
accountability, says Smith. The Accreditation Board for Engineering
and Technology is having a huge impact, too, with its outcome-based
accreditation process. Says Smith: Increasingly, engineering schools
have to document that students actually have learned something.
approach undercuts the familiar lament of faculty that students don't
remember anything. Smith suggests that newer teaching methods can open
the door to better results for both students and faculty. All
that many faculty know is, We've covered it, we're done,'
he says. That's just the beginning. More and more we're
starting to do research to try and understand how students learn engineering.
We're getting better.
with the best of students, teaching is a tough job, and sometimes gets
less respect than research. Research is exciting and you get visibility,
says Perlman. You never get that in teaching.
also important to assess who's doing the complaining. If
it's someone who consistently gets great teaching evaluations,
then it's normal, says Perlman. But if it's someone
who isn't doing as good a job as you might wanttoo much research,
getting tired and burned outthen we're not holding ourselves
sure your teaching skills are honed regularly can go a long way toward
living happily with students, say the advisers. Working with difficult
students is part of my teaching. Says Perlman. Problems
are not something I have to get rid of so that I can get back to teaching.
material, courses, and seminars in teaching excellence can keep complaints
in perspective. Mentoring a younger colleague can force you to
take a look at what you're doing, says Perlman.
most important of all, keep your sense of humor. I had two kids.
I am now more empathic to the fact that students do not take my courses
seriously, says Perlman. For the average experienced faculty,
intrinsic satisfaction takes you only so far. We are people too, and
it feels good to have a student say That was a good course.'
But with experience you realize those moments are to be treasured because
you don't get them a lot.
Creighton is a freelance writer based in Arlington, Va.
She can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
- A Certain Standard
- An Underutilized Option