Student asks “Why am I here?”

This article by Austin Fitzhenry asks a simple question: “can students teach their lecturers a thing or two?”

  • Go read the full article on the Times Higher Education website, it is very good, extremely well written, and full of thought provoking comments and observations that need consideration if we are to improve the relationship between ‘teaching’ and ‘learning’.

Below are a few sections that caught my eye for one reason or another: 

“The question “Why am I here?” often strikes in the 73rd minute of a droning lecture. Don’t misunderstand – I love lectures. But only if the person delivering it knows how to allow learning. And yes, I do mean “allow”, for academics don’t create learning – only the student can do that. Unfortunately, most if not all lecturers are crippled by misunderstandings about their students and ill-founded assumptions about education itself. If we can filter the mud from the Pierian Spring, then they will have far less frustration in their lives and students will stop wishing that they were somewhere else. So one afternoon, after a particularly frustrating day with my professors, I sat down and wrote my lecture to them. I pray that they are taking notes.”

A student’s lecture to professors

On challenging the student –
“Have you ever wondered why your students aren’t more interested? The answer is likely to be that they are bored. What causes boredom? Slow or irrelevant lectures, those that don’t connect the dots, or that focus on details at the expense of context. Students are not being challenged. Their sense of exploration is cloistered. You may say that your students can barely keep up as it is. In most cases this is not true. Your students are capable of far more than you give them credit for. Yet most professors have a compulsion to teach at the lowest level among the students. During the introduction to one course, my lecturer explained the level of maths he would be teaching: the same maths that is routinely taught in middle school. I went to a senior academic in the department to ask if I could skip it. My request was refused. “You have to understand: many of the students here can’t do basic arithmetic,” he said. “We have to adjust for that.” My chin hit the floor. Is it not equally unfair to above-average students to teach below their level as it is to below-average students to teach above their level? We need to re-examine our priorities. Is university about making everybody feel good about themselves, or about delivering high-quality education?”

On encouraging creativity –
“Some lecturers don’t bother to teach things that won’t be in the exam. They are letting their students down. The best professors range widely across their subject while also making clear what their students will be expected to know in the examination hall. This approach ensures that students are able to apply their learning in the real world, as well as stimulating curiosity and learning. Stay focused on relaying knowledge and understanding, and the test should take care of itself. Last year I was talking with a fellow student about an unusually challenging assignment, and he joked: “Wait, I have to come up with something on my own? I actually have to think?” But it’s not a joke. Many students spend all day, every day, being spoon-fed. Those that get fed up drop out. Those that don’t usually become complacent. Intellectual flabbiness sets in. Ultimately whether or not they succumb is up to them, but their lecturers can help them fight the disease. Without exercise, the creativity muscle atrophies. Take every opportunity, large and small, to let students create something.”

On required attendance –
“Allow your students to be adults by recognising that if someone doesn’t want to learn, they aren’t going to learn. Requiring attendance is absurd. Every student entered college of their own free will. Let us decide what we want to do with that choice. This goes for texting, eating, or anything else in class. As long as it doesn’t distract others, just chill. Taking responsibility for the responsibilities of others creates adults who have never had the chance to mature. At 18 we’ve just finished a couple of decades of being told what to do, and have finally gained independence. We will judge whether your material is too basic, if it’s just repeating old ground or if it’s little more than busywork, and decide for ourselves whether to attend. The test results at the end will speak for themselves, and if a student can master a subject without even attending class, they should be applauded, not punished.”

Image source: Storm of the Century (CC BY 2.0)