Our Students – They are of all types and they need us

We are now well into the examination season. Students have gone into binge-study mode, and log-ins to Moodle course pages are at an all-time high. And so are the requests for assistance, and requests for clarification on Moodle forums, and via emails. In fact my email box is clogged with student emails asking for all kinds of help, including assistance with understanding some of the equations that I covered in the first two weeks of the year, eight months ago at the beginning of the academic year in October. And some of the names I barely know. And from some of the questions they ask, I am left with little doubt that they have been completely disengaged from my course module until now when they have to prepare for the exam. This has left me wondering on the various categories of students one is likely to meet at university. Here is my attempt at student categorisation.

The Exam Binge-study Student

Of course, since we are going through the exam period, the first group of students that come to my mind are the ones whom I would categorise as exam binge-study students. In a culture where the exam is venerated above all other forms of assessment, these students are the real masters of the modern-day academic game. They play with only one objective in mind – to pass the exam. For them, mastering the nuances of your course is beside the point. They study to the exam, and once the exam is done with, they wait for the next set of exams. Walking along the academic corridors with my ears open, I frequently get confirmations and affirmations that the proper academic year is at most two months, one month to study and prepare for the all-in-all exams, and one month to sit the exams.

The exam binge-study student is a very different creature from all the student profiles that they teach you in the academic staff development centres. They are primarily not interested in the course for its own sake. They are there to get good grades, and they know how to go about it. They collect all the past exam papers they can lay their hands on, and study these to the exclusion of all. As an insurance they demand assurances from you that the exam will be no different from the previous ones. They ask you about the depth of exam coverage, and they come to you and say: “Topic so and so has not been covered for the past so and so years. Is it going to come in the exam?”

If you have recently introduced your course module, they will demand a mock exam. And when they see it, they will want to know to what extent the actual exam will differ from the mock exam. Typical academic responses like “revise all the lecture materials, and work through all the tutorial examples” are not sufficient for this group of students.  They are on a mission to excel, and to excel with the minimum amount of effort, after all there are other more important things to do than spending an entire year on academic studies. In our exam-oriented culture, these students get through, and somehow, I strongly suspect that most of these will go on to excel in industry and wherever they seek employment after graduating. After all, they are masters at concentrating only on the goals that matter at any given point in time.

The Visibly Engaged Students

Then there is the set of students whom I term the visibly engaged students. These are the students that I get to know very well throughout the year. They consistently attend all my lectures and workshops, and even in a lecture theatre of 100 or more, I can easily pick out their faces from the sea of strange faces staring at me. They are normally the ones who ask questions in lectures, and who generally engage with the lecturer. And in group-oriented tutorial workshops, these are the students who are most likely to come prepared, and who contribute the most to group work.

They are the star students, and they are the ones who make teaching such a fulfilling career. Outside of classes, these are the students who follow up on your lecture notes, and ask for clarifications, and sometimes for additional work throughout the entire course. In fact, they are the ones who are most likely to come and knock on your door.

Within the university, these are the students who are visible in all aspects of student academic life. They are to be found on student committees, and on all academic endeavours involving students and academics. And in all likelihood, these are the students who ultimately end up in the leadership of the National Union of Students (NUS). For all practical purposes, they are the student voice, and, though, they are in the minority, it goes without saying that it is ultimately the voice of this group of students that ultimately reaches the top echelons of the university system.

The Intrinsically Engaged Student

Then there are the very few students who make teaching a worthwhile, challenging academic endeavour. These are the students who occasionally post academically challenging queries on the Moodle forums, and who occasionally send you that one email that makes you sit up and send you rushing to the library, or send you scurrying for assistance from fellow colleagues.  I refer to these students as the intrinsically engaged students.

They never ask frivolous questions, but when they do, you can be certain that their question is worth a million student questions. The issues they raise can be so indepth and so fundamental that you are left in no doubt that they are engaged with the subject matter of your course to a far greater detail than all the other students put together. In fact, their questions can be so far-reaching as to cast doubt on the very epistemological and ontological foundations of your course.  In any case, it is these students who can leave you questioning the oft taken for granted “us and them” divide between students and academics.

This group of students is not flustered by academic titles. When they engage you in a conversation, they easily cut through all the weight of academic insignia to reach through to your mortal self. These are the students who engage with you on a person-to-person basis. They are on top of their study matter, and in some instances they are ahead of you in understanding the nitty gritty issues of the course’s subject matter. They can see through assignment questions, and they can challenge your solutions and propose better ones. A classic example for this is the well-known barometer problem first posed by Alexander Calandra, an American Professor of Chemistry. Calandra discussed this problem in a short story entitled “Angels on a Pin: A Modern Parable” that first appeared in the Saturday Review, on 21st December 1968.  In this story, a Physics colleague of Calandra had set the following examination question:

“Show how it is possible to determine the height of a tall building with the aid of a barometer.”

Since it was a Physics exam, the Professor had been expecting a nice, neat Physics answer along these lines:

“Take the barometer to the top of the building and lean over the edge of the roof. Drop that barometer, timing its fall with a stopwatch. Then using the formula S = ½at², calculate the height of the building.”

Most of the students presumably went along with the professor and gave “nice, theory-based” Physics-like answers, as expected. But as it so often happens at university, one student came up with a very unlikely, and very un-physics-like answer:

“Take a barometer to the top of the building, attach a long rope to it, lower the barometer to the street and then bring it up, measuring the length of the rope. The length of the rope is the height of the building.”

Of course, the student’s answer was correct, and as most people would say, this was a more realistic answer than the expected physics-like responses. But, from the academic’s point of view, this question demonstrated no understanding of physics at all, and marking it correct would imply that the student had understood the taught concepts sufficiently enough to apply them to practical contexts.  Nevertheless, the long and short of it is that the student got the marks.

The Dutiful University Student

For lack of a better classification label, I shall call this next group of students the dutiful university student group. These are the students who dutifully attend university and carry out their academic studies. They mostly attend all lectures and all tutorial workshops. They submit their coursework on time, and their academic performance ranges from the “passably fine” to “adequate”. During end of year examination boards, these are the students one hardly looks at. They satisfy all requirements, and dutifully go through university, and go on to be dutifully employed in the world at large.

If you are one of the cynical academics who live only to do discipline-based research, and to chase the Research Excellence Framework (REF), you can wish for no other student category than this group. They rarely ask questions, rarely participate in the various academic surveys, and if pressed to complete some important survey, like the much feared National Student Survey, they dutifully give non-committal answers that do not rock the boat. However, for those academics who believe in the transformative power of the university system, these students are the ultimate challenge. Can this group be challenged enough to raise their game beyond their current level? Can you put enough fire into the bellies of these students and turn them into agents of change, both within the university system and beyond in everyday life?  These are difficult questions, and I suspect that currently no viable solution exists.

And these should be disturbing questions to everyone, industry leaders and the ordinary person in the street included. This is because by and large, it is anticipated that economies of the future will depend on the nature of the skills and attributes possessed by graduates entering the workforce. As far back as 2005, Radcliffe wrote that “innovation and its impact on national wealth creation within a globalized economy are currently high on the political agenda in many countries.” Indeed, entrepreneurship and innovation skills are now some of the most highly sought after graduate attributes and skills, and it is questionable if the dutiful student category, which is by far the largest student category, are innovative, entrepreneurial and adaptive enough to thrive in the competitive and fast-paced dynamic workplaces of the future.

The Disconnected Student

I have opted to call my last student category the disconnected student group. These students typically end up falling out of the university system. This category comprises those students whose class attendance is at best erratic. They submit coursework as and when they wish, and mostly they don’t. If they choose to come to exams, they often get ridiculously low marks, to the consternation and shock of most academics. Compared to other student categories, they are often very few in number, possibly one or two in an average-sized class of fifty.  However, at the end of the year, they often end up taking more than half the deliberation time in the examination boards. They often have quite high entry grades when they come into university, but their academic performance bears no relation to this at all. They are disconnected from academic work, disconnected from the university system, and largely disconnected from the rest of the student body.

These are the students that we, as the university community, are failing. They spend one or two precious years of their lives at university, and ultimately end up with nothing to show for it. Not only that, these students seem to be on a downward spiral to oblivion, and unless they meet with some corrective intervention at some point in their lives, these students are to all intents and purposes lost to society, and lost to their families. As demonstrated by their entry level grades, these students have the potential to excel, but for some reason, possibly non-academic, they lose control of their academic lives. And as a parent, or sibling, one of the most harrowing experiences one can encounter is to witness your child, sister or brother spiralling out of control and into oblivion. And this pain lasts for an entire lifetime, and no cost can be ascribed to it.

Because they are so few, and because they can easily blight a university’s track-record, it makes economic sense to drive these students out of the university system as early as possible. However, as the adage goes, a society is judged by how it treats the least among them. And ultimately we in the university stand to be judged by how we treat these failing students. Of course, this requires professional staff to handle the myriads of problems afflicting this category. But this is not helped by the current economic environment whereby professional services staff are often the first to be laid off whenever cost-cutting measures are mooted. Perhaps the solution could be to share key professional services staff between two or more universities – a pooling together of resources for the mutual benefit of all.

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