A professor examines why her students seem to act so helpless (essay)

This essay on college students acting helpless (Chronicle of Higher Education) struck a few chords.

I put a lot of time into writing my course policies and assignment instructions. The students who want to know how they can earn a 99 instead of a 95 invariably ask really good questions that arise from their close scrutiny of those documents; on the other end of the spectrum, however, I do get a fair share of questions that students could easily answer themselves if they simply looked it up.

It’s a different matter entirely for freshman in their first few weeks of college. They are often so overwhelmed that I try to respond helpfully to anything they say — even if my response is “That’s not an appropriate question,” which is what I told the sweaty student-athlete asking to be excused so that he could shower after his workout.

And sometimes there’s little I can do to help, as in the case of the student who sent me a two-word email — “I’m confused,” but didn’t respond when I asked her what was confusing her — some lesson content, trouble developing a skill, unclear assignment instructions or course policies, a software or hardware problem, or what? She sent the “I’m confused” message more than once, but was always busy during my office hours, and every day for four weeks she was unable offer a single open slot in her schedule. On a day when I scheduled in-class consultations, she didn’t show up; and when I suggested that she bring a bag lunch to my office and we could talk things over informally, she said it was unreasonable for me to expect her to sacrifice her lunch break. (Alrighty then.)

My boilerplate syllabus includes one no-questions-asked “free absence,” and students usually get two no-questions-asked one-day “late pass” extensions. (Both policies are subject to certain restrictions, which are, of course, described in the syllabus.) Students who emailing me from the ER or from the side of the road where their car is in a ditch may be understandably flustered, so I don’t overwhelm them with details. As long as they know the syllabus grants them some reasonable wiggle room, they don’t need to spend the ambulance ride sending me snapshots of their bloody digits.

In between the students facing legitimate emergencies and the students seeking affirmation, there’s a big range of queries of varying degrees of legitimacy.

When a student sees me in the hallways and asks me something perfectly reasonable — such as “When is our final project due?” or “What is the reading assignment for next week?” the truth is that I usually don’t have that information memorized. I might well be teaching more than one class, and my brain just doesn’t store that the term paper in my 200-level lit class is due April 30 and the term paper in my freshman writing course is due May 2 and the term paper in my 300-level media class is due April 22.  I might assure the students that I know I put the date on the calendar, and in the first week or so of classes, I might say, “Show me how you would find the answer to that question,” but to answer that question in the halls between classes, I’d have to pull out a laptop or mobile device, log in to the course management system, and check the assignment calendar — something the students can do just as well as I can.

I once had a student say “I didn’t do the homework because I didn’t know whether you posted the instructions on the course blog or in the discussion forum.” Leaving aside the fact that I had announced this in class, in an email, and in the syllabus, a reasonably responsible person who is legitimately confused about whether the answer was behind THIS door THAT door could simply check both doors.

I knew that the student owned the book, because I had seen her with it in class, and in fact, she had told me she was enjoying the reading. However, when it was time for her to do an assignment on the playwright … well, she was stumped. She just didn’t know his name. I had to explain to her, carefully, and with what I hope was compassion, that if she hadn’t picked up his name in the class discussions so far (or, I was thinking, in the course syllabus and calendar), then she could always try looking on the front cover of the book. —Inside Higher Ed