Tiny rant on students who can’t quite go the full mile

We were discussing this the other day.

Some students can’t quite seem to seal the deal on getting their excrement together.

DH’s students need a lab kit.  The students run a parts store that puts together and sells lab kits.  They are open odd hours and run out more frequently than they ought to.  However, these parts are available at several hobby stores in town.  DH requires that they have their lab kits by the second week of school, and if they can’t get a pre-made kit from the student store then they need to assemble one on their own from another store.  Somehow, the same students show up to lab without kits through the *middle of the semester*.  They always seem to check the parts store *just* when they run out of parts.  Why haven’t they given up and just hit a hobby store?  They didn’t think of it despite DH’s repeat reminders.  DH suspects they just don’t want to spend money.

We have weekly or monthly homework.  Sometimes it requires downloading something, a paper, an assignment sheet.  How often has a student said on the due date that ze couldn’t download something necessary for an assignment?  Far too many times for us.  You had a week/month!  If you had a technical problem you should have addressed it a long time ago, not when the assignment was due.  Plus, all your classmates (who did not have trouble downloading for whatever reason) have a copy– you could have gotten it from them!

I had a student who missed class for a family emergency (nothing dire– there was some weather and they had to clean up from the aftermath).  I told him no problem, he could attend the other section to do the in-class exercise he missed, but he was going to have to get notes for the lecture since the other section had already had it, and the in-class exercise would make *no sense* without the lecture notes.  All week I reminded him every time we passed in the hallway and he said he was about to get the notes from a specific classmate.  Well, she wasn’t able to meet him on time, so he got to class without any idea what the in-class assignment was about, and suggested that perhaps he should skip it.  I noted that there were many students taking this required class (and he has contact info for at least 3 other people since I make them exchange information on day 1), why didn’t he get notes from a different student?  He said he hadn’t seen any students in his class.  He had no idea where he could get notes from anybody.  I noted that there were 30 people in the classroom he was sitting in *right now* who had those notes.  He could ask one of them.  He hadn’t thought of that.

The student printer has had a spotty working history for about 10 years now.  It is *known* that you should print off what you need at least a day in advance to ensure that you get your thing on time.  (If the printer is broken again, you can go to the IT department and they’ll print for you– but *not* instantaneously.)  Five minutes before class is not the time to discover that the printer is broken *again*.  Just assume it will be broken.

Are they just lazy, or do they really think if they have this excuse they’ll get a bye for doing less work?

We call on other professors not to enable these folks!

18 Responses to “Tiny rant on students who can’t quite go the full mile”

  1. Comrade PhysioProf Says:

    I don’t think this kind of thing is laziness, per se, but rather a kind of passivity in the face of relative complexity. My impression of primary and secondary school is that students are almost always like rats in a forced choice test scenario: they are corralled into situations where they do not have to actually plan ahead, they are given all the information and resources they need, they are told exactly what their task is, and how their performance of the task will be judged, and all they have to do is press the right bar and they get a reward.

    The key unfortunate aspect to this is that the students are never placed in situations where they actually have to figure out for themselves what the *task* is about. Put them in more complex situations, and they flounder.

    Based on this theory, I interpret your DH’s students as functioning from the assumption that their task is not to actually successfully secure the kit, but to go the parts store. “Professor DH told me to go to the parts store to buy a kit. I went to the parts store. My task is complete.”

    I don’t know if I’m explaining this clearly, but I don’t see this as laziness so much as a failure of vision. It’s like taking a carriage horse who has always had those blinder things on its eyes and guided from Central Park back to its stable on the Hudson each day by using the reins to go turn-by-turn, and one day just removing the blinders and saying to the horse, “OK, horsie, take us back to the stable”.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      That is depressing!

      But maybe you’re right. I do have these long conversations with these students when they’re mine in which I just ask questions and they come up with the answer on their own eventually. “Ms. R wasn’t there, what should you have done at that point? … How could you have found someone else? … Where else could you have found other people? … Do you see anybody right now?” “Has the printer been known to malfunction before? What should you have done?” Maybe a little condescending, but part of my job is to teach problem solving skills. Which, incidentally, is what the industry advisory counsel just told my DH’s department that their students are lacking. They can follow the steps is a problem looks identical to something they’ve seen before, but stepping out of that box they can’t apply those same skills. Thinking is hard, but it can be so rewarding so long as folks don’t just give up.

      At least that’s what I tell my kindergartener when ze can’t quite figure out how to put hir legos together. Eventually ze gets it on hir own.

      • becca Says:

        I think it is both inaccurate and dangerous to make fundamental attribution errors about this kind of thing. Your students aren’t lazy- or intrinsically “bad at thinking outside the box” (although K-12 academic training functioning as putting blinders on and using the reins rings pretty true- still, it’s important to note it is training that can be transcended).
        They are just humans who have learned to navigate an extremely complex environment in a different way than you. I say this because I am capable of enough introspection to notice when my ‘vision’ utterly FAILS me. I’ll mention to Carebear I don’t know something because I’m waiting for someone to email me back and he’ll ask why I didn’t just call them. And I’ll have *no good answer*. It did not occur to me to call them, and I do not want to call them, and I can’t explain why on earth I shouldn’t call them (OK, I usually pull a post-hoc rationalization like “I can write a calm email but I’m so pissed at them it’ll be obvious in my voice” out of my rear end, but it’s truly post-hoc).

        Also, this is probably not the case for the particular hapless student you mentioned, but as an undergrad I tended to have a bit of… I don’t know? Social anxiety? I was not comfortable asking classmates for notes. You might as well have asked me to pee in public (like, on a stage, not in a restroom)- it was just unspeakably embarrassing. I just went to every class and was lucky enough to have any real family emergencies.

      • Comrade PhysioProf Says:

        I don’t find it depressing, but encouraging. It means that with practice and guidance–such as the Socratic approach you describe, which I use, too, albeit at a more sophisticated level with grad students and post-docs in relation to experimental design, planning, and troubleshooting–there is hope for substantial improvement.

  2. Kellen @ Accountant by Day Says:

    I wasn’t super comfortable asking classmates for notes either. Even if we exchanged phone numbers at the beginning of the semester, if I haven’t really interacted with those folks since then, I probably would hate to have to call them up and ask them to email me notes. It would seem so awkward to call them. Even by email, just having to ask a relative stranger for help was an awkward thing in college.

    As for getting the parts together and using the printer… I admit I myself was guilty of always waiting until the morning before the class to use the campus printer. It wasn’t always broken though – although a couple of times I had to go over to a different building to use the printers there. Maybe it’s because in high school you could always print at home as soon as you were done writing the assignment, and if you needed something like pieces for a lab kit, your parents would at least have to get involved by driving you to the store. I think we get so used to the safety net of our parents making sure we’ve done things, that when we put it off and no one says anything, it seems like it’s okay somehow. I bet if they had any conversation at all with students who HAD done it, who said “and it turns out the student store runs out a lot, so I had to run over to hobby lobby to buy x, y, z, but Target had a, b, and c” all of a sudden it would seem more “real” to them that they need to go out of their way to get this kit together on their own.

    You could say the same thing if the student bookstore is out of stock of some text book for two weeks, that the students should have thought to go and order the book off of Amazon instead, but when there’s this “official” source for them, and the students can point out that the official source has run out, they are unlikely to order the book through a different channel. Hmm, the question is *why* we act like this though…

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      In the case of the parts– they’re told multiple times that the parts store often runs out and that they lose X points per day in lab that they don’t have the parts, so they need to get the parts at Radio Shack or (local hobby shop), and they have an exact list of the parts they need. And every semester it’s the same students who just happen to only check the parts store when they’re out. Other students seem to magically get their parts.

      In the case of the guy with the family emergency– he’s a graduate student! One of his other professors came to talk to me the other day to ask if I thought he was stupid because he was turning in the most gawd-awful assignments (how did he get in?!)… turns out the guy doesn’t believe in proofreading, editing, or spending any time on assignments. He’d just never thought to do such things, or to go to the writing center etc. Apparently in undergrad he got full credit for trying to try… or his lame excuses bought him extensions. He’s a bit better in my class though because I do a lot more hand-holding (because my class is generally scarier due to the content), even though my class is actually harder.

  3. Kellen @ Accountant by Day Says:

    As a side note, I wish I’d had more high school professors who sat me down and taught me the questions to ask myself rather than having managers at work do it now.
    If you want to seem less condescending, you’d have to make it clear that you don’t think they’re stupid, and you are going to teach them a skill. I know that if a teacher plonked me down and asked me questions that made me realize all the better choices I could have made, but didn’t, and made me feel like an idiot I would just completely shut down.

  4. rented life Says:

    I disagree about the comfort level of asking a student for notes. If it’s made clear in the beginning of the semester that you’re supposed to get that from someone else, then they will. My classes have no problems exchanging notes because it’s understood that the person next to you might help you out when you miss. If we’re not supposed to expect or encourage a level of “figure it out” kind of teaching when I don’t know how they’ll impove. I’m not saying we shoudl set them up for failure, but we should push problem-solving.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Yeah, at some point that’s a skill one has to master. I would never have been able to survive a math major or my PhD without getting over the fear of talking to classmates outside of class. It is a good skill to have (as I tell my students).

      I do have them exchange contact info on day one just for that purpose and it’s pretty clear in the syllabus as well what the procedure is.

  5. Funny about Money Says:

    LOL! His students show up in class halfway through the semester without their lab kits? Mine show up without their brains!

    Argh. Today — two weeks before the end of the semester — two young back-row conversationalists showed up in my environs begging to know how they’re doing in the class. I pointed out that I send them an update with every graded paper I return to them…but then realized, ah yes: if you don’t turn in a paper you don’t get it back, and if you don’t get it back, you don’t get the update. One has a D-minus and one a pure, unadulterated F.

    While they seemed unsurprised (apparently they can sense when they’re not turning in papers…interesting!), they were nevertheless dismayed and wanted to know what they could do to bring their grades up. At the end of the semester. In a class where the policy is stated on the first day and on many days afterward: “no late papers.” In a class where every assignment is surrounded by a flock of little supporting projects (some might call them “busywork”) specifically designed to buoy students’ grades. You have to work at it to fail one of my classes.

    Among the less self-destructive classmates, though, Comrade PhysioProf’s and your own observations seem to hold true. While yes, they do know how to negotiate certain complex (often bureaucratically complex) circumstances with skill, they’ve been so conditioned to perform within certain rigid parameters that when you free them and ask them to attack a problem creatively, they’re flummoxed. “What? You don’t want a three-paragraph essay? Well, then you must want the five-paragraph essay! Nooo….? What do you mean, this isn’t high school anymore?”

  6. ARC Says:

    Honestly, I think a lot of students don’t figure this stuff out *until* college. I was probably one of those – high school was so mindnumbingly easy that I managed to write a 15+ page research paper for AP History the night before it was due, and still got 100% on it. I say that not to brag, but to give an indication of how not-challenging my school was. Which meant I never learned how to study, plan ahead, blah blah blah until college when I was on my own and had to get it together quick. It took me about 2 years to really understand it.

    So I do think it’s great that you ask your students those questions (as long as it’s coming from a place where you are trying to teach, rather than make them feel shitty, which I know you’re not :).) It really is a SKILL people have to learn, and sadly if their parents haven’t taught them, they are going to learn it from a teacher/prof/manager later, and more uncomfortably…

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Or sadly, in some cases not until graduate school…

    • Rumpus Says:

      From what I’ve read, this is a common source of the problem in engineering. High school is too easy for some kids for them to learn the academic skills they need in college.

      Personally, I think the problem is a little of the system’s fault and a little of the student’s fault. In particular, I blame them for not caring…about their grades, about their assignments, about their future careers, etc. It’s my job to help them learn, and that may involve showing them the interesting side of the material, but that does not mean I need to instill caring into them. Trying to do so for an entire class is a quick ticket to burnout for me.

  7. Z Says:

    I have trouble with this because sometimes I can’t go the full mile, either. It’s not about not caring or not knowing how – it’s the conditions we all are dealing with. With my good life skills I don’t always make it, and their life skills are worse than mine and their lives are harder.


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