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My College Students Are Not OK

In my classes last fall, a third of the students were missing nearly every time, and usually not the same third. Students buried their faces in their laptop screens and let my questions hang in the air unanswered. My classes were small, with nowhere to hide, yet some students openly slept through them.

I was teaching writing at two very different universities: one private and wealthy, its lush lawns surrounded by towering fraternity and sorority houses; the other public, with a diverse array of strivers milling about its largely brutalist campus. The problems in my classrooms, though, were the same. Students just weren’t doing what it takes to learn.

By several measures — attendance, late assignments, quality of in-class discussion — they performed worse than any students I had encountered in two decades of teaching. They didn’t even seem to be trying. At the private school, I required individual meetings to discuss their research paper drafts; only six of 14 showed up. Usually, they all do.

I wondered if it was me, if I was washed up. But when I posted about this on Facebook, more than a dozen friends teaching at institutions across the country gave similar reports. Last month, The Chronicle of Higher Education received comments from more than 100 college instructors about their classes. They, too, reported poor attendance, little discussion, missing homework and failed exams.

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