Students Don’t Go to College to Learn

Rebekah Nathan, My Freshman YearDuring a year-long research sabbatical, Cathy Small, a professor of anthropology at Northern Arizona University, enrolled as an undergraduate student in her own university. As a teacher and an anthropologist, she wanted to better understand student culture. What do students do with their lives while in school and why? Small lived in the dorms, took classes, and made friends. She watched, took notes, conducted interviews, and asked a dozen students to record their daily lives for her in diaries.

Afterward, using the pseudonym Rebekah Nathan to protect her subjects’ identities, she wrote an ethnographic description of student culture: My Freshman Year: What a Professor Learned by Becoming a Student (Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 2005; reprinted New York: Penguin, 2006). One of our core readings and the focus of not a little controversy, this book has been widely read, highly acclaimed, and deeply bemoaned—if also often misunderstood. It has appropriately become a landmark for discussions of student learning and the lack thereof.

The unusually big splash this academic book has made may be attributable to several factors, including her choice to be anonymous, her lively writing style, and her unsettling findings, which, if one interprets them in a certain way, lend support to stinging indictments of education—in a culture with an appetite for stinging indictments of education. But, most importantly, the book is notable because Nathan takes up the most important and, perhaps, most misunderstood factor in education: students.

Teachers may romanticize or villainize students based on conjecture, personal experience, and anecdotal observations. But for the most part most of us remain in the dark about what students actually do and want. Nathan moves us beyond speculation and gives us a useful portrait, grounded in empirical observation. This portrait includes bad news, good news, and an overall more complex and informed way of understanding students’ lives.

Bad News #1: Students Go to College for the Social Life

We probably already know that many students attend college, among other reasons, for the social life. We surely already know that social life often competes with academic life. That Nathan’s observations confirm these hunches should come as little surprise. For most of the students she observed, Nathan states, it was not “intellectual life or formal instruction” but “peer culture” that was “of central importance” (p. 99, 103). She continues:

Classes, in fact, were described [by students] in multiple instances as the “price one has to pay” to participate in college culture, a domain that students portrayed in terms such as “fun,” ”friendships,” “partying,” “life experiences,” and “late night talks.” The tiny place occupied by anything academic in college life was a consistent message. (p. 103)

Yet, despite this overriding emphasis on the social aspects of college, Nathan also found that friendships among these same students were less ethnically diverse than one might expect and that efforts at fostering community among them were less effective than one might hope. Too bad, given that diversity and community could be redeeming aspects of such an emphasis on socializing.

Bad News #2: Students Don’t Go to College to Learn

Even if we accept that many students attend college primarily for social reasons—and, of course, for credentialing that leads to a job or career—we might still hope that they would also like to learn. We might hope. But just as learning is not the priority for many—it also seems not even to be a priority for many students. Nathan writes that “academic life is tangential or at odds with peer culture” and that “[t]he tiny place occupied by anything academic in college life was a consistent message” (p. 99, 103). She found “how little intellectual life seemed to matter in college” particularly “sobering.” It was not that students didn’t care about education at all or flagrantly missed class but quite plainly that “engagement in political and philosophical issues of the day was not a significant part of college student culture” (p. 100).

The distinction between “classes” and “intellectual life” turns out to be especially important. Most of the students she observed did what they had to do to pass classes, earn desired grades, attain desired credentialing for desired careers, etc. But they did so first and foremost not by learning what we set out for them to learn but by learning how to “manage” college, how to get those desired ends with as little time and effort as possible (p. 107).

In a particularly informative passage, Nathan explains how the juniors and seniors she interviewed (“cultural experts” in college) go about deciding whether or not to read for class. Perhaps surprisingly, she argues that they “don’t casually or lightly discard assignments.” Instead, she explains, they consider whether they will be tested on the reading, whether they will need it for the homework, and whether they will have to “personally and publicly respond” to it in class discussion. If none of these will be the case, “then don’t do the reading,” they advise (p. 137-138).

Even though students may complete the work we require of them, many of them are simply not in college to learn. As she writes, “If class learning is exciting or self-revelatory, then all the better; but, except where it impacts one’s career, learning is incidental” (p, 131). To put it plainly, many students—perhaps even most—don’t go to college to learn. That’s just not why they’re here. This is not to say that such students are bad people. They just have different priorities than we would like them to have.

Bad News #3: Academic Engagement Is Often Taboo

At least one of Nathan’s findings does seem outright ugly. Nathan observes that it is often socially unacceptable for students to give signs of academic engagement (which matters so much). Academic engagement is often, in effect, policed. Nathan found such things as serious participation in class and discussion of academic things outside of class taboo. For example, she observed the following with respect to students talking to one another before and after classes:

Academic discourse was limited to a narrow sort of mutual questioning. “Did you do the reading for today?” and “Did we have something due today?” were both common pre-class queries. Shared complaints about the way the course was going (“I can’t believe he hasn’t turned back either of our last two assignments”) or the prospect of the upcoming class (“I hope that he doesn’t do that in-class writing thing again”) were also heard. . . . One would never hear, “Did you like that reading?” or “That paper assignment really made me think.” It is not that students didn’t like the reading or find the assignments provocative; it’s just that these weren’t acceptable or normative topics to introduce in informal conversation. When academic assignments were mentioned, the discourse converged on a couple of main themes. Students either talked about reactions and comparisons of evaluations received . . . or they focused on the effort or attention given to academic assignments—usually emphasizing the lack thereof . . . (p. 96, emphasis added)

Nathan also notes that such things as speaking up too much, sitting too close to the professor, and asking good questions seemed to break the norms of classroom behavior and create a “subtle distance” between the offending student and the other students (p. 91). Nathan shares a disturbing account from a college student in the early 1900s, offering that what he says about his college experience is “practically indistinguishable from the rules of classroom interaction” that she observed in the 2000s. The student explained that publically demonstrating engagement by answering questions asked to the class was “like sticking your neck out.” Similarly, to read beyond what was required and “to let that be known” was considered “bad form” by other students (p. 108).

If many students come to us indifferent to learning, that is one thing. We still have the opportunity to try to spark their interest. But if some proceed to actively or passive aggressively suppress any signs of interest in themselves and their peers, that is something else altogether. We face a difficult task indeed.

Good News: Some Students Are Not Like Others

We are right to find Nathan’s description of college student culture sobering. But there is some good news too. And it is very good news indeed. While many or most of the students she observed appeared not to be in college to learn, there were exceptions. Nathan stresses that student culture is not homogeneous and that it contains pockets of students who want to learn and who work hard to do so. In one of the most important and encouraging passages of the book, she suggests that instead of trying to “‘fight’ culture,” which probably wouldn’t work anyway, we should try to “support what is already present in the culture, albeit in private spaces or minority options.” There’s more to student culture than first meets the eye, she writes, illustrating her point with what she (rightly) calls “a particularly poignant memory.” Nathan recalls preparing for a French exam with Ray, a student she befriended during the study:

I had just finished testing Ray on a series of vocabulary terms when he began questioning me on the past imperfect tense. “Forget that,” I responded. “She said it’s not on the test.” What he said next shocked me. “Is that the only reason you are learning this material . . . for the test? Don’t you want to learn to speak French better? Come on, do it.” (p. 142)

Living as a student, she had inadvertently internalized the non-learning attitude of so many students. But it was also a student who called her to go deeper. Nathan goes on to explain that, back in her role as a teacher, she seeks to support and contribute to subcultures of learning to which students like Ray belong:

When I contest certain aspects of undergraduate culture—by refusing to “dumb down” a course, say, and make it an “easy A”—I feel that I am aligning myself with students, and internal dialogues of students, that already exist in undergraduate culture. (p. 144)

If Nathan’s findings at Northern Arizona University turn out to more or less represent college student culture in general—as they likely do in certain respects, at least in the U.S.—then we can say the following. While many or even most students do not go to college to learn, some really do. We can support these students and encourage others to join them.

Understanding Students in the Context of Their Lives

To be sure, certain aspects of Nathan’s portrait of students will not immediately endear them to us. Some may seize upon these to further a student-bashing agenda. But, altogether, Nathan’s account does not portray students as somehow delinquent. Perhaps the most valuable quality of My Freshman Year is that it presents not just key findings (such as those described above) but a “thick description” that cannot be easily summarized. The ethnography places students in the context of their lives. To understand the key findings, one must see the larger picture. Students are not merely students; they are people, with all that that entails.

Looked at this way, the emphasis on social life and credentialing and the neglect of learning make sense. In addition to social lives, students have many other legitimate demands on their time competing with learning: sleeping (but not enough), working (too much), eating, volunteering, taking too many classes at once, participating in social causes, participating in religious organizations, spending time with family, etc. Are these not understandable? Moreover, why wouldn’t students want to make the most of “college culture”? And, perhaps most importantly, why would or how could students a priori believe that learning really and truly ought to come first—that that’s not just something teachers say?

Nathan helps us see positive and negative realities in college student culture. She also helps understand students in the context of their lives, which makes many of those motivations and actions of theirs that we view as regrettable at least understandable. And if we want to help students change their motivations and actions, we have to start with understanding.

Upon reflection, I found that some of my language in an earlier version of this post overgeneralized some of Nathan’s findings. I’ve now added qualifications, specifying that certain descriptions do not necessarily apply to “students” in general but rather to “many students,” “most students,” or “most of the students she observed.” I needed to better represent the strengths and the limits of Nathan’s ethnographic methodology. To wit, she gives us a rich picture, but it is a picture, not the picture. (She never claims more, by the way.) It is easy to overgeneralize about students beyond what the evidence warrants, but important not to.

21 responses to “Students Don’t Go to College to Learn

  1. Many students choose to go to community colleges to take recreational classes that they will enjoy. That way they won’t have to work as hard at school and the can still have the college social experience.

    • I wonder if that works for them. I don’t imagine community colleges providing the same sort of “college life” as four-year residential colleges, though I have to confess that I just don’t know. That’s one of the limits of applicability to Nathan’s study, focusing primarily on the latter type of school, though we can extrapolate that even if different students have different lives, many of them probably also have priorities and purposes other than learning.

  2. This is my second time trying to finish college. The first few years of college (’03-’08) I was more interested in just being in college. I went to a small private college where most of the students actually wanted to be there, but some were there because the parents thought it would somehow reform their children. This time I am trying to finish college as a married man with a child. The focus is definitely on graduating so that I can provide a better future for my family. I think the way to shift the focus of just being in college for the social fun is that we need to instill in students a desire for a better future. Teachers need to show students that college is more than just parties and a good time, it is a path to the future. If students don’t look beyond today they will never change or care.
    One of the best things I was ever taught was not in the classroom. I was challenged by my father-in-law, a hard working down to earth man, to make short term and long term goals. He always has a 3 month plan, a one year plan, a 5 year plan, and a 15 year plan. Not every goal works out the way he plans, but he is working towards his goals. If teachers could create a desire in students to make goals we would see a shift in the culture of college.

    • Thanks for the important perspective you bring to the table, and good luck on your second go.

      I sometimes think that students ought to have to take a few years off to gather the proper mindset for college.

      Nathan did observe that students who were “not traditional” in some way or other often approached school differently than others, including students from other countries and students from working class backgrounds. Having a purpose (or a goal as you describe) makes a big difference.

      I would add that what the goal is matters. Graduating is a good and important one. But I want students to aim higher (or deeper) at the same time. To graduate, you only need to know what’s on the test. Really learning requires more. For me, the ideal is to graduate and learn a great deal along the way.

  3. Wow, this was a really thought provoking post. Being in college myself, I must sadly say that I agree with much of Nathan’s findings. I too agree with what you said in your last sentence about how the journey to helping students change begins with understanding. It begins with understanding where they are coming from, the context and culture in which this generation is brought up in.

    I think that learning should be a lifelong thing and not just something we hope happens in college. College should be the start of a learning journey and hopefully teachers and professors can provide students with the tools to learn on their own in this day and age where information is so readily at hand.

    • Thanks for your comment, Melody. Based on what you’re saying here, you sound like the kind of student (like Ray) that teachers would love to have. For a very different picture of what college and learning can be and is for some, you should read Ken Bain’s What the Best College Students Do. It’s all about, well, what the title says. I’m reading it now, and boy is it worth it.

  4. Being in college myself, I see a lot of the descriptions of a “typical college student” being true in my life. Looking back on my freshman year, I regret not taking my schooling seriously. I had a low GPA, wasted time with friends (who aren’t around anymore), and wasted money and time. But now, I’m in my junior year and things are different. I want to learn, soak in as much as I can., and make the last two years of college worth it. Not because I want to simply graduate on time, but because I want to learn.

    • That’s great to hear, Rachel. I’m glad for you. But I’m also glad for the reminder that students can and sometimes do change for the better, in terms of how and why they approach school.

  5. I would be intrigued to do a cross-cultural comparison on this topic and even a comparison of the point students are in their degrees. In Australia, there are colleges on most campuses but there are also a significant number of university students who do not stay in these colleges over their time at university and there is also a fairly strong “external student” culture where people study externally whilst carrying on everything else in their lives. Having started as an internal student (not living in a college) and then moved to an external student to juggle family/full time work etc, I do not necessarily suggest that the fact that you are studying externally makes a different to your motivation to learn (as opposed to just passing assessments), but it certainly takes away a lot of the dynamic of “peer culture/pressure” that Rebekah refers to in her book. And I certainly agree with the comment by Rachel M above that I look back and regret not trying to learn just for learning sake – rather than to get a qualification.

    My research of teaching, learning and wellbeing looks at student completing their professional legal education at the end of their law degrees so that they can be admitted to practice. At this point in time, the reality that they will be going into practice shortly (or are already in practice) does seem to lead to a certain number of students to be motivated by learning so they can perform properly, and we find that those who see themselves less as students and more as professionals by the end of the course are potentially better off in their wellbeing. What does this mean as facilitators of this learning? It means that we need to make sure that the what we are exposing our students to are experiential learning activities that are relevant to the real world that they are striving for and to make sure that the assessment practices we have embedded in our courses require sustainable learning practices to achieve, rather than just rote learning. Oh… and we make them do this all in teams, so that the “peer pressure” element is harnessed towards a learning objective.

    • This is an excellent comment, Anneka. I think that I originally overgeneralized Nathan’s findings. It’s not that I presumed what she described applied equally to students in different situations, different cultures, etc. But I initially wrote as if it did. I’ve added some qualifications and a note about them. But the specific examples you’re offering here really illuminate how things may be and are different in different contexts. I agree with you that it certainly would be good to have cross-cultural comparisons. It would also be good to have more studies even within a single culture at different institutions and with different populations of students.

  6. Reblogged this on Leren.Hoe?Zo! and commented:
    Wil je als docent een klare kijk krijgen op hoe je studenten denken over studeren, de colleges bijwonen en participeren tijdens de les dan kun je hen uiteraard bevragen (zoals de stichting OER in 2012 heeft gedaan bij 1100 universiteitsstudenten). Maar het kan ook anders! Cathy Small, professor antropolgie aan de Northern Arizona University, schreef zichzelf opnieuw in als student aan haar universiteit en onderzocht zo wat er echt leefde bij de studenten. Ze publiceerde haar bevindingen in het boek “My Freshman Year”.

    • Thanks for reblogging, Leren. It seems that asking students what they think and observing them are both important ways to get to understand students better.

  7. I graduated with my undergraduate degree as a traditional student in 1976. I think the overall academic atmosphere was more challenging than it is today (I know it was on the small campus of around 6000 at which I have worked for 18 years); however, my years in college in the 70s contained a very similar culture. While I made As to please my parents and was involved in honor societies, Who’s Who, student government, etc., my high achieving group of friends were still much more interested in the social aspect of college and seldom discussed the issues of our day. We knew about them, but they didn’t impact our lives much. We dated, partied, wasted much of our time. I also had friends primarily similar racially, socio-economically, and intellectually. By the time I went to grad school in 89, I was very academically focused, as I was actually working on my master’s degree for personal growth, not for any career or social reasons. I would be interested in whether or not the college culture and personal goal setting shifts with age, or whether older people are still primarily seeking career goals, not learning for its own sake. This was a fascinating, although not surprising, article.

  8. Lisa, thanks for sharing your parallel experiences. I’m reading a book now that compares students of today with those of previous generations, based on longitudinal survey data, Generation on a Tightrope, that speaks to some of your reflections. I hope to write on it before too long.

    Your question about age is particularly interesting. I image that most people mature with age and I think of an interest in learning as related to maturity. But I would wager that bigger factors than age outweigh age in determining students’ focus, though those factors, often environmental, often coincide with age.

    Basically, it seems that people do what they want to do and what they have to do. So if you put something in people’s way that they don’t want to do but have to do in order to do something else that they do want to do, it makes sense that they’ll do that thing as expediently as they can.

    So if you have to pass this quiz, to get the grade, to get the degree, to get the job, to get the money, to spend on family, etc., then you’ll pass the quiz in the most efficient way you know how. Actually learning doesn’t have to play into the picture at all.

    Does that change later on? Maybe a bit. Now it’s learn the software to do the job to get the money, etc. The actual applications people find perhaps more often in a career than in school seem to provide a deeper purpose for actually learning things. But it’s still about doing what you have to do to do what you want to do.

    And if I’m right, then the big question is: How can we get students to WANT to really learn?

    I am encouraged to read in Ambrose et al.’s How Learning Works that research on motivation suggests that intrinsic and extrinsic motivations can operate simultaneously and that the more, different motivations people have to learn something, the better.

  9. As a college student, this article made me repent and think more about the true meaning of “college life”. I cannot help but agree on Nathan’s research and what she had found, and don’t think you are overgenerlizing. There are some students who come to college becaues they truely love to learn, but the sad fact is that they are just few, not the most students. But i should say this– perhaps international students are quite different. I am an international students from korea, and i pay tons of money more than American kids pay for school. If i wanted to study abroad only because of social life, i would rather stay in my home country and save money, spend more time with my family and friends, have a easier life, and do less work. I chose to come to the states for a better education and a greater opportunity, so i think this applies to most of international students.

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