Why Don’t Students Spend More Time Trying to Learn?

Concert by Lisdavid89 (CC 2009)To say that many students need to “grow up” in certain ways when they come to college is no insult. Growing up is part of the purpose of going to college. Most teachers will probably agree that many students particularly need to mature in terms of managing their time well. When students resist the amount of work we assign, or the deadlines we set, or the grading standards with which we dock shoddy, obviously last-minute work, we’re within our rights to tell them “tough luck” or, more generously, “you should prioritize your time better.”

Even better, we can teach students how to set priorities, make a to-do list, keep a planner, and say “enough” before taking on more than they can handle. My first semester in college, I found myself in over my head, sinking fast. Just in time, the RA on my hall taught me how to use a spreadsheet to keep track of all the work I had to do and all the time I had to work with. That trick kept me afloat. I believe that many students could use the same lifeline.

At the same time, we shouldn’t take this line of thinking too far. When students spend too little time preparing for class, studying for exams, and writing papers, problems with “priorities” and “time management” are only sometimes to blame. For some students, lessons or lectures on time management may help. Paperwork by Tom Ventura (CC 2008)But for others, such a response would miss the point entirely. I am learning not to underestimate the demands—real, legitimate demands—on many students’ time.

To begin with, given how many courses students need to take each semester to graduate “on time,” students sometimes simply have too much coursework to get done to be able to give their full attention to any of it. In a painful irony, this is particularly so when students take one or more courses employing “active approaches,” since such courses, as Michael K. Potter points out, “require a lot more time” (p. 4). When teachers collectively “make unreasonable demands on their time,” students are not able to manage their time well. As a result, “They skim readings. They turn in shoddy work. What choice do they have? There are only so many hours in a day” (p. 6).

The demands of coursework are hardly the only ones. Most of what pulls on students’ time is outside the classroom—”out of sight, out of mind” for many teachers. In My Freshman Year, an ethnography of college student culture, Rebekah Nathan describes how this is so in two ways. First, she explains how social life defines college for many students. Certainly, students must learn to balance how much time they spend on “‘fun,’ ‘friendships,’ ‘partying,’ ‘life experiences,’ and ‘late night talks’” (p. 103). Concert by Lisdavid89 (CC 2009)However, second, Nathan stresses that students also have outside-of-class demands that they shouldn’t or can’t simply do without. These include sleep (though few get enough of it), food, work, volunteering, exercising, relaxing, social causes, religion, family, and so on.

And those are just the demands that face most “traditional” students, the ones Nathan observed while living on campus at a four-year state university. But more and more students are not “traditional.” As Josh Freedman puts it, “the typical college student is not a ‘typical’ college student.” The life situations of more and more students fall outside what people tend to think of when they think of college. Many are the first in their family to go to college. Many are older than 18-22. Many have family responsibilities, whether to parents, siblings, spouses, or children. Many have to earn enough money semester by semester to pay for tuition and books. Many are not able to live on or near campus. Few get to set aside four years to learn without the distractions of the “real world.”

In a recent, must-read essay in Boston Review, Mike Rose describes the obstacles that can, for low-income students in particular, divert time and attention away from school work. For many, these include caring for children or for ill or aging relatives, working full-time jobs or multiple part-time ones, dealing with debt, computer problems, car problems, health problems, or any combination of the above.Car by Killbox (CC 2007)

It would be inadequate (and even offensive) to suggest to students facing legitimately and unavoidably tough situations that they just need to “prioritize school more” or “get better at time management.”

So what can we do?

To begin with the political, we can, as Rose argues, support increases in financial aid and student services. The fewer financial obstacles draining students’ time and attention, the more they can put into learning.

In terms of pedagogy, we can, certainly, teach time management and prioritization to students who could benefit from such lessons. But we can also look for ways to make our courses more accessible and flexible for all students. This may require thinking creatively about, say, textbooks, course materials, office hours, deadlines, alternative assignments, supplemental instruction, and so forth. In some cases, assigning less work may lead to more learning.

Finally, on a personal level, we can seek to be more understanding and compassionate, even (or especially) in those times when we have to let students know about poor or failing grades. Practicing this sort of understanding and compassion might start with learning more about what our students’ lives are like outside of the classroom.

Photos: concert by Lisdavid89, paperwork by Tom Ventura, car by Killbox (all CC)
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6 responses to “Why Don’t Students Spend More Time Trying to Learn?

  1. So true Paul. Whilst I am once again adding my perspective from “downunder”, which does seem to differ, I know (yes, I have researched it and asked the questions) that 90% of my students have jobs (at least 60% full time), a large percentage have caring responsibilities (I don’t have exact figures for this one) and that they are also encouraged to be involved in significant extracurricular activities in order to be otherwise employable at the end of their degrees. This requires understanding from the perspective of allocating work and providing extensions; however it also means recognising that your students have a lot to bring to the table from their own learning “out there in the real world”; and if you tap into this as part of your own teaching practices you are able to provide a far more enriching and relevant experience to your students. So, whilst it would be great to say that students shouldn’t work through four years of a degree, it might also be worth considering that their work can form a part of the learning paradigm and is not simply a distraction.

    • Great idea, Anneka. Instead of just accommodating students’ lives, draw on them.

      Also, it’s so good that you’ve researched your own students on this question. I was just thinking that it would probably be good for more schools and even individual teachers to “audit” the life situations of students. I’ve had students fill in questionnaires about some of these things in the past but haven’t been very good at tabulating and analyzing the responses. That’s something I can work on.

      The more information we have about students in general, the better. The more we have about our students, even better yet, because of how institutional and disciplinary contexts vary.

  2. Another advantage of asking students about their situations is that it indicates to students that you value them for more than just their student identity. Which, in turn, empowers them to incorporate their learning practices into all parts of their life and hopefully encourages deeper learning practices.

    In my view, opening yourself up to the possibility that your students have other information to bring to the table from their lives also demonstrates a certain humility as a “teacher” and has the potential to encourage fantastic discussions about differing perspectives – i.e. that the teachers view is not the only relevant view and they are allowed to think for themselves too.

    • Yes, yes. And, I imagine, for best results, one could coach students how to bring their lives and experiences to the table in a meaningful way.

  3. I agree with what you both had said. We have many non-traditional students at our school. They work all day and attend school at night. Many have families and some are single moms. How hectic all of that is .I like to use the word flexibility. I try to gauge the dynamics of each class and alter my plans accordingly. Rich discussions are a great way to assess learning and course outcomes. For many of us, the more we have to accomplish the more organized we are.

    • Thanks for adding this, Evelyn. It makes sense that teachers at schools or programs known to have lots of non-traditional students would generally be more flexible or, at least, more aware about these dynamics than teachers at schools not known to have that many non-traditional students. But it seems to me that the line between traditional and non-traditional is becoming increasingly blurry for many students (though, of course, many are also still clearly one or the other) and that more and more non-traditional or quasi-traditional (I definitely need a better term than that) students are showing up in “traditional” settings. So all teachers might benefit from being more aware and flexible.

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