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. 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). 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.
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.