Can we move our students from consumers to realistic achievers?

The scenario is a painfully familiar one…

For the last two decades the scholarly study of “academic entitlement” and its relationship to the higher education experience has yielded some important insights. While defining the concept is tricky, Singleton-Jackson et al. (2011, p. 232) identify the following facets of the phenomenon:

a) a belief that some reward is deserved that is not justified based on one’s actual academic achievement; 2) that a high academic entitlement disposition implies a diminished role for personal responsibility in actual academic achievement; and, 3) that a high academic entitlement disposition also implies expectations about the role of instructors that are above and beyond their obligation of providing educational opportunities and effective, quality instruction.

These tendencies should come as no surprise to us, as we have been and will continue to teach the Millennial generation — and their expectations based in part on an educational consumerist perspective — for the next six years. First year college students, in particular, are vulnerable to experiencing a system shock as the work patterns that yielded high achievement in their K-12 past don’t seem to cut it in the bigs. So is the answer to provide toughlove and get them used to lowered expectations?

We don’t want our students to be demoralized, and to settle for lower expectations for their performance in our classes.  Indeed, a healthy body of research confirms that establishing high expectations for students can be a powerful means of achieving effective student learning outcomes.

Maryellen Weimer of The Teaching Professor Blog addresses an important dilemma we all face as college teachers:

Unrealistic expectations present teachers with a conundrum. We want students to believe in themselves. We want them committed to doing well. But we need them to be realistic about what success demands.

Her useful recommendations bear some attention as we start our courses this year — how can we use the first day, the first week of class to set expectations that are both realistic and aspirational for students? How can we use the first few weeks of the term to provide formative feedback that helps students adjust their expectations while maintaining their morale? And how should we respond to the first big exam or essay to help keep students motivated and on the right track? Your suggestions and conversation are welcome in the comments below!

Singleton-Jackson, J.A., Jackson, D.L., and Reinhardt, J. (2011). Academic entitlement: Exploring definitions and dimensions of entitled students. The International Journal of Interdisciplinary Social Sciences, 5(9), 229-236.

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AUGUST 20, 2014

Reality Check: Helping to Manage Student Expectations

By: in Teaching Professor Blog

It’s not until the day of the test, as they’re confronted by a number of questions they can’t answer, that the anxiety sets in. They will sit staring at the questions and guessing at far too many answers, before turning in the test and then persuading themselves that chances are still pretty good for a B. Most students begin college, the academic year, and new courses motivated and optimistic. Many first-year students expect to do well because they were successful in high school. Some are right, but others will only find similar success if they work much harder than they did in high school. Yet most start out expending the same level of effort. They will talk with their classmates and convince each other that an exam covering three chapters can’t be that hard, so they put off studying and then “look over” the chapters the night before—happily dealing with any and all interruptions and distractions.

A lot of students continue to hold unrealistic expectations throughout the course even in the presence of mounting evidence to the contrary. A student can be going into a cumulative final exam with a solid C, but she believes she is going to ace that final and come out of the course with a high B. That may be possible in a few courses, but it’s a long shot in others and is simply not going to happen in most courses.

Adjusting expectations
Unrealistic expectations present teachers with a conundrum. We want students to believe in themselves. We want them committed to doing well. But we need them to be realistic about what success demands.

So, we tell them what they will need to do. Sometimes we try to get their attention with hyperbole. Most of us no longer offer the “look to your right, look to your left. . .” admonition used when we were students. But many of us do still tell students that they need to invest two hours of study for every one hour in class. Yes, that’s true of some courses, but it is no longer true of most courses. Is it true of your courses? I recommend evidence-based answers, gently noting that unrealistic student expectations are not adjusted by equally invalid faculty declarations.

The most persuasive claims about how much work it takes to do well in the course are those delivered by other students. Teachers can control those messages a bit by sharing advice from former students on the course website, in the syllabus, or by getting permission from some carefully selected former students that students can contact if they’d like to talk with someone who has taken the course.

Beyond telling, most of us also try to make the expectations more realistic with an early assessment in the course—a first test, early paper, or some other kind of graded work. And some of us are a bit tougher on this initial work. We let the lower-than-expected grade convey the message that this is going to be harder than many students anticipated.

When trying to help students adjust their expectations, it’s good to remember how strongly students believe performance is ability based. If they get feedback (which their performance deserves), they are quick to conclude that they can’t do it, so they drop the course and perhaps later leave college. What we have them do immediately after the tough feedback is just as important as that initial expectation-correction activity. Is it another test or paper? Is it an opportunity to redo what they didn’t do well initially? Is it having a policy that removes the lowest score from the final grade calculation? Is it leading a class discussion about the value of high expectations and sharing realistic ideas about how to reach them?

I remember one faculty member telling me that he had students respond to their first disappointing test grade with a goal-setting activity. He’d start with the prompt: “So what’s a realistic amount of grade improvement for your next exam?” After that, each student created a list of what they needed to do and when they needed to do it in order to accomplish that goal. The instructor provided regular reminders and a review of the goal and accompanying activities before the next test. That exam debrief included discussion of who reached their goal and why they did or did not, followed by another round of goal setting.

Setting realistic expectations is an important life skill, and our courses can provide students a chance to learn how.

© Magna Publications. All Rights Reserved.

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