What We Assume Undergraduates Know


As teachers, we have certain basic expectations of our students, and from our own perspectives, some of these expectations may be so basic that we may not think to tell the students about them.

Adam Patterson, a PhD student in philosophy at Syracuse University, has asked for help in making these expectations explicit.

His hope is to improve his teaching by identifying and mitigating traditional sources of tension between students and teachers, and to improve communication with students so as to help them avoid the discouraging frustration that may come with them feeling that they don’t understand all that’s expected of them.

He writes:

What assumptions do you make about your students concerning their behavior both qua students and qua adults inside and outside of the classroom? Which ones are so obvious to them that they often go unstated? What are so non-obvious that students would benefit from their being made explicit?

One result of this inquiry will be a handout for on “the implicit student do’s-and-don’ts” to give to all students, regardless of the particular class.

I asked Mr. Patterson for a couple of examples to get the ball rolling. He offered the following:

Instructors seem to assume that students will ask for extensions if they need them. But often that is not the case. Many students are not aware that they can ask for an extension, and even if they are aware, they’re not sure whether what is going on in their life reasonably counts as an extenuating circumstance. I’ve had many students tell me just that very thing—they didn’t ask for help because they thought instructors would not care to make any accommodations.

Other examples: I’m guilty of wrongly assuming that students know how to be professional in their e-mail communications, that they know how to correctly employ different citation styles, that they know what services the university has to explicitly help them beyond just health services (e.g., copy-editing, research help, etc.), how to access those services, and so on.

What are some other assumptions and expectations about students that we should make explicit?

 

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Dr EM
8 months ago
  • Office hours are for them not just when we are working in our office
  • Email etiquette (greeting, sign off, response time expectations, etc.)
  • How to find readings online when they aren’t directly linked (I was shocked at how few could find a journal article without a link)
Andrew Richmond
8 months ago
  • That they can come to office hours (for me at least) not just to ask questions about course material but also to talk about their research strategies, grad school, the independent study they’re thinking about proposing, …
  • If you have a participation grade: what counts as participation. (Asking a question, answering one, asking for clarification, asking someone to repeat themselves if another student was talking over them, …?)
Tamara
8 months ago

It’s true that students generally don’t understand that office hours are for them. But in emphasizing this to students, I think it is also important to clarify expectations and draw some boundaries.

After doing much to try to demystify office hours and to make students feel comfortable dropping in, some of my students started showing up with no clear agenda and the sense that we could talk about things that were going on in their personal lives. One student even confided in me about her irregular menstrual periods! It might be because I’m young and female, but after that episode I realized that I needed to clarify that office hours are for them to make progress on their work or on philosophical questions, in particular.

Shay Allen Logan
8 months ago

You’re right that there are things that we expect students know but which students typically don’t in fact know. And you’re right that we should do something about such things. But I think there are typically two things that can be done:
(1) We can tell them the things, or
(2) We can stop expecting them to know the things.

I think email etiquette is a good example of a place where (2) is a better approach than (1). Yes, we can spend time teaching email etiquette. Or, we can just swallow our massive egos and stop being insulted by an email that reads, in its entirety, “whens the exam”.

Yes, yes. I too feel the rage climbing in me when I get that email. But where does it come from? Wtf makes me think I somehow deserve better treatment than that? Absent compelling answers to this question, I’ve decided to just *not* waste class time teaching students how not to bruise my ego.

(And to those who say “but Shay, if I don’t teach it, how will they learn?” let me just say this: your students are smarter than you think they are. They’ll learn it the same way you probably learned it: by looking at other emails they get and imitating them. And then they’ll cringe at their first-year failures, just like you probably do.)

Josh
Josh
Reply to  Shay Allen Logan
8 months ago

If I recall correctly, I learned it when an undergraduate professor of mine told me.

Preston Stovall
Reply to  Shay Allen Logan
8 months ago

Communication etiquette is part of professional life. University education prepares students for professional life, and so I don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect to have to help students acclimate to the norms of professional communication. Of course, these norms are frequently honored in the breach, but when I send off one of these “just so you know” replies in response to a “whens the exam” email, I recommend that students adopt the mode of professional communication as the default.

Gorm
Reply to  Shay Allen Logan
8 months ago

I think you are missing a dimension of e-mail communication that the students need to be made aware of.
“Whens the exam”
The question that come to my mind are: what course are you in?
They have to learn that the class I teach them is not my only responsibility. I sometimes teach team teach courses, and I am not the “instructor of record”. So it is reasonable for faculty where I teach to expect students to provide basic indicators of who they are.
To make matters worse, we use an e-mail system where students’ emails are their students. There is no name to work from in order to determine which class they are in

Patrick Lin
Reply to  Shay Allen Logan
8 months ago

“Expectations are premeditated resentments.”

Curtis Franks
Reply to  Shay Allen Logan
8 months ago

They might even learn to sign off with the word “Best.”

Gordon
Gordon
Reply to  Shay Allen Logan
8 months ago

I am. surprised so many people are concerned about e-mail ettiquette–it strikes me as a paradigm trivial issue, though it is important that students know how to clearly express their question or whatever in a way that is understood (e.g “when’s the exam” without mentioning what class they are in) it is best we keep our eyes on the ball (PHILOSOPHY!) as much as possible

A. Lindsley-Kim
8 months ago

One thing that can be important to inform students about — though I don’t think it necessarily falls under any individual instructor’s purview — is that if they have aspirations about any kind of graduate degree, they need to build connections with professors who can write LORs (probably by going to office hours!). This is especially important for first-gen students who likely didn’t have family members who knew to emphasize this, but who otherwise may want to get an MA, JD, etc.

Tamara
Reply to  A. Lindsley-Kim
8 months ago

This is so important! And really it applies to anyone — letters of recommendation are required for so many things these days, and you need to actually estabilsh some sort of a relationship with a professor in order to get a halfway decent one. Students who never speak up in class and fade into the background are in a tough spot when it comes time to get letters.

S C
S C
8 months ago

I suspect that this is a much greater problem now than it has been in the past. So many of our students attended high school at least in part via Zoom because of COVID. The problem isn’t limited anymore to the norms of college, but includes the norms of being in a classroom with other people.

Caligula's Goat
Caligula's Goat
8 months ago

As a professor I understand how annoying it can be to have students not understand office hours, not understand email etiquette, and not understand what my role is in their professional and personal lives. 

Our responses to these issues depend on a lot of variables, some professional and some personal. Some might care about email etiquette either for ego reasons (as suggested earlier) or because such a person might think that it’s their job to not only teach course content but also to prepare students for the professional world. 

Some people might not want students to come to office hours without a plan or to talk about personal issues again because of ego (your time is valuable and these students are wasting it) or because they see it as unprofessional and they want students to learn to be professional. Some might also chaffe at this because they don’t see themselves as trained to handle non-academic student problems or because they think it’s unfair that this kind of care work disproportionately falls on them. All these are good reasons. 

I want to push back against them though. I want to do this not because I think the professional / expertise reasons are bad reasons (though the ego ones are bad) but because someone committed to at least some forms of equity might want to rethink writing off using office hours for non-academic care work. 

I don’t normally get this personal but I think details are important for my point, fair warning, there’s potentially upsetting stuff in this paragraph. I wasn’t born in the US. My family and I immigrated here while I was a child to escape war. We were undocumented for much of my childhood and very poor. I went to the worst schools in my state. My parents also, unfortunately, also brought with them some really terribly abusive parenting practices. I loved and feared them in equal measure. In school I excelled, to the degree that I could, mostly to avoid the belt, the switch, or the backhand. In high school I really floundered, my grades slumped in and I got into a lot of trouble. I say all this to give context to how I ended up in college.

I had bad grades but excellent SAT scores and I was accepted into a huge state school with a lot of problems. This was definitely not an R1. It was under-resourced and understaffed with huge class sizes. I didn’t understand office hours in exactly the ways that people are talking about in this thread. I came to office hours a lot and for all sorts of reasons. My professors (in philosophy but also other subjects) definitely helped me academically in office hours. They helped me figure out Hume’s dialogues, case law in business ethics, and the importance of cognitive psychology but they also helped me work through my burgeoning agnosticism and later atheism, existential questions about my life and culture, and they helped me make sense of my parent’s abuse. I literally would not be where I am today, professional or personally, without their help. 

I’m glad that so many of my overworked, underpaid, professors (tenured and adjunct) didn’t write me off when I came to office hours. None of my professors had a duty (professional or personal) to help me in this way but they saved me. I’ve tried to pay this forward in my own advising / office hours.I’m not a therapist and I don’t pretend that I’m substituting for one when I talk to my students but some of them don’t have access to therapy at all or to sympathetic adult ears, they have no idea why they’re in college in the first place, and they’re sometimes desperate to hear that someone believes in them. If you’re not feeling burnt out by the ever decreasing crappiness of academic work, I think you can do a lot of good by being that person for those students. 

Yes it takes a heavy toll on your time and emotional energy and yes it often falls disproportionately on people like me and yes of course you should also direct students to other resources on campus (though they may also have valid trust issues with institutions). I know firsthand the potentially life changing power of professors who are willing and able to go beyond the call of duty. 

tdlr: I know students can be annoying and sometimes enraging but some of them can really use your help. If you have the emotional reserve, you can really change a life. 

Louis F. Cooper
Reply to  Caligula's Goat
8 months ago

You make good points here, I think.

I had a quite different experience. I was an undergraduate at an “elite” university in the late 1970s. I was definitely not a first-generation college student, but my parents (only one of whom was alive when I went off to college) were not academics, and I wasn’t told as I was heading to college that going to office hours was something I should do. Nor did anyone tell me that when I got there. Professors put office hours on their syllabuses but said nothing about them. Consequently I thought I had to have a specific question about a course to go to office hours, and I rarely, if ever, did. I did end up making connections with a couple of faculty but not through going to office hours. (The details aren’t relevant here.) That is certainly something I’d do differently if I were doing it over again.

I’m not a professor of any sort, but if I were I think I’d lean in your direction in terms of being open to students seeking help or advice, though I also think it’s important to be aware of one’s own limits and, as you say, direct students to the appropriate resources when necessary.

Louis Zapst
Louis Zapst
8 months ago

In a given class, there might be a great variability in student expectations and behavior. There is also great variability in what different teachers expect and tolerate. Policies about grade-determinative matters such as attendance, assignment extensions or retaking tests should always be stated explicitly in the syllabus and again at relevant times in class. If the teacher personally considers something important (whether it be punctuality, office hour purpose, email etiquette, or whatever), that teacher should probably mention it explicitly in the syllabus and remind students as needed. Issues arising unexpectedly will have to be handled on an ad hoc basis. (E.g., I once had a student who vigorously picked his nose at length during every class session to the disgust of other students. I expect students to “know” not to habitually stick their fingers in their bodily orifices, and it would only be for the humorous effect that I would add this to some explicit list of expectations.)

Grad Student
Grad Student
8 months ago

My students don’t seem to struggle to ask for extensions!

Also, I’ve always found discussions of first-generation students lacking knowledge about university to be exaggerated. Neither of my parents went to university. But by poking around and asking a few questions, I knew more about how the university worked and how to get what I needed than anyone I knew. They’re going to spend their whole lives navigating bureaucracy and having to ask basic questions. At some point students need to learn to do those things themselves. I guess that’s my implicit expectation.

Will Behun
Will Behun
8 months ago

I know that most of the focus of this post is about being a student generally (i.e. policies, classroom behaviour, etc) but I do find it interesting that things that I once could fairly assume were part of their education before entering college of university aren’t necessarily the case anymore, and this has called for some adaptation on my part.

To take one significant example, when I first started teaching, I could safely assume that every or almost every student in an intro class would have read at least one Greek tragic play; that isn’t necessarily the case now, so I make sure to provide some context and resources when we talk about tragedy to make sure we’re all on the same page.

Paul Raymont
8 months ago

That in writing assignments, they’re allowed to change their mind. The exercise isn’t like the debating-team model, on which you commit to a thesis and ‘win the contest’ by defending it no matter what. The emphasis is on learning (rather than winning) via argument. The process should involve considering good objections, put in their most plausible form, with the aim of improving their thinking on the matter. Revising a thesis (e.g., adding nuance) is expected.

That a thesis statement differs from a statement of purpose and a topic statement; a thesis claim should be the detailed conclusion for which they will argue, not a description of the problem or question they will engage.

That it’s okay to use first-personal expressions, but that outside the intro and conclusion these are often redundant.

That it’s usually better to use the active voice. Many students apply genre conventions from other disciplines (e.g., lab reports in the life sciences) that largely eschew the active voice.

That their paper should be well structured even if no specific structure is prescribed in the instructions. Again, they often receive super-specific rules for structure in other courses (esp. in lab reports), with prescribed sub-headings. In philosophy, though, the student is to supply not just the content but also the structure (or organization) of the paper, designing and managing the project from the ground up. The structure need not be the ‘hamburger essay’ they might have learned in high school (with 3 main-body paragraphs). Show students how to use mind-maps (or flow charts) and reverse outlines to plan and manage the structure.

That in a paragraph consisting of summary/explication of one source, it is not enough just to cite the source at the end, since that doesn’t tell the reader where the student started relying on that source. The standards for citation in such cases should be set out by the instructor since citation styles, disciplines, etc. differ widely on how to manage such summary paragraphs. Some method is needed to navigate between under-citation and over-citation, esp. in a paper wholly devoted to discussing one source.

Relevant to the previous paragraph: it’s okay to use authors’ proper names in the sentences (not just in citations). Somewhere, students have learned that they should write, “The author says….” or “The article argues….” instead of “Li (2020) argues…”

Charles Pigden
Charles Pigden
8 months ago

Here’s a surprising one: Lots of my students don’t seem to know how to word-search a pdf and are incapable finding information that I have given them on such a pdf. This despite the fact that my pdfs (of which I make extensive use) come with a ‘table of contents navigation pane’. I plan in what remains of my teaching career to give them a demonstration of how to do this in my introductory lectures, at least in my lower level classes.

Gorm
Reply to  Charles Pigden
8 months ago

Charles
I think there are many “basic” things that we think our students can do and know how to do, of which they are oblivious. The trouble is finding which ones they are. I worked in assessment for a bit at a college in the US, and I heard a story of a biology department where all the faculty complained that many students could not even effectively work a microscope. Then the faculty asked each other “who is teaching them this?” To everyone’s surprise everyone thought someone else was. These are the new challenges of teaching in the 21st C, when technology gives us the false impression that everything can be found and learned from the internet. I am later career, like you, but one thing that keeps me quite engaged in my job (aside from research) is trying to understand our students’ abilities, challenges, and gaps.

Charles Pigden
Charles Pigden
Reply to  Gorm
8 months ago

Well a lot of things CAN be found on or learned from the internet but what I am perhaps naively surprised by is that my students don’t seem to know how to find them or how to learn them. I had supposed that young people brought up in the internet era would be good at accessing its resources but they are often surprisingly bad. However, I mostly teach at second, third and fourth-year level by which time most students have acquired a few basic skills. My daughter is a teaching fellow at the same university but in a different department and with a trouble-shooting brief. She spends a lot of her time bringing her first-year charges up to speed not wrt the subject she is supposed to teach but with the basic skills necessary to get by as a student or with elementary information about how the relevant courses are taught and organised. I am often amazed not only by what they don’t know but by what they don’t know how to find out for themselves.
Unlike you Gorm I don’t find this in any way endearing. Though I do enjoy teaching, it is philosophy (and Philosophy, Politics and Economics) that I enjoy teaching and not the basic skills that my students need in order to learn. I rather feel that these should have been taken care of already. But when deficiencies emerge, I try to do my duty with as good a grace as I can muster.