Craigslist learning

This week I have some curmudgeonly (that is actually a word that my spell checker ok’d) thoughts to share. My faculty colleague found this CragislistAd [BT update: I’ve posted this link to the ad text, because the original has been flagged for removal since Lynne wrote this blog entry last night].

Since it is a request for a statistics paper-writer-for-hire, it made the rounds in our department (Statistical Science), with everyone asking each other if the assignment was theirs. It belonged to none of us.

Of course, we don’t know if the requester is even an SMU student or from some other university in Dallas. Nevertheless, I found the posting to be very discouraging. The matter-of-factness of the request was shocking to me. I’m sure that when I was in college (way back in the last century) there must have been some students who hired others to write their papers. However, I never heard about any of them because I don’t think it is something that a student would have advertised. Back then, most people I knew felt a little privileged to be in college, and didn’t want to risk appearing as though they weren’t up to it.

When these kinds of ads show up on Craigslist, does it make the idea of purchasing the services of a person to learn for you seem more common and therefore more acceptable? The amateur psychologist in me says that must be true. I hope some real psychologist will weigh in on this.

As teachers, we sometimes imagine that if we can just craft the perfectly enlightening and interesting assignment, we can bring our students to that Eureka moment and they will from then on recognize the BIG and IMPORTANT ideas in our course. We hone our ability to explain to them how they will be assessed on the assignment (as we learned to do in CTE’s rubric workshop), thinking that it will enhance the effectiveness of the assignment since they will know better how to spend their time productively. But before any of these things have any hope of mattering, the student has to DO the assignment. But even for those that do, they must spend adequate time on the assignment itself and connect it to the course material for it have its planned effect . Many of my students do not seem willing to spend this kind of time (since I can see on Blackboard that about 20% of them start their homework assignments after 11 p.m. for a 7 a.m. submission time). Many seem to think it is just part of the game we are all playing, as they navigate the hoops we throw up for them on their way to the credential (a degree) they want.

It may seem that I am exaggerating the importance of one Craigslist ad, by a student who might not even be ours, and maybe I am. However, I was already thinking about this attitude problem due to a conversation with one of my students earlier in the week. She asked me if she could take the midterm scheduled for the Monday before Thanksgiving the week before, because “all my other courses are cancelled for that Monday and Tuesday before break.” (This is copied and pasted from her email—these are her exact words.) Can it really be true that 80% of us are dismissing class the two days before Thanksgiving?! I doubt it, but if even some are, it may seem to students that we faculty also think that time spent engaged with the course material is optional and can be dropped if something more fun comes along, or if their parents have a trip planned, or any number of other things.

So here is my question: Is there ANYTHING we can do as a faculty to increase the proportion of students who appreciate the connection between the learning and the credential? Certainly much of a student’s attitude toward learning is already formed before they get to us, so maybe the answer is no.

For my part, I told the student no, I would not change the date of her exam, because I thought we needed all the learning time we could get to master this material. I also threw in that I don’t approve of the semester being cut short for no reason. I imagine she was not pleased. If I were an assistant professor, I may not have had the courage to insist that she be given those extra days of learning time. Our reward structure pushes us in the other direction.

This may seem like a funny topic for a teaching blog. Don’t we just have to make the material fascinating and present it correctly? Certainly that helps. But I believe student outcomes would improve dramatically if more of our students believed that the value of their credential is what they learned to get it, and what they learned about how to learn along the way. Can we have any impact on that belief at all? I’d like to start a discussion about how.

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2 Responses to Craigslist learning

  1. Thomas Carr says:

    To canceling class before Thanksgiving, add cancelling class before fall break, or spring break,… or covering the syllabus the first day of class and calling it quits. That simply feeds the notion that what we are all doing here is just a big obligation and any chance we can cut a corner is a step closer to the certificate. If by chance we have a snow day, I am just as happy as anyone else to sleep in. Otherwise, our classes, courses, labs, etc. are an opportunity. If that is too high-minded, then accept that it is our job to report to class. If we can’t respect that obligation, the opportunity our classes present to our students will never be appreciated.

  2. The blatant and casual nature of the student’s request is horrifying (and I hear that investigation showed that this was actually an assignment in another Dallas-area university’s graduate program). The challenge of getting students to do the work that leads to learning seems to be a huge one that cuts across disciplines. Watch the CTE website for a program in February, led by the current members of the Academy of Distinguished Teachers, where we will be discussing strategies to deal with that issue.

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