“Good” or “bad” students?

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Universities tend to pride themselves in having “the best students” or the most “competitive programs”. An assumption is that this is achieved by keeping the acceptance rate as low as possible, only allowing those with top grades to enter the programs. Is this the best practice? Since I started teaching again last semester, I have thought more about how we judge the quality of our students when we say that they are “good” or “bad”.

While universities are making it harder to get in on their programs, many teachers still seem less impressed by the quality of their students. In social media, it is not uncommon for academics to share their frustrations about students who fail to live up to their expectations in essays or exams. Sometimes academics go so far as to ridicule their students’ lack of understanding, an example of this being a book by a group of philosophy teachers at the University of Oslo, gathering examples of “stupid replies” from over 50 000 exams – anonymously, but without the students’ knowledge. But who has reasons to feel embarrassed? The students who don’t understand the basics? Or the teacher who has failed to explain them?

Personally, I have never understood this need for the “best” students. First of all, it is not clear to me what makes a student “good”. If we for instance mean the degree of intellectual maturity, curiosity, independence or relevant academic talent, then the grades from school don’t necessarily reflect any of these. Instead, we might get lots of students who are really good at finding out what is expected from them to get an A or to stay focused on what reading or discussions are relevant for the exam. In a philosophy class, these students could get frustrated.

Secondly, I was not a “good” student before I started university. When I finished school, my grades were less than impressive and I had never planned for an academic career. My grades in math, physical exercise and history were particularly low and I had no interest in improving them. Luckily, I lived in a city with a university where most study programs were open, in a country where education is free. In the first semester, I discovered my love for philosophy and this became my career. For the first time, I could study something I loved. By today’s requirements, I doubt that I would be accepted to a university program. And I feel bad for all those students who are not given the same opportunity as me.

Why do we as academic institutions need our students to be “good” before they even enter a program? Couldn’t it instead be easier to get into a program, but hard to pass the exam and get a degree? I understand that it is a question of resources, but today we spend a lot of time and energy trying to make sure that all our students pass their exams. Lecturers teach more, mark more, supervise more, and students are treated like they are still in school, with homework and assignments and multiple choice exams. And we do this because we are judged based on exactly the same type of criteria: how many students who applied to our course, how many who were accepted, how many who passed, what their grades were.

I might be naïve, but I always thought that the quality of a teaching institution should be measured after how well we manage to educate our students. Not on how good the students are before they come to us or on what grade they have when they leave. A teacher who can get a student from a D to a B or an A, seems far better than a teacher who only accepts A students into class. And isn’t our job as educators to help students reach their full potential, whether this work results in an A, a C or simply a university degree?

Learning can be many things. Some things we might need to learn are facts. But many facts can easily be obtained by a simple internet search. It seems to me that education should be more about what one can do with these facts, how to interpret them, critically reflect upon them or even discover new facts. In order to learn these skills, a certain attitude and confidence is needed. How can we give them this?

I love teaching philosophy. I have taught on all levels, both to philosophers and non-philosophers. But what I love the most is to teach philosophy to students who are slightly reluctant to learn it or find it a bit difficult. To me, what’s exciting about teaching is to try to engage the students in discussion, explain what they don’t understand, make them excited about philosophical questions and curious to learn more. In return, I hope that my teaching will make them “better” students: critical of what they are taught, not afraid to ask “stupid” questions, able to think for themselves, even if it goes against authorities. This is what I want for them. Much more than an A.

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One thought on ““Good” or “bad” students?

  1. Dear Rani,

    Thank you for writing this. I agree with many points and am very happy to live in a country where university programs are open, too.
    In addition, when I teach a first year course, I always try to keep in mind that for some students this year will be their only one in the program or at the university. Exams correlate to some extent with their entry level, as well as our teaching and their studying (which also correlates to their entry level). These thoughts motivate me to make explicit certain core skills (e.g. active reading), as well as other academic basics (e.g. how to structure an e-mail to a professor). Also to try explaining things such that most will understand (allowing them to study the material, even if they didn’t have optimal background knowledge or skills) and in a way that some will remember, irrespective of how well they do on the exam.

    Best wishes,
    Sylvia

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