‘I’ gen­er­a­tion

Stu­dents don’t see merit of work­ing to learn

THE (Times Higher Education) - - FRONT PAGE - Raj Per­saud is a con­sul­tant psy­chi­a­trist in pri­vate prac­tice in Har­ley Street, Lon­don, vis­it­ing lec­turer at the Univer­sity of Buck­ing­ham and co-au­thor of the forth­com­ing book, The Street­wise Per­son’s Guide To Men­tal Health Care. Adrian Furn­ham is pro­fesso

When teach­ing med­i­cal stu­dents at a fa­mous univer­sity in Lon­don, one of us would ini­ti­ate the first tu­to­rial with a ques­tion: what is the essence of an ed­u­ca­tion? If you are sit­ting next to some­one at a din­ner party, how do you de­cide how ed­u­cated they are? Is it about where they stud­ied and how many diplo­mas they have? Or is it about an at­ti­tude to life that in­volves cu­rios­ity, in­de­pen­dent judge­ment and pur­suit of the truth? In which case, how does one ac­quire an ed­u­ca­tion?

There would usu­ally fol­low a preg­nant si­lence, fi­nally bro­ken by one of the more as­sertive stu­dents pip­ing up with: “Erm, ex­cuse me, but is this go­ing to come up in the exam? Be­cause if it isn’t, why are we wast­ing our time dis­cussing it?”

Stu­dents’ fo­cus on ex­ams is the bug­bear of many aca­demics. An­other dis­cus­sion one of us had with a group of our stu­dents about their grades quickly turned into a pas­sion­ate at­tempt on their part to ne­go­ti­ate their Cs up to Bs, on the grounds that “hard” mark­ing would oth­er­wise im­pair their ca­reer prospects. Asked what they un­der­stood to be the re­quire­ments for a B, they re­torted that this should have been clar­i­fied at the begin­ning – and were unim­pressed by be­ing re­minded that they hadn’t asked.

Aca­demics are con­stantly sur­prised by modern stu­dents’ ap­par­ent be­lief that all marks are negotiable. Per­haps this is less com­mon in the sciences, where there is

typ­i­cally one cor­rect an­swer. But well over half of psy­chol­ogy stu­dents, in our ex­pe­ri­ence, specif­i­cally re­quest first-class grades for work that they sub­mit, and rou­tinely ques­tion mark­ers’ judge­ments even when those judge­ments have been mod­er­ated by a “blind” marker.

Re­spond­ing to such chal­lenges can in­volve a great deal of work and some aca­demics give in, lead­ing to wide­spread grade in­fla­tion and pre­clud­ing the re­ally bright stu­dents from dis­tin­guish­ing them­selves.

On our trav­els, we are of­ten but­ton­holed by fraz­zled, mid­dle-aged fac­ulty mem­bers ask­ing whether stu­dents today are gen­uinely dif­fer­ent from those of pre­vi­ous gen­er­a­tions, or whether it just seems that way be­cause the fac­ulty mem­ber in ques­tion is get­ting old and grumpy.

A raft of re­search sug­gests that their per­cep­tions are real. One ex­am­ple is a 2010 study, “Birth co­hort in­creases in nar­cis­sis­tic per­son­al­ity traits among Amer­i­can col­lege stu­dents, 19822009”. Based on a sur­vey of nearly 50,000 stu­dents across more than 100 US cam­puses, along­side more de­tailed anal­y­sis of one cam­pus co­hort, the study re­ports sig­nif­i­cant rises in nar­cis­sism over the past few decades.

This gen­er­a­tion gap be­tween stu­dents and fac­ulty mem­bers (even younger ones) might be an un­der­es­ti­mated cause of work­place stress. Nar­cis­sism re­lates to a grandiose sense of self-im­por­tance and unique­ness; fan­tasies of suc­cess; ex­hi­bi­tion­ism re­quir­ing con­stant at­ten­tion and ad­mi­ra­tion; and a sense of en­ti­tle­ment lead­ing to an ex­pec­ta­tion of spe­cial favours with­out re­cip­ro­ca­tion, re­sult­ing in in­ter­per­sonal ex­ploita­tion. And that means you.

Per­haps parental over­prais­ing is to blame. Chil­dren in the past were seen and not heard, but today they are led to be­lieve that they are al­ways en­chant­ing and per­fect. This makes them in­creas­ingly likely to be­lieve that they are above av­er­age in things such as aca­demic abil­ity, writ­ing skill and drive to achieve, even though there are no mea­sured changes in ac­tual tal­ent over the gen­er­a­tions.

Hav­ing made the di­ag­no­sis, here is our pre­scrip­tion. First, fre­quent and con­sis­tent feed­back is nec­es­sary to con­vince those stu­dents who are not as good as they think they are to work harder. Twice-termly eval­u­a­tions are not enough. Ex­plain specif­i­cally and early why they are be­ing ex­pected to per­form each task; don’t ex­pect a sense of duty to mo­ti­vate. And ask stu­dents what they think the point of grad­ing is; ex­plain that the rigid sys­tem em­ployed is not amenable to changes af­ter the fact, and en­cour­age mu­tual feed­back so that stu­dents de­velop their own crit­i­cal val­ues.

It may sound as though we are com­plain­ing about the modern stu­dent. What we are re­ally con­tend­ing is that fac­ulty need to grasp this con­tem­po­rary per­son­al­ity rev­o­lu­tion if they are to re­solve deep para­doxes con­fronting uni­ver­si­ties today. For ex­am­ple, stu­dents’ techno-savvi­ness has en­cour­aged in­sti­tu­tions to put re­sources and lec­tures on­line. Yet this eas­ier ac­cess to “knowl­edge” has para­dox­i­cally meant that stu­dents want more con­tact with staff in small tu­to­ri­als – which, as those from the Oxbridge sys­tem know, is ex­pen­sive.

A 2016 UK study, “Her Majesty the stu­dent: mar­ke­tised higher ed­u­ca­tion and the nar­cis­sis­tic (dis)sat­is­fac­tions of the stu­dent-con­sumer”, con­cludes that uni­ver­si­ties’ pur­suit of stu­dent sat­is­fac­tion merely ex­ac­er­bates these new con­sumers’ nar­cis­sism and ag­gres­sion. To re­turn to the ques­tion with which we be­gan, what dis­tin­guishes an ed­u­cated per­son is not an el­e­vated sense of one’s knowl­edge and in­tel­li­gence. It is, in­stead, hu­mil­ity aris­ing from an ever bet­ter com­pre­hen­sion of what we don’t know. And that can only be in­stilled by be­ing con­fronted at univer­sity with gen­uine in­tel­lec­tual chal­lenge – and learn­ing to rise to it.

Aca­demics need to grasp this con­tem­po­rary per­son­al­ity rev­o­lu­tion if they are to re­solve deep para­doxes con­fronting uni­ver­si­ties today

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