Why Do Students Take Your Course?

If you ask students what they want to get out of a course, most give the same answer: an A (never mind if learning accompanies the grade). If you rephrase and ask why students are taking your course, those answers are just as enervating: nothing else was open at the time; it’s in the same room as my previous course; my fraternity has copies of your exams on file; my boyfriend’s in this class; I heard you were easy; I heard you were funny; your textbook’s the cheapest one; or, my favorite on Ludy Benjamin’s list, “because my mother took this class from you 24 years ago and she said I could use her notes.” (p. 147)

Do answers like these make those who would give students a role in setting course goals dreamy optimists? Perhaps, but maybe there’s another kind of question that we should ask: how did students arrive at this dismal approach to selecting courses? Surely they were not born wanting so little from their education. What experiences could have so disconnected them from classroom learning? Has the educational enterprise somehow disenfranchised them?

Those are large questions, and Benjamin’s article does not answer them…at least not directly. Benjamin’s interest is in course goals and the disconnect that exists between the goals of faculty and those of students. Moreover, the goals focused in the article are not the bogus ones students frequently voice, but rather 17 possible goals for an introductory psychology course (some are relevant to that discipline, most are broadly applicable, and all are listed in the article). Across the years, Benjamin has given the list to faculty and students, asking each group to identify the three most important ones for an introductory course in psychology. “For college teachers, the most frequently mentioned goal is 11 (content). No other goal achieves anything near the consistency of that selection.” (p.147) Not surprising, this number one goal for faculty rarely showed up in the students’ top three. They rank highest a goal relating to self-knowledge and understanding, followed by one focusing on the development of study and learning skills, and a third highlighting social and interpersonal skills.

Benjamin’s uses the list of goals on the first day of class. At that time a discussion about teacher goals occurs, as well as some discussion about this research documenting that teachers and students frequently do not share the same goals. This is why students are asked to identify their top three goals. The results are shared in the following class session.

Benjamin discusses three ways of responding to student goals: take a totally student-centered approach and adopt those goals for the course. This approach is not recommended. Second possibility: compare student and faculty goals and then show students why/how faculty goals are superior. No recommendation here either—why seek input if you have no intention of responding to it?

Benjamin’s choice is the third option, in which faculty and student goals are integrated. “Do not misunderstand this compromise strategy. It is not meant to undermine the professor’s goals, nor is it meant to give students the impression that their goals will become part of the course when there is no intention on the part of the instructor to do so…. The purpose of involving students in the process is to create a course that is more meaningful to students and professor, to increase the satisfaction of all involved in the class on both sides of the lectern, and to show students how important it is to become involved in their learning.” (p. 148)
The rest of the article then explains how Benjamin incorporates student goals into the course. In doing this Benjamin has discovered that most often this does not involve changing course content. “More commonly…meeting student goals is about making specific linkages between what you teach and how it relates to student goals.” (p. 149)

Could it be that students take courses for poor reasons because their goals have been ignored or thoroughly sublimated to those more important instructor goals? It’s an interesting question and one that can be pursued pragmatically by using (or revising) the list of course goals contained in this article. It might at least be worth a conversation with students…

Reference: Benjamin, Jr., L. T. (2005). Setting course goals: Privileges and responsibilities in a world of ideas. Teaching of Psychology, 32 (3), 149.

Excerpted from Should Students Have a Role in Setting Course Goals? The Teaching Professor, Dec. 2006.