July 30th, 2009

Buying the Passive Role


Last blog about participation, at least for a while, I promise.

Here’s a view that, according to researchers, was repeatedly expressed during interviews. “Students, as consumers, have purchased the right to choose a passive role if they wish. To make them uncomfortable by requiring they participate in discussion was deemed an unreasonable expectation by many of the students interviewed.” (p. 516) This view is buttressed by survey results reported in the same study that only 43 percent of the students thought it was fair for an instructor to make participation part of the grade.

This view certainly illustrates part of what’s wrong with the consumer orientation to education. What students seem willing to “buy” here is an educational experience from which they will learn less (even though they will pay the same for it as those who opt to take an active role).

But it does bring me back to a question I’ve pondered for many years: Do students have the right to remain silent in a classroom? Obviously not, if they’re taking a French course and hoping to learn to speak the language. But what about a biology course (lots of examples could be listed here) where the content can be learned without speaking in class?

What if the student is willing to experience the consequences of being silent? So they are in a class, not participating and not having as engaged a learning experience, if that’s what they’re willing to pay for is that what we should let them have?

I don’t think so, but I worry about “forcing” the participation and involvement. Maybe we need to set out both educational “products,” showing them the clear advantages of an active educational experience and pointing out that both “products” cost the same. At least that might make it more difficult for them to pick the inferior product.

Reference: Howard, J. R. and Baird, R. “The Consolidation of Responsibility and Students’ Definitions of Situation in the Mixed Age College Classroom.” Journal of Higher Education, 2000, 71 (6), 700-721.

  • Paul Miesing

    IMHO, this argument assumes that students are customers in the traditional market sense. While they are "consumers" of the knowledge and experiences we provide, the real customers are our recruiters, taxpayers, alumni, and donors. Students are merely one of many stakeholders, and don't even pay for their full share of the costs! Therefore, I take the position that we are responsible for certifying that our students are qualified. We sometimes determine the metrics to use for that determination, at other times accrediting bodies tell us. Hence, while it might be worthwhile trying to convince students of the improtance of participating I don't believe we are obligated to defend it or to give them options. Like Nike admonishes, "Just do it!"