October 18th, 2017

How Should We Respond to Student Entitlement?


what does student entitlement look like?

I discovered some good literature on the student entitlement topic while preparing for the Magna Online Seminar program I’m presenting later today. Among the content areas addressed in the literature are: what entitlement is, what attitudes and beliefs are indicative of it, what’s causing it, whether it’s a recent phenomenon, how it can be measured, and what those measurements reveal. But something crucial is missing: how should faculty respond. Some sources offer hints, but I did not find any good, substantive advice. This post then is an attempt to start the conversation and to invite your insights and suggestions for dealing with these troublesome attitudes and beliefs.

Teaching Professor Blog Maybe the advice is missing because confronting entitled perspectives is challenging. If a student wants to take the exam at a later date so he can attend Grandma’s 90th birthday celebration, or if the objection to phone usage during class is answered with, “I paid for this course—what I do in it is my business”—the faculty member can say no or can cause the student to incur some consequences. Although those actions may take care of the immediate issue, they probably won’t change the student’s attitude. Rather, the student is more likely to conclude that the faculty member is difficult, or more jocularly, a jerk.

What teachers want most to avoid is the rude, aggressive display of entitled attitudes—in class, online, or in face-to-face conversations. Those expressions often feel like direct challenges to teacher authority and are difficult to answer without defensiveness and power moves. That prescribes a response that comes before the fact. Teachers should clarify their expectations at the beginning of the course and in the syllabus, and provide reminders as needed. “Grades are not curved in this class.” “Students with borderline grades are not bumped up.” “Exams are taken the days they are scheduled.” “Late homework gets feedback but no credit.” The preventative approach is most effective when teachers consistently adhere to stated expectations. On occasion there may be the need for an exception, but that happens rarely and is a matter that should be discussed privately with the student.

A second preventative approach involves having a conversation about entitlement before it’s expressed. Do students know what it is? Are the attitudes ones they hold? On Faculty Focus Premium you’ll find a series of scenarios designed to develop an awareness among students as to what entitlement is and strategies for facilitating discussion on the topic. However, it is at this point that the conversation can become challenging. In response to Greenberger, et. al.’s survey, 66.2% of the students endorsed this statement: “If I have explained to my professor that I’m trying hard, I think he/she should give me some consideration with respect to my grade.” If a majority or even a significant number of students in the class support an entitled attitude, the professor may be the only one verbalizing the position against it. When standing alone, it’s tempting to assert the authority that comes with the position and end the conversation with a declarative statement. “No! Grades measure what you know and are able to do. End of story.”

There needs to be a discussion on why attitudes of entitlement are harmful, starting with how they hurt the individual who holds them. If students get more points than they’ve earned, now those students have grades that indicate a level of knowledge not possessed. Moreover, giving students grades they haven’t earned compromises teachers’ integrity. They aren’t being honest or fair. When students get accommodations they don’t deserve, that tarnishes the reputation of their degree program and devalues what education aims to provide. And finally there are the potential professional costs that come when students leave college believing they are entitled.

And there’s something else this conversation could profitably include. What would we say if a student asked us what a college education does entitle them to? The opportunity to learn? But is that all? The opportunity to learn in a safe environment, one that respects a diversity of views and perspectives? The chance to learn from experts, who know the content and understand how to teach it? This is the part of the discussion of entitlement that teachers should be having with each other.

Is persuading students a reasonable goal for conversations about entitlement? Probably not for one conversation, but if the message is consistently delivered by multiple teachers and across the institution, then we’ll start seeing progress.

Reference: Greenberger, E., Lessard, J., Chen, C., and Farruggia, S. P. (2008). Self-entitled college students: Contributions of personality, parenting and motivational factor. Journal of Youth Adolescence, 37, 1193-1204.

For more on student entitlement, read Student Entitlement: Key Questions and Short Answers.

  • lewpuls

    (I’m now retired) I always related the class to the real world. In a job you need to produce, and if you can’t produce, you probably won’t have that job much longer. Most students see school as a preparation for a job, so this is relevant to their interests and needs. Is trying hard good enough in a job? Often not. Are good intentions enough to get you through in the real world? No. This moves the discussion from “teacher authority” to “real-world standard”.

    As for “I paid for this course”: You paid for the *opportunity* to learn. Because this is a degree course, I have to honestly and fairly report how well you do. I want to give you the best opportunity to learn. That means [ban cell phone use or whatever] When I taught Continuing/Community Ed, things were somewhat different because I didn’t have to report how well students did. But I’d still suggest people not use phones in class, because [explain evidence that constant phone-users tend to be failures]

    Sometimes I told people that I was like the coach of a sports team. If you’re not as good as other players, I have to recognize that. I’ll try my hardest to help everyone improve, but I cannot make anyone improve. Just as in sports, it’s your responsibility.

  • sgjones

    Although I have no hard evidence of any correlation between “paying for the course” and student entitlement, my observation after 30+ years of teaching is that the students who feel most entitled are the students who have not paid for the course. Either their parents paid for it, or they have some form of financial aid. Students who are paying for their courses have tended to be the ones who are most likely to take responsibility for their academic success.

    Another suggestion for how faculty can address entitlement is to stop reinforcing the notion that grades are a reflection of effort. There are multiple ways we reinforce this idea–extra credit opportunities; grading attendance; grading perfunctory participation. Linking grades to mastery of specific learning outcomes and nothing else and doing so consistently might help counter entitlement attitudes.

    • lewpuls

      Good point: “extra credit opportunities; grading attendance; grading perfunctory participation.” I never did any of those. And if someone fell asleep in class, I’d stick with my own statement: “if you fall asleep, that’s your body telling you something; you need to fix it.” I let them sleep (unless they snored loudly, that was disruptive). For attendance, I always said it was harder for them to catch up, than simply to come to class in the first place.

      I had smallish classes, not those huge lecture “instructor-as-oral-book” classes. I knew every student individually and could make everything much more personal. Huge lecture classes are a reason why students feel entitled, in the end.

  • Dave Porter

    I wonder how useful it is to assume that “entitlement” is a characteristic of certain students rather than a reflection of the situation. In all honesty, in nearly 40 years in the classroom, I’ve seen more instances of teacher “entitlement” spoiling the environment than student entitlement. I think clarity, mutual respect, & reciprocity have a great deal to do with the expectations teachers and students have of one another. As teachers, we create the game; it seems a little disingenuous to blame our students for playing it. I agree that effort should not directly lead to higher grades. However, as a teacher, I feel a great responsibility to show students who are willing to invest more effort how this can result in better learning and performance. Students often know when they are learning things that are worthwhile and when they are engaged in superficial tasks. I consider ensuring that what I am teaching is relevant and the way I am teaching it is not only accessible but enticing is part my professional responsibility. Working hard for our students is the best way i know to get them to work hard for us.

    • Fremdery

      Can you give some examples of “teacher entitlement”? I’m curious what that looks like so I can avoid it.

      • Dave Porter

        Thank you for your wonderful question. This is just the kind of question that encourages learning in classroom communities. I will provide several examples shortly, but would like to frame these examples by sharing a few of my assumptions:

        – Learning is natural and takes place best through conversations in communities of individuals who are prepared to contribute and respectful of one another.
        – Formal educational systems establish hierarchies that introduce status differentials to establish structure and maintain control (they do not necessarily promote learning).
        – “Entitlements” is term used by some members of the community to describe privileges they assume are claimed by others inappropriately or unfairly.

        So with this framework in mind, here are several privileges sometimes claimed by the professorate:

        – To establish all the rules of engagement (in their syllabi) without consultation, consideration, or even explanation to students.
        – To use the syllabus as sufficient “prior warning” to admonish, reprimand, or punish students for transgressions, while at the same time changing or simply diverging from the syllabus in ways that may appear arbitrary or capricious to many students.
        – To expect consistent preparation from students while, occasionally, being less well prepared for the day’s lesson themselves (or simply cancelling class).
        – To insist students use formal prefixes (such as “doctor” or “professor”) to address teachers but casually using last names, first names, or (worse yet) vague gestures (or only pronouns) when calling on students.
        – To always stand and deliver their ideas and exhortations and expect students to sit and listen respectfully, but to remain standing (looming) when students speak and cut them off at the first sign of divergence or political impropriety.
        – To expect students to accept faculty members’ viewpoints and perspectives without question, but to challenge, dismiss, or ridicule student viewpoints that differ from their own without explanation or evidence.
        – To grade student papers and test responses that accept or support their own viewpoints more favorably than those that express contrary opinions or perspectives when supporting evidence and argument is provided.

        Ok, I admit these may seem to be somewhat exaggerated, but if you ask your students at the start of your next class, then sit down and listen to their responses, you will hear examples of what students have experienced that are far worse than these.

        • Fremdery

          Thank you! Now I have a much better idea of what teacher entitlement looks like. Sounds like there is work to be done on both sides! I’m still mostly on the student side working on moving to the teacher side.

          I am definitely a fan of classroom discussion, and agree that a lot of your examples are examples of a poor teaching style. But isn’t the point of the teacher not only to facilitate discussion, but to be the expert of content knowledge? A lot of what you’re suggesting sounds perfect for a small humanities class (What do you teach, incidentally?), but might not work so well for a lecture-style class, which my not be in the professor’s power to change.

          And while I agree that the teacher should not rely solely on the syllabus for classroom management, is it not a good place to establish expectations?

          I’m loving the discussion! Thanks!

          • Dave Porter

            Yes, we all have work to do – education is complicated stuff. I have had the advantage/privilege of spending most of my 40 years of teaching in small classes – either at the Air Force Academy in Colorado or here at Berea College in Kentucky. Most of my classes have contained 10 to 20 students. This year I’m teaching an introduction to behavioral science course, an experimental cognitive psychology laboratory course, an industrial/organizational psychology lab course, and our senior research capstone course. All of these are pretty demanding and complex subjects (not to suggest that Humanities courses are not). I guess any of them could be taught as lecture-style courses, but not by me. In general, professors have the power to develop a style and pedagogy that works for them, and hopefully for their students as well. In my opinion, the keys to pedagogical success are loving the subjects you teach, loving your students, listening to them and always trying to do just a little more to facilitate their learning. Much of the rest is jargon & fluff. Best wishes for great success as you embark on your career.

          • kfgr

            Thank you for such an excellent answer. I love that you highlighted your assumptions (and asked people to challenge theirs). If every educator had your attitude – …always trying to do just a little more to facilitate their learning. – what an amazing learning experience we’d create for students.

  • Rob Ert

    I think one of the most important forces facilitating entitlement is the heavy emphasis schools place on retention, which frequently takes precedence over student learning and academic standards.

    I often feel like I’m viewed as doing something wrong when students fail my course because they don’t learn as a result of not doing the work and attending class. Somehow, it’s my fault. I shouldn’t hold students accountable and expect them to operate as self-regulating, autonomous adults.

    I feel bad for the many wonderful, hard working, and responsible students with devalued diplomas.