May 10th, 2017

Student Rights and the Role of Faculty


professor in front of large class

I remember the first time I tackled the controversial subject of students as customers. It was in an in-house newsletter, well before the advent of the Internet and e-mail. Even so, I had numerous phone calls, memos, encounters on campus, and discussions about it in every activity the teaching center sponsored for the next year. I hadn’t even taken a side; I had simply listed arguments for both sides. But, as far as the faculty were concerned then and pretty much since, there aren’t two sides. Students are not customers. Tuition dollars do not buy grades. Education does not come with a money-back guarantee. And students don’t get to choose what they learn—well, they do, but if they don’t choose to learn what we require, the consequences are costly.

Teaching Professor Blog Despite the few reasonable similarities between students and customers, it’s still a hair-raising comparison for most faculty. I wonder if we might look at the issue more constructively by considering it from the vantage of student rights. Does investment in college courses entitle students to certain things? The opportunity to learn, I know, but under what conditions? I recently reread a chapter by Conwell Strickland in the 1975 release Excellence in University Teaching: New Essays. His piece “Students’ Rights and the Teacher’s Obligations in the Classroom” contains a list we could use to start a conversation about the learning-related conditions students have the right to expect in every college course.

The student has the right to be recognized as an individual. It’s a basic democratic value: individual dignity. But can those who teach large courses recognize each student as an individual? If so, how?

The student is entitled to a faculty member interested in teaching. Today we might say, “a teacher who cares about student learning.” Can students learn when the faculty member doesn’t care? They can, but not as easily, according to research.

The student is entitled to instruction based on adequate preparation. Teachers should know the content well, and most do. Strickland broadens this to include adequate teacher training and knowledge of instructional methods, but we’re still spotty on the training and fairly loose on the expectations for the ongoing growth and development of teachers.

Students have a right to express opinions and to challenge those of the instructor. We might add that they need to express their opinions and challenge those of others in a respectful manner. Can we agree that they have the right to expect their opinions will not be held against them? They won’t get lower grades, snide remarks, or critical feedback if their opinions differ from ours.

Instruction should be individualized. Strickland wasn’t advocating different curricula or sets of learning experiences for each individual student. “Personalized” might be a better word for it. Students have the right to know how what they’re being asked to learn relates to them personally.

The student is entitled access to the teacher at hours other than class time. These days, technology makes access possible 24/7. Is that more than students should expect? How much access do students deserve?

The student is entitled to know the system by which he [or she] is to be graded. Most syllabi provide this information in detail.

The student has the right to attend or not to attend class. Strickland acknowledges that not everyone will agree, but believes that if a student can demonstrate the knowledge and skills specified in the course objectives, they should not have to attend. The issue is whether students can accurately access their knowledge and skills. On the flip side is the question of whether students should be obligated to share their knowledge, experience, and skills with others in the course. Does a student have any responsibilities towards his or her classmates? What does membership in a community of learners imply?

Students have a right to evaluate their courses and teachers. Not because they’ve paid for those courses, according to Strickland, but because they are obligated to provide input that can help the instructor improve—and, we might add, make the course better for future students.

Since the publication of Strickland’s list, we now have legal guarantees for students with disabilities. What else belongs on an updated list? Although we may benefit from crafting our own individual lists, any list will be much more useful if everyone in a department, college, or institution supports it. As it stands, rights like those on this list don’t come with guarantees. Strickland correctly points out that it’s pretty much up to the individual teacher.

Yes, I know: Teachers have rights, too. But teachers have more power in the classroom than students, and that means we have an obligation to protect the rights of students as learners. I welcome your feedback in the comments section.

Reference: Strickland, Conwell. “Students’ Rights and the Teacher’s Obligations in the Classroom,” in T. H. Buxton and K. W. Prichard, eds., Excellence in University Teaching:  New Essays. Columbia, SC:  University of South Carolina Press, 1975.

© Magna Publications. All rights reserved.

  • Gonzalo Munevar

    In my classes students had to read the material before the meeting and then participate in a discussion that wiould challenge their understanding of that material. Everyone was expected to participate. The improvement in the quality of reading and writing during the course of a semester was quite high. But you cannot participate if you are not there. People who missed classes or who came ill prepared lowered the quality of the discussion. So neither was allowed. Neither should be allowed. In a properly taught class students do not have the right to decide whether to attend or not. As for the right to evaluate the professor, it seems to me that nothing has done as much to dumb down the quality of higher education in this country as student evaluations of professors. You cannot educate properly if you don’t challenge your students, but too many professors are too scared to challenge students and get a bad evaluation in return.

    • Karen Millam

      I agree with Mr. Munevar. I would like to add that the teacher evaluations are not about helping an instructor to improve. Rather, they are a way for students to get back at an instructor who does challenge them; not just in thinking, but – also – in behavior. Questions on the evaluations do not really reflect student participation in the class, which would go a long way in showing student/teacher engagement. The evaluations are used against an instructor and students know it. It is for this reason that students are far more powerful than an instructor.

  • Perry Shaw

    I have found it best to move away from the whole notion of “rights” and rather encourage the students to see themselves as responsible adults and citizens. I clarify this in the syllabus where, instead of including a string of policies I have a declaration of mutual commitments. In my more advanced classes I sometimes engage the students in building these lists. Of course I then need to live out my side! 🙂 Here is a sample.

    Mutual Commitments

    What I expect from you as a responsible adult and citizen:
    1. I expect you to be diligent in preparing thoroughly for each session.
    2. I expect you to submit work on time, or, if this is not possible, to request an extension adequately in advance of the deadline.
    3. I expect you to participate fully and constructively in all course activities and discussions.
    4. I expect you to show respect towards other students, being sensitive to national, cultural, gender and other individual differences, and listening courteously when others speak in class.
    5. I expect you to provide accurate and constructive feedback on the course content and methodology that will help me when I teach this material again in the future.

    In seeking to view you as responsible adults and citizens my commitments to you are:
    1. I will prepare carefully for each class session.
    2. I will encourage reciprocity and cooperation among you as a class of emerging leaders.
    3. I will emphasize time on task, making the best use of the available time to promote quality learning.
    4. I will promote active learning, respecting diverse talents and learning styles.
    5. I will provide adequate opportunity outside of the class session times for you to discuss the course material with me.
    6. I will do my best to provide prompt feedback on your work.

  • Walter Stepp

    I agree with Perry Shaw in that you cannot have a discussion of rights that does not include responsibilities. An example is the “right to attend or not attend class.” This can be considered a right in that a teacher cannot force a student to attend class. However, it is a responsibility and the student should not have the right to not to be graded on attendance. Classroom discussions are an important part of classroom instruction and without attendance, discussion suffers. Discussion is where ideas are shared and developed. This goes hand in hand with one of the other rights you mention; the right to disagree with the instructor and the other students. I always let them know they do not have to agree with me, but they should be able to provide some support for their opinions with well-reasoned arguments, research, etc.

  • Tammy Birchmeier

    I’d like to know what makes a student “entitled” to access to their faculty outside of “normal” class time? In this age of technology, they can certainly email their faculty at 2am but they are not “entitled” to text or call their faculty unless otherwise agreed upon. I have online students that work all three shifts and often, submit their assignments during my sleep time. That’s fine unless there is an issue with their submission and they can’t submit it. They are not “entitled” to call or text me at that hour with their issue.

    • Calirodan

      I took it to just mean that we should be available during office hours. But I agree that in the age of 24-7 online communication, it is important to have boundaries about when they can contact us or when they can expect to hear back from us. We are not an online chat help line staffed by people in India, and we should not be expected to act as such.

  • Ho Leung Ng

    Students should be treated with professional respect, not condescension, eye-rolling, or humiliation.

  • Pamela Herron

    I would echo what others have said. Rights come with responsibilities. I require that my students come to class and be active participants in the education process. They may think they know everything about the material but we often can learn from each other. Isn’t that why they’re in a college class?

  • Calirodan

    I completely disagree with the “students have a right to attend or not attend class issue.” Colleges have completely missed the boat by focusing so myopically on “skills.” Much of the “skills gap” we hear about from employers has more to do with non-cognitive skills such as reliability and perseverance, or soft skills such as collaboration and communication. In most of the work world, it does not matter how well the person knows the content if they cannot make it to their shift or to meetings on time.

    Moreover, if we are only teaching mastery of skills and content, we are setting ourselves up to be replaced by large online courses or MOOCs. In addition to the “expertise” that is now readily available online, what we can offer is facilitation of and membership in a community of learners. We can teach students how to do more than regurgitate; we can teach them to apply, discuss, debate, present, analyze, and synthesize. But that requires ongoing presence and applied participation.

    I think about the above a lot because I teach in a pre-professional program (Teacher Education), and teaching is a profession where teachers get 10 sick days a year if they are lucky and where teachers cannot be late as that would leave minors unsupervised, which is illegal. I’ve also found that students who have trouble with attendance in class also have trouble with attendance when they student teach, which creates long-term problems for our program in terms of finding host teachers and schools in the age of high-stakes testing. In addition to just attending, teachers need to be an assertive presence in the classroom, so I mandate that they sit with different people on different days and collaborate with different people in different ways, as that will be expected in schools and just sitting there passively will not be enough to stay successful or sane in the teaching profession.

    But maybe optional attendance is more appropriate in a course such as statistics or anatomy, where mastery of specific content or skills is the primary objective, and where professional expectations in the careers the class is preparing students for are different.

    I’ve also found that in the current consumer-driven model of colleges, there is no “just” about giving a low grade to a student who has not demonstrated mastery of the course content. “I had several absences, so if I got a low grade, I guess that’s on me,” said no modern college student ever. As students pay more for classes, they expect to get the grade they paid for, and they expect the professor to go the extra mile to help them improve the grade if their grade is low. They also view low grades as the professor’s fault because the information wasn’t clear or they weren’t told or they weren’t given adequate feedback (even if all of these things actually happened), and then they view it as the professor’s job to “fix” the problem. Moreover, I’ve found that students who are most likely to miss class are also the most likely to not have a computer or internet access, are also the most likely to be poor at using the course management system, and are also the most likely to have trouble reading and applying the directions on the assignment if they do manage to locate it online. So, the students who MOST needed to see me show them where the assignment is and how to get to it, and who MOST needed to hear me explain the assignment verbally, and who MOST needed the class time to work with peers on the assignment are also the most likely to be absent and miss all of that, and are then the most likely to blame me for the fact that they didn’t know how to do what the assignment required. In my classes, I’ve consistently found that students who miss 20% or more of the class have trouble getting the “C” or above they need to move on in our program. And I find that, one way or another, that creates more work for me as I have to tutor them in what they missed or re-grade their work or deal with the student’s complaints in our student-centered department about how I am not helpful or responsive enough. Given these working conditions, I think it is entirely appropriate for professors to have healthy boundaries and to cut off students who exceed a certain number of absences instead of having to spend additional hours of their time tutoring the students in what they missed.

  • Linda Shadiow

    Throughout this blog entry, Maryellen Weimer refers to the contemporary contexts that add new dimensions to this 1975 list. As I read through the comments on the article the need for some redefinitions of key words is evident. Today for instance, what does the word “recognize” mean in relationship to the wider swath of students in higher ed today (i.e. The discussions on the “politics” of recognition); what does “active participation” mean to us and to students? (When I have asked students what that means to them and we exchange perspectives, there is a far better understanding on the approach I take in the course); what does the term “evaluate” mean today–could students and could we be better served if that term in replaced with “feedback” given what we have learned from pedagogical and psych of learning research on how some feedback serves growth and some serves judgements? I find this 40 year old list is useful for thinking about the roots of each point and then translating them into a contemporary context rather than reacting to them.

  • goodsensecynic

    Faculty may not regard students as “customers,” but administration does. As a result, they are preoccupied with “customer satisfaction,” with measuring faculty “performance” in terms of meeting students’ expectations and adding to the “college experience.”

    In short order, we shift from a more-or-less “guild” model in which students are akin to apprentices learning a craft from master artisans to the discount department store in which “delivering” curriculum to the largest number of “customers” is the key ingredient in the “business plan.”

    A necessary complement to this model is the deskilling and degradation of faculty who are increasingly being turned from “Associate Professors” to the academic equivalent of “Walmart Associates” with roughly 75% of undergraduate teaching being done by “contingent” and “precarious” faculty – without living wages, adequate benefits, or protection against dismissal without cause … and, by implication, without “academic freedom” in diploma mills wherein maximizing productivity (graduates) trumps (so to speak) academic integrity.