November 16th, 2016

Ugly Consequences of Complaining about ‘Students These Days’


faculty meeting

I recently overheard a faculty member talking about students, and it wasn’t good. She sounded very much like a conference presenter whom Melanie Cooper describes in a Journal of Chemical Education editorial. The presenter’s talk had a strong “students these days” undercurrent.

Teaching Professor Blog Sometimes we do need to vent. It isn’t easy teaching students who don’t come to class prepared, seem to always want the easiest way, are prepared to cheat if necessary, don’t have good study skills, and aren’t interested in learning what we love to teach. Venting, especially to a trusted colleague, helps us put things in perspective. At some point, though, venting morphs into complaining, and what we say about students becomes what we think about them. And that’s when it starts getting dangerous, because it affects how we teach.

The faculty member I heard and the one Cooper writes about have devised a tough set of responses to poorly prepared, unmotivated, self-focused students: a tight control of and commitment to the content; assignments developed on the assumption that students will cheat if they have the chance; no opportunities for student-to-student collaboration; and a plethora of preventative policies. Cooper writes, “It is sad that the negative effects of such a regimented, implicitly hostile, and condescending curricular design on learning are ignored” (p. 423). She continues, “It is true that all students are not paragons of virtue; some students do very little work, and some do cheat, but to design instructional environments based on these outliers cannot be productive” (p. 423).

“Students didn’t used to be like this,” the faculty member I heard announced. Such statements make me think of my time in college. It was the 60s, and if there was a chance to protest the war, I considered that a much more important way to spend my time than attending class. Read my biology textbook? No way, I was talking Descartes with fellow protesters and couldn’t go to that meeting unprepared. That paper for sociology? My roommate, who’d gotten it from someone else, offered me hers. I took it and repurposed most of it. I’m sure those faculty who bemoan the decline in student quality were virtuous college students, but not all of us were.

Cooper makes the case that students haven’t changed as much as many faculty contend. Although U.S. students don’t score particularly well in international comparisons of educational outcomes, Cooper maintains they’ve never compared well. She cites evidence that IQ and test scores are rising (slightly) for most student populations. And at selective institutions, students are better prepared than they were 20 years ago.

Data like these don’t change the fact that those of us teaching at less selective institutions are dealing with a wider range of students than ever before, and many of those students aren’t well prepared to handle college work. Here the complainers wax eloquent about who and what is to blame. It’s a long list that almost never includes anything that happens in the complainers’ courses. Cooper says “blame for failure needs to be allotted all the way around the educational system” (p. 423). Our conversations should be about the kinds of learning environments these students need to learn, grow, and succeed professionally. “We must teach the students we have, not the students we want (or the students we imagine we were back in the mists of time),” says Cooper (p. 424).

Faculty who complain endlessly about students don’t read blogs like this, but I worry about how being around teachers who negatively view students affects those of us who care about them and are committed to their success. Too much negative talk about students becomes like secondhand smoke—hard not to inhale and dangerously unhealthy. We must move to spaces where the air is cleaner.

But I also think we have a responsibility to speak up for students. They don’t all belong in what sounds like another basket of deplorables. And even those students without skills, knowledge, or motivation are still people—people for whom a committed teacher can make a world of difference. I was a work in progress when I attended college. I didn’t show much promise. I’m forever grateful to those teachers who taught as if I did.

Reference: Cooper, M. L. (2012). Cherry picking: Why we must not let negativity dominance affect our interactions with students. Journal of Chemical Education, 89, 423–424.

© Magna Publications. All rights reserved.

  • Angela Daniels

    Excellent blog – and I agree totally. I am still a work in progress!

  • svenab

    I mostly teach students online, and have done so for the last 14 years. The e-student has probably not existed for more than 20 years. But we teachers can of course compare those eager vanguard students with today’s occasionally less eager ones. E-learning is no longer exceptional and revolutionary. Students are not necessarily happy about their e-teachers and vice versa. Here is a short overview of complaints that many might recognize:

    • ohreally22

      Yes, interesting that there is not a similar phrase in common parlance of “Professors these days…” when clearly many of the origins of disengagement are on the teaching side of the interaction.

  • anitags44

    I agree that little positive comes from such negativity though I have been known to vent on occasion not because I dislike my students but because I do like them, but I don’t understand them sufficiently. To care deeply about one’s students is to court periodic disappointment and attendant despondency where one questions one’s choice of profession. It might be a mistake though to assume that professors who employ more regimented approaches are not hoping to have positive effects on their students. They may be hoping that by not allowing their students to cheat or come unprepared or even acting as a hostile entity, they are encouraging responsibility and motivation in preparation for an even more unforgiving world.

    This is not my style, but I have also not hit on the magic formula which will allow me to reach all of my students effectively. I certainly cannot judge someone else’s.

    To complain endlessly about students they serve may be a professor’s cry for help in a wilderness of students he or she does not understand. Don’t get caught up in the complaining, but recognize as well the ambient sadness that attends such complaining.

  • Dom

    Love this and will share it with colleagues.

  • docfinance

    I agree that we can’t program based on outliers, but I also think that it’s our responsibility to prevent cheating as much as we can. Cheating is a much bigger challenge than it was just a few years ago, because of online resources and connections, and there’s even more evidence of “defensive” cheating than we had before. It’s our duty to set a tone of academic integrity. In addition, we’re supposed to hold our students to higher standards and challenge their beliefs and behaviors. Complaining doesn’t do any good if it isn’t followed by a discussion of how we can help them learn from our experience and from creating experiences of their own.

  • Marae

    I like millennials! I work with them every day and am impressed by how innovative they are and how well they collaborate with each other, once they are engaged in what they’re learning. Yes, they play around in class with their phones, Facebook, Twitter, etc.; that’s a given. What I’ve learned to do is put their techno-knowledge to good use. For example, if John is sick that day and can’t come to class, he’ll email Susie, who usually sits beside him (I wish he’d email me too, but that’s another story), and she’ll take pictures of the lecture notes on her cell phone and send them to him. Or we’re studying visual rhetoric, and I put a picture of the painting “Vertumnus” on the board and ask them what Vertumnus means. Blank looks all around. I remind them, “Every one of you has a computer and smart phone right in front of you. Start looking.” There is an immediate race to see who can find it first, and usually a long discussion and a lot of questions that lead to the significance of a painting of an Emperor done in fruits, flowers, and grains right after a widespread famine in Europe. And so on. If you speak to them in their native language, technology, they’re usually right there with you.

    • Robert0F

      I also have asked questions that the students do not know, and what disturbs me is that they have that smartphone and do not even consider using it to find the answer – it’s just there for the next text message about nothing.

      • Marae

        Yes, they have to get in the habit of looking things up like that. I tell them repeatedly, “You’ve got smart phones. Use them. You’ve got no excuse.” Once they understand that these devices are for more than just texting, they are wide open to success, and by the end of the term, I see them looking things up without hesitation. They have been taught to use their phones; by the end of the term, they have become SMART phone users in a real sense.

      • Triskylos

        Its mostly of the assumption that we are not ALLOWED to use our phones. Most High schools would have our necks if they so much as SAW the phones.

    • Cynthia Tomes

      I see both sides of this argument. Before students will attempt the use of phones or computers the faculty member must outline expectations for use of technology in class. Students must navigate the enormous range between profs who ban tech completely to those who expect them to use it actively in class. They won’t know where you are on that continuum unless you tell them. I agree with other writers that teaching students to use tech effectively is a more holistic approach and will result in students with more effective 21st century skills.

  • zanzibar27

    Hey, if we’re talking about higher education here? College? If they’re unprepared or unmotivated, take their money and let them fail out. It’s called a life lesson. I guarantee this will motivate them some eventually.

    • Robert0F

      Unfortunately, this is an economic answer to the situation, and it is better economics to make sure these college students continue to pass and pay rather than drop out and lose their money.

      • Djinn

        Wrong on all counts. Let them fail, it’s part of life and there are lessons to be learned that no amount of you babying them, will assist in the learning process of those lessons.

        There are 7 billion souls on Earth, those not bright enough to see the light shouldn’t take resources from those who want to learn. I have no sympathy for them or those who baby them.

  • Immanuel

    When I was in college in the late 1960s to 1970s, I was often appalled by the attitude of my classmates. I remember vividly the professor kicking a student out of class because he was reading the student newspaper instead of listening to the lecture.

    It can only have gotten worse.

  • Phillip

    There are a few questions that I have about the situation.

    1. Are the professors saying these things wrong in what they are saying? Is there a way of doing a study or examination to check on that?

    2. Is there evidence that holding a negative thought about underperforming students is going to harm them in a school situation? It seems logical, but a good case could be made for the opposite.

    That is, if you push someone and expect great things of them, which could seem negative to some people, they might just step up and improve.


  • Fred C. Dobbs

    My curmudgeonly view is that the teacher’s job is to teach the subject clearly–both content and communication style–and to try to understand, academically, where the student is, and accommodate, where reasonable, to help the student get a good grasp of the material. If the teacher addresses things like “motivation” and behaviour in class, the teacher gets extra credit. The notion that working hard and doing well in school leads to a better life going forward (and conversely not doing the above will make adult life much harder) needs to come from parents. If parents are not doing their job, which it seems many aren’t, the school might offer a (possibly mandatory) course in motivation–kind of like the Drivers’ Ed movies on car wrecks–to help the student in that area. It is not up to the individual Biology or Math teacher to backfill general shortcomings in the student’s upbringing.

  • Don Wallen

    Today’s students are not students. They are whiney, I want everything, but don’t expect me to actually work for it, lazy children. Period.

    • Jason

      A great article, met with great response! I too shared this with my colleagues, as we often find ourselves discussing our current cohort, and changes we see in them as a group.
      That being said, I am a college teacher. My job as I see it is to teach students, not simply teach a topic. If my job was to drive cars, but I refused to adapt to new technology which required varying my driving techniques to get the best of the vehicle, I would expect to be replaced by someone willing to adapt. There’s no point in griping about what students were in the past, my job is to teach those I now have, and find a way to do so. That’s what being an effective teacher means to me. If a hockey coach couldn’t find methods to motivate his team and find success, we all know what happens.
      Just my current two cents.

      • Don Wallen

        I agree. I coach fastpitch softball and have to adapt to the people I coach. But I do not allow “I can’t. it won’t, not possible’, or any other excuse. They are there to learn, and learn they will. Or they will not make the team.

  • George Napier

    Excellent article! This is also a danger in corporate education as well. I often hear complaints about poor hiring choices and slow learners coming from my colleagues in corporate training. It seems convenient to blame hiring choices or a new generation for problems that are really just born of complacency. Times change, not every student learns the same way. It is up to us as educators to reform education to meet the needs of our students.

    • Dennis Griffin

      Agreed. Not every student learns the same way so it is vital we stay current on the trends of learning and memory. For example, there’s been an increase in neuroscience research and brain based learning that will challenge educators to try new techniques when designing and facilitating learning.

  • Dennis Griffin

    I think it is important to discuss personal integrity and going over expectations at the very beginning of the class/training session. After communicating that information, it is best to review the logical consequences for failure to follow the class policy concerning cheating.

    As to the topic of venting about students, I believe that when we vent too much about a particular student we also end up treating them differently, even when they are not giving us trouble. This leads them to behave differently, too, starting a vicious cycle. It is best to be aware of that behavior as well.. More importantly, you may lose the respect of your colleagues if you continue to vent in front of others.