I’m always amazed at how resourceful and smart my students are in whatever area I’m into at the moment. Even those students who self report that they were unhappy in high school show loads of potential. Invariably, however, many of the men and women in my courses just don’t put in the time required to learn as much as possible. And, unfortunately, the “work hard” ethic isn’t as easy to explain or understand as politicians would think. I could always say, “Well, my students just don’t work hard enough” and walk away. One response might be: “Yeah, what are you going to do about it?” My response: “There’s not much I can do about it.” In academic circles, this subject of student success falls under the category of underachievement.
Freshman writing and research courses aren’t that hard. But I would assume that without adequate context, time, and good study habits any college course can be daunting and even impossible to understand. In my second semester Composition II course, for example, I ask students to do research and write papers around three general questions
What is the best way to design urban or suburban spaces to enhance quality of life? What standards should be used to determine quality of life in the city or suburb? What technologies are being used or should be used to enhance quality of life in urban or suburban spaces?
We come at the research process by evaluating subjects against three standards: is a researchable topic substantive, topical, and debatable. This is a matter of information literacy. If a student choses to go with transportation, they must prove that the subject is debatable, topical, and that lots of people are engaging the issue. Transportation is a go and would fit nicely inside any of the research questions blockquoted above.
Megan Balduf’s article Underachievement Among College Students published in the Journal of Advanced Academics in 2009 provides substantive reference to studies on underachievement that pose different questions:
In previous studies of collegiate underachievers, both motivation and goal valuation were key factors in determining why students were not succeeding. In a recent study, Hsieh, Sullivan, and Guerra (2007) found students whose GPAs put them on academic probation (below a 2.0) had goals that were counterproductive to academic success. These poorer performing students were less likely to search out assistance in reversing their underachievement (Hsieh et al., 2007). Shim and Ryan (2005) found that students who valued mastery—mastering the content regardless of the academic gain—had higher motivation, while performance-avoidance—shying away from challenge and situations that could result in failure—related to lower motivation. Underachievers tended to have lower motivation and difficulties dealing with stressful situations and challenges (Preckel, Holling, & Vock, 2006). A study of Turkish collegiate underachievers found that the majority of participants (67%) had low motivation and a slightly higher percentage (69%) had issues with preparing for their coursework (Baslanti, 2008). Overall, Baslanti’s study found that students who had previously experienced academic success encountered situations in college wherein low motivation contributed heavily to underachievement. (278)
Balduf’s study approaches the question of underachievement this way
The purpose of this study was to answer the following research questions. To what factors did first-year college students at an elite university attribute their underachievement, and what interventions or remediation did they feel might reverse that underachievement? (279)
The definition of underachievement Balduf takes for a frame comes from McCoach and Reis
For the purposes of this study, underachievement was defined as a “severe discrepancy between expected achievement . . . and actual achievement” (282)
The results of Balduf’s study, which drew from voluntary participants, are as follows
In response to the factors that contributed to their underachievement, three major themes emerged: lack of preparation for Queen Mary College, problems with time management, and issues with self-discipline and motivation. These themes recurred throughout participant responses in the interviews. (284)
Generally speaking, these results sound reasonable and square with the results of other studies (288). They also fall in line with my own observations and conversations with students when they’re hit with assessments they find surprising or demonstrate through questions and submissions that reflect avoidance of the material. Often students will say, “Well, I got As in all my high school courses” or “I really didn’t need to study all that hard in high school.” And so, some students will admit that they really don’t know how to study, don’t know how to move through a study week, or don’t know how to prepare to prepare for college work, which collapses several issues into the vague admittance: “I don’t know how,” which can be translated to mean: “I don’t know how to sit with a piece of reading, take notes, map classroom discussion into study time, wrestle with vocabulary, and review and revise.” These interpretations snake back into students’ previous learning experiences where “grind stone” habits were never engendered.
A key and murky issue is the problem of motivation. As referenced by Balduf, students who want to learn material regardless of the assessment framework (grade or ability-based) typically do well, as I would assume that the habit of learning is less of a concern for these students than those who are confused about what to do with subject matter. This is not the same a goal problem. A student may have the goal of grabbing a nursing or computer science degree and be unable to learn the material because they’re really not interested in the material or don’t know how to become interested in it or are simply frustrated by the enormity of the work and content. In addition, these same students may be struggling through illness, working a lot to assist their families or just working a lot, or may have long standing behavioral issues. It’s hard to know for sure without being able to follow a student through their lives and observing their problems in action.
It’s typical for me to encounter student work that has neglected basic diligence. Often students have trouble reading assignments, even finding them on my course weblog. It’s often the case that students will submit work that doesn’t reflect the details of an assignment. In these cases, my only option is to forgo assessment. I remind the student that they should review things better and take more time. In many cases, students will simply fall too far behind to take advantage of the pedagogy and will not benefit from catchup, which is sad because all my students are smart enough to do the work.
Withal, I don’t find academic studies on underachievement all that useful as being able to identify and describe a problem is one thing, while deriving a model for solutions is difficult in a national culture that values political gain and tu quoque arguments over providing people opportunities for achievement later in life. We have solid examples and knowledge about good learning methods and frameworks. We know that learning thrives when students have provocative, challenging, and disciplined environments in which to stake their claims. We spend billions on political campaigns, and the rhetoric of those campaigns often has to do with monetary waste. This is the worst sort of hypocrisy. We don’t need to “throw” money at schools. But we should invest in people wisely knowing full well that when students skate through high school (I think they should be reading and debating Aristotle by the time they’re 12 years old), they will hit an entirely different animal in college, which should be a choice, unlike the compulsory early learning grades.
So, do students study enough? The answer is of course not. More importantly, do we?