Why are college students less interested in learning than ever before?

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Comments: 19
  • #1

    Ted's initial discussion (Tuesday, 10 March 2009 19:36)

    Over the years I have witnessed a distressing trend at my community college. Students are becoming less and less interested in learning. They are less motivated to learn, do not like to read, and don't, their study skills are very limited and their attitude is that here I am in class therefore I deserve a good grade, if not an A.

    Students are under the impression that by getting a college degree they will get more money on the job. They do not realize or admit that the reason they will earn more is because they are better prepared for the workplace and essentially much smarter and more capable than most people who do not expand their education.

    I teach developmental mathematics which is a difficult subject for many students because they have never before made the effort to learn the basics. Now it becomes our responsibility to change a student's lifetime of poor performance and lack of interest in one or two semesters or quarters. I don't think it is possible unless the student has had some kind of personal catharsis and/or attitude adjustment and is now willing to make the effort to learn.

    We have an amazing array of support services for tutoring and advising for our students and it is like pulling teeth to get them to take advantage of these services. Remember the old addage that you can bring a horse to water but you may not be able to teach him/her nes tricks while there.

  • #2

    Nancy (Wednesday, 11 March 2009 08:11)

    I think it's more complicated than being "uninterested in learning", in that they may not want to learn what we want them to or think they should learn, and they may not be as adept at learning in the ways that we learned when we were in college. I think mnay of use who have been teaching for a while see a general change, that fewer of our students now are learning in the ways that our students in the past did.
    In my experience motivation is part of it, but some basic metacognition and study skills are part of it. I have fewer students now who like to read, or who read the required assignments. And many read quickliy and carelessly. Perhaps due to their texting, internet reading etc, they are not as used to extended writing where one has to pay attention.
    I also find far fewer of the students take notes in class. They dont' seem to see some basic things about human information processing, and in many contexts cna get by without using memory strategies.

  • #3

    Cate (Wednesday, 11 March 2009 09:27)

    We're seeing the same thing at my college with the traditional-age students (ages 18-22) - from the developmental classes through credit-bearing courses. The majority of students don't seem to know how to participate in the learning process: they don't read, apply class material to their assignments, or seek assistance from support services. I think, as Nancy pointed out, some of this is due to the new technologies the students have been using. Reading is no longer what we experienced - it's on screen, it's in short, quick bursts, it's ever-changing.

    Some of it, too, is that the negative, high-school attitude toward being 'smart' or spending time on schoolwork is spilling over into colleges. This is probably because more and more students are enrolling in college; it's become the norm, rather than the exception. Thus, students see college as an extension of high school. They feel entitled to go - just as they were 'entitled' to public education.

    Some of this, I think, is related to the shifts in our economy and our country's attitude toward what is "valuable" work. Students now see college as the only option for them after high school. The manufacturing jobs are gone, going into the military is fraught with baggage, and there exists a snobbery toward the trades (carpentry, electrical, plumbing, etc.); working with your hands is a less than prestigious choice. (I do my best to disabuse my students of this awful attitude; I know many tradesmen who earn a better living than I make as a college professor!)

    And finally, all of this compounds with the fact that so many 18-22 year olds are still kids. They don't know what they want and they haven't experienced enough to know that they have to work hard to get what they want. By contrast, the adult students who enroll at my college are wonderfully motivated - and they all say it's because they have life experience and now understand what it takes to be not only successful but competitive in the marketplace.

    Wow, that's a lot more than my 2 cents. And I haven't offered any solutions to help solve the motivational crisis of the 18-22 year old college student. Honestly, I don't know that there is a solution. What's I've come to do is be the best teacher I can be by giving all my students the tools they need and showing them how to use/manipulate the tools. I also try to meet them where they are and use technology to enhance their learning experience. But ultimately it is the students' responsibility to pick up the tools they're given and practice building their skills with them.

  • #4

    Azulao (Wednesday, 11 March 2009 10:28)

    You know, I'm not sure this is such a new thing! If you look back at what the professors at Harvard were writing about their students in the 1800s, you find much the same complaint. I think it has to do with being young and NOT hungry. I'm sure that bits and bytes at the speed of light don't help.

  • #5

    Ted (Wednesday, 11 March 2009 13:53)

    I think the problems that Harvard has are a little different that most mere mortals. Considering that they accept the top 1% or better of high school classes I think their complaints are on a much higher order. I imagine that their expectations are incredibly high and perhaps not every student whose parents want them to have a Harvard education reciprocate with the same enthusiasm. Perhaps then they do have some similar situations as we do.

    A good friend of mine teachers at Washington University in St. Louis and he has identified similar problems with students who ten years ago were paying $40,000 to go there in the engineering school.

    Does anyone have any interesting articles on this subject they might share with us or web sites that deal with student problems and the changing nature of our students?

  • #6

    Patti (Wednesday, 11 March 2009 22:37)

    I have been teaching developmental education for twenty-one years, and I have not seen a deterioration of skills. To me, they seem to be the same underprepared students. I'm not sure whether high school teachers hold their hands through their four years or what. I agree with you, Ted, that it is very frustrating.

    I was talking with Jane McGrath, president of CRLA, at the NADE Conference two weeks ago. She mentioned that she is starting some research with a colleague on the emergence of the e-books. I'm not sure what the tool is called, but it can load a great many books on it. Jane feels that in the very near future textbooks will all be going to this means of dissemination. Wow! Their research is going to explore what this will mean to reading instruction. Just how do you teach a student to highlight, annotate, etc.? It certainly will be interesting.

    To comment on your question, Ted, there is a great amount of research listed on the National Center for Developmental Education's website. It has to do with developmental education only, but it sounds like when you say "our students," you mean developmental students. Is that right?

  • #7

    Ted (Thursday, 12 March 2009 11:24)

    In answer to Patti's question I currently teach all developmental math courses and have for some time. However, the reason for my post is that I have had many conversations with physics, chemistry, biology, English, teachers and more and the response I have been getting is the same as my post above. Our chemistry prof is retiring out of frustration with the students and because he has things to do in his life that are now more rewarding and interesting than teaching. What a shame that is.

    My wife teaches Children"s literature and developmental English. You would think that the literature course which is an upper level course with an English comp 1 prerequisite and has many hopeful future teachers in the class would be an exception. It used to be, but no longer. Students see the word children's in the title and think it will be an easy course. then they find out that need to develop two portfolios that include analysis of books, read longer books for children and analyze them , do a term paper and take tests on the text material. They don't drop the class, they just complain all semester or try to figure out what they can get away with not doing. This minimalist approach often leads to a poor grade or an F grade which they take personally, become offended and attack the teacher verbally or through emails, or complaints to the dean, etc.

    I am wondering if there is anything that can be done for these types of students or should we mainly focus on the few students who take their education seriously and take responsibility for their learning?

    This seems like a very tough question and some people (mainly administrators) at my institution have taken issue with my negative tone but this is OUR reality, not theirs.

  • #8

    Robert Runte (Thursday, 12 March 2009 11:46)

    As an education professor, I too have seen a decline in students ability and willingness to read; I've had to water down my course readings from scholarly articles, to 'discussion starters' from MacLeans etc. which a lot of them still can be bothered to read. I've also seen a general decline in work ethic, and an increase in the demand for hand-holding and in their sense of entitlement.

    Partly this is a reflection of changes in recruitment on my particular campus as we have moved from small elite program to a broader catchment and become a mid-size campus. It' used to take a 3.8 GPA to get in, now 2.5 is often enough. In my experience, the students we now get are not less bright, but they do seem to have less work ethic.

    Partly it's a reflection of broader social trends as our whole society places less emphasis on the sustained argument of the monograph and more emphasis on the bulleted points of a Web Page or Power Point presentation.

    But having said all that let's us off the hook too easily. I think if we have students who lack the right metacognitions, who are no longer motivated to think deeply, who seem to expect high grades as their due, etc. etc. as Ted correctly depicts, I think educators have to take a lot of the blame. The intense vocationalization of education programs over the last 40 years or so has told students that the point of schooling is to get a job, rather than an education. How can we expect students to be motivated by the intrinsic love of learning, if we are constantly emphasizing the external reward of a good job (with good grades as the intermediate external reward). If the end goal is a vocation rather than learning for its own sake, then students will naturally ask, "Why doI have to learn this" (when it is not relevant to the job I want) and "will this be on the test" (because I won't bother learning if there is no grade to go with it) and Nancy's comment above applies -- it's not that they are not interested in learning, its that they are not interested in learning what we are teaching -- because it doesn't seem relevant to the very narrowly defined purposes we have ascribed to vocational education. "why do I have to know this" is anti-intellectual, because a truly educated person who believes in life long learning wants to know and is curious about EVERYTHING. But who conditioned students to this instrumental attitude? Who killed the natural curiosity that every child starts out with so that they turn into the army of undead hoop-jumping zombies that fill the back row of our first year classes? I strongly suggest it was us!

    So yes we need to approach the learner where they are rather than where we think they should be, so that may mean less reliance on text and more awareness that there may be other modalities for transmitting information; and we may have to acknowledge that our students now all carry full-time jobs and are not the full-time students they were in our generation; and we may have to reteach basic learning skills -- but the number 1 priority in my view is to restore a love of learning for its own sake as the core of what we do, and reject "just-in-time-learning" programs, and "relevance" and external motivation.....

  • #9

    Ted for JP (Friday, 13 March 2009 16:55)

    Here is a response I received on another list about a different question but has some relevance for this thread.

    I am one of the HS Counselors that some refer to in the emails who is trying desperately to complete a doctorate in order to be able to more effective in working with students who want to work through the dual enrollment process or who need some how to understand the developmental / remedial course consequences. Unfortunately I work in a school district that does not accept the premise that some students are not capable or ready for community college after graduation or even university status after graduation.

    In one of my graduate program classes I had the privilege to speak in front of the state's Higher Education Board of Advisors as part of a class project. My concern was then and still is that some students graduating from high school in this state are not ready for College Algebra much less any more advanced mathematics course when they reach the higher education institution. In my state our current Developmental Math Program services more than 65% of the total Developmental Program students [statewide]. With the success though that our community colleges have earned with their developmental programs I spoke of bringing those Developmental Mathematics Programs down to the high school as a fourth year math option so that when our HS students did graduate they would be more likely to be successful in the college/university program they chose to enroll in for a course of study. This was at the time when our state was increasing our HS graduation requirement from 3 to 4 credits in mathematics.

    My proposal was received well at the Advisory Board but the Legislature did not accept the premise and now our HS students are expected to go through PreCalculus before they graduate from high school. Our students will be looking at non-success and probably for some becoming dropouts in the near future as that first class under the new rules reaches senior class status in 2010-2011.

    I agree that some HS students are not ready for college as the maturity is not present. I agree that we secondary educators have not always done the best job preparing HS students for post secondary educational opportunities. I agree our HS students may not always be mature enough for participation in dual credit courses. So what can we, as educators, do to correct these problems?

    I believe the following:
    1. Use educational terms that parents and students can understand.
    2. Standardize them. Dual Credit courses are course that can be used to satisfy both high school and college GRADUATION requirements.
    3. Concurrent enrollment courses are college courses a high school student takes because the student wants to take the course or the student needs to take the course. These Concurrent courses do not count for high school graduation credit. The course may or may not count for graduation credit at the college of your choice and the course of study of your choice.
    4. The Student needs to be an Informed Consumer. The Parent needs to be an Informed Consumer.
    5. Educators must be Informed Presenters in order to enhance the probability of the student and the parent becoming Informed Consumers.

    For our students to participate in a Dual Enrollment Program the student must first demonstrate College Readiness through one of seven test possibilities. Passing the State’s Exit-Level Tests with sufficiently high school does demonstrate the possibility of being successful. Taking the ACT, SAT, ACCUPLACER, the ASSET, the COMPASS, or the THEA with sufficiently high scores does demonstrate the possibility of being successful. Only if the student’s performance on one of these seven tests indicates the probability of being successful are they allowed to enroll in Dual Credit Courses.

    At the current time unless the student demonstrates this possibility of being successful, they cannot enroll in Developmental Courses either. That does not make sense to me.

    There is no reason why the HS student cannot take Developmental Reading, Developmental Writing, Developmental Math courses while still in high school. In fact they may be better served if they do take the Developmental Courses then as the student has a HS faculty core of supporters that wants the student to succeed even more than the Developmental Course Instructors at the local college. For if the student is successful in the Developmental Program, the student is more likely to continue in the post secondary education opportunity and graduate.

    JBJones, Heath High School Counselor

  • #10

    John (Friday, 13 March 2009 18:38)

    I believe one component of this problem is that the technology we teachers have adopted over the recent decades has altered the way students interact with the material.

    I've been around ong enough to have learned when there were no Xerox's to easily copy things and textbooks consisted of exactly that. In my own teaching I have moved from Kodachromes created by typing out the text slide material on a sheet of paper and photographing it to make a slide from which the students had to transcribe notes to using slick PowerPoint presentations from which pdf handouts are made and provided to the students. Cursed by Xerox and PowerPoint, in a way. Although I'm fortunate to teach elite students in a professional program, the way these students function with the material has changed dramatically as well.

    Just as we don't know what makes us happy (read "Stumbling on Happiness" for popular press treatment of this research) or make decisions in as rational a manner as we think we do (read "Predictably Irrational" for that perspective), we also don't know how we learn best even though we think we do. As a consequence, I suspect many motivated students believe they are behaving in a manner optimizing their learning when they are not and I suspect that our older technology forced behavior toward a manner that improved their learning compared to our current technology. I think current research in cognitive psychology has much to inform us about what students need to do to optimize their learning and how what they do doesn't.

    For example, evidence of this phenomenon is in this paper:
    Karpicke JD, Roediger HL. The critical importance of retrieval for learning. SCIENCE 319(5865):966-968.

    Or the current buzz about the effects of doodling on retention: http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=101727048

    Just substitute note-taking for doodling. I tell students to always take notes, no matter what handout they are given and even if they will never look at their writing again. Some take my advice, some don't.

    I think the root of the problem is that students think they have driven something abstract through working memory into long-term memory when they haven't. Then, when they can't recall it later, they get frustrated because they can recall the imagery, whether in the glitzy text or on the screen, that our brains have evolved to retain easily but not the abstract concepts conveyed by text that it has not. I suspect that although concepts are conveyed more slowly by text than by images and require more work, learning is improved. I also suspect that the resistance to reading and using imagery instead is a further manifestation.

    Some other relevant pieces:





    Then, when they don't recall and link abstract concepts together, they are really lost later in the course.

    Hence, I think college students need to learn how to learn and I recommend this piece to them:



  • #11

    Adam via STHLE list (Saturday, 14 March 2009 10:55)

    The idea that students have become less interested in learning seems to be coming up a lot of late. I'd propose that we might look at it in the context of short-term versus long-term thinking and planning.

    Although this might make some uncomfortable, students who think that they need their degree, and not the learning skills and aptitudes that we would hope come with it, to get a job (and particularly an entry level job) are generally right. Although countless employers demand proof of post-secondary education during the hiring process, how many actually ask for details about what kind of learning took place?

    Students generally need higher level critical thinking skills to _advance_ in their careers, not to begin them. And given that society has become increasingly focused on immediacy, it is hardly surprising that so many students (in particular the younger ones) don't necessarily see this right away.

    Perhaps if we want to get through to students we should level with them: yes, all you need to get hired is the degree, or the grade, but once you're in, that degree won't protect you if you haven't developed the critical thinking, writing, and/or reasoning skills (not to mention the creativity) that you need to do the job.

    Students who have been socialized to think about the short-term above all else might still resist, but at least by validating their (legitimate) views of how credentialism has impacted social norms, we might have a better chance of starting a real conversation.

  • #12

    Ron (Saturday, 14 March 2009 10:59)

    If one aspires solely to a comfortable life,critical thinking skills might not be necessary at all - either at career entry or during the career - if Matthew Crawford is correct in his view that "knowledge work" is actually shrinking. He argues that the cognitive elements of white-collar jobs are being appropriated from professionals and
    concentrated in the work of an ever-smaller elite while an increasing number of clerk-like workers handle the remaining mundane portion of society's tasks. His article is a beautifully written account of the cognitive joys of work in the trades, and a defense of his advice that thoughtful students would do well to consider a future in the trades rather than a career in the business world. Very thoughtful reading for postsecondary educators:

    Crawford, M. B. (2006). Shop Class as Soulcraft, The New Atlantis, 13, 7-24.

  • #13

    Jenifer (Saturday, 14 March 2009 11:01)

    It has also been argued that our cognitive abilities evolved to be used in social situations and that the nuances of decision making, influence,outcome and affective results are all important for just getting along
    in daily family life.

  • #14

    Robert (Saturday, 14 March 2009 11:04)

    The over-vocationalization of higher education might suggest that it is unnecessary or even inappropriate to teach skills that are not required by our graduates' future jobs, but this is wrong-headed and a betrayal of the
    true EDUCATION in favour of mere vocational TRAINING. The fact that workers are subjected to deskilling /ideological proletarianization should be taken to mean that educators need to redouble their efforts to develop critical
    thinking etc to (a) assist workers to recognize and resist these destructive
    trends; and to (b) ensure that graduates have the range of skills necessary to participate as active political citizens and self-fulfilled individuals, even should their work lives be contracting.

    > HIs article is a beautifully written account of the cognitive joys of work in the trades, and a defense of his advice that thoughtful students would do well to consider a future in the tradesrather than a career in the business world. Very thoughtful reading for postsecondary educators

    By all means let us recognize the trades as a valued and valuable source of meaningful labour, but to suggest that these individuals don't therefore require an education is to again confuse training with education, and work life with all life. Where is it written that trades workers are therefore
    uninterested in history, opera, and critical thinking? Our role is not primarily to allow graduates access to a comfortable life, but rather access to an intellectual life, a cultured life, a fulfilled life. That probably
    means jolting them out of their comfortable preconceptions. I have no problem counseling students into the trades, but what does that have to do with their going to university or getting an education?

  • #15

    Ron- additional comment (Saturday, 14 March 2009 11:09)

    Perhaps I haven't succeeded in appropriately marking the tone of my comments. How many of us encourage our students to aspire solely to a comfortable life? Surely we wish them a full and meaningful life. Both Crawford and I agree with John Dewey's ideas about the democratization of an education focused on the development of reflective experience (what we now typically refer to as critical thinking). All students, regardless of their future occupation, should learn to reflect, think
    critically, so as to become fully functioning participants in society. Dewey opposed vocational training and would no doubt oppose that vocationalization and professionalization of higher education that fits in the training category.

    The intention of my post was to challenge Chapnick's suggestion that we might win students over to critical thinking goals by acknowledging the truth of their feeling that gaining entry to a profession required only the collection of facts but then pointing out the need for critical thinking in order to advance. Crawfords' description of the
    deskilling of white collar jobs suggests that such pointing on our part would actually be erroneous. And my point is that an appropriate
    argument for the development of critical skills shouldn't be sought in the line of either career access or career advancement. This line suggests to me a belief in the superiority of some occupations or levels of occupation on the basis of a greater demand for critical thinking. Dewey, Crawford and I all think that all occupations can be lived in a meaningful, fulfilled, critical manner.

    I think, in fact, that Robert is exactly right when he says the line of support for teaching and learning critical skills lays in their role in the development of "active political citizens and self-fulfilled individuals". I am sorry that my writing led any to think in
    a different direction. Crawford is more skilled, and I guarantee a thoughtful experience to anyone who pursues his article.

    Crawford, M. B. (2006). Shop Class as Soulcraft, The New Atlantis, 13, 7-24.

  • #16

    Gemma-part 1 (Sunday, 15 March 2009 23:49)

    This topic is near and dear to my heart so I will respond here in the hopes that my experience will ring true to many of those on list and bring comment on list from others.
    I have the good luck to be able to respond to this question from the perspective of a K-12 educator and administrator who has also taught full time and part time in HE and am currently full time in HE at a new college in Georgia, Georgia Gwinnett College (GGC). GGC is a four-year institution that makes student engagement a priority and it is a
    constant struggle for our professors, myself included, engaging every student, every day. I have two personal perspectives to share. The first is relative to why the students are the way they are and the second is what I have discovered about engaging today=92s students in learning.
    As I see it, the real difference between today's students and students of the past is that overprotective, micromanaging parents are
    undermining many of todays students. These students have no sense of needing to develop the life skills and learning necessary to manage their lives because for many of them mom and dad will be picking up the slack, or so they have been led to believe. I have even heard reports of parents attending job interviews to negotiate their child's salaries.
    True or not, it is not beyond reason when considering parental behaviors I have encountered both as a K-12 administrator and a college professor.
    Some of the previous comments in the blog have suggested that students today are different in learning styles, etc. I would argue that they are exactly the same as students have always been. The difference is in the expectation of those closest to them. My parents told me that throughout my life that my "job" was my education and that they would support me in that goal. Once completed, however, I was on my own to make a life for myself. My mom directly told me that once I was educated and/or married I was always welcome to visit, but moving in
    was no longer an option. I knew I had to stand on my own two feet so I was fully engaged in my education when professors weren't mandated to be kind and engaging. They lectured and I had to learn in whatever way worked. Learning was essential to my future.
    My second point has to do with engaging students. In my classroom interactions with students, I find them to be woefully uneducated about the "big picture." They have bits and pieces of information, but no sense of history in how it all fits together. The study I conducted for my dissertation back in 1985 examined the relationship between meaning
    and prior knowledge and today more than ever I see students who have not developed adequate schema for making the connections needed to learn.

  • #17

    Gemma part 2 (Sunday, 15 March 2009 23:49)

    The way I have been most successful in engaging students is to begin each semester by asking each student why they are here. Almost to the student they answer that they are in college to get a high paying job. I then discuss with them what it means to be an educated person and how being educated is the real path to being an outstanding employee =
    and person. Education will ultimately bring about the result for which they are looking, a good job and fulfilling and engaged life I then go into a lengthy discussion of what it means to be educated. I share a verbal summary of an article written in 1990 in which a businessman with a need to extract a mineral from rock cannot find a solution with company engineers or consulting engineers. They report back that the extraction cannot be done. The solution comes when this businessman rejects the notion that it cannot be done and sends a liberal arts graduate student without a preconceived concept of engineering to the
    library. He finds the solution within days. I remind the students that for the carpenter, every problem is a nail. The students begin to realize that all knowledge is linked and that the ability to see and understand these links, no matter how tenuous, is the secret to being an educated person, the kind of employee who is invaluable to any job.
    As I move through the semester I continually help students make the links between what we read (I am a reading specialist and teach student success reading) and what they may know about history, math, sociology, etc. The students are attentive and engaged realizing that no knowledge is wasted and it all connects eventually bringing understanding to learning. The students rapt attention confirms my belief that all human beings are hungry for meaning and for making the connection between themselves and the state of our understanding to date.
    I will end with an example from this semester. At midpoint one of my students asked if I would read and comment on an essay he was submitting to his English professor. I agreed. As I read his comments on being a teen father and how difficult it is, I gained even greater insight into his life. My moment of validation came however, when he stated that he wanted to become an educated person because he understood the link between his knowledge and the ability to be a good father and a good provider. He gets it and will seek understanding in all his classes that will contribute to his being educated, not just
    vocationally prepared. He now wants more from his education and I believe he will seek that understanding in every class he attends
    becoming that student with whom, as professors, we all love to interact.
    I respect today=92s student as I have respected all students over the years. They share our humanity, seeking understanding about who they are and how they fit into a complicated, changing world. When we guide
    them in understanding those myriad connections that we may have intuitively understood (including mathematical connections), we begin
    the process of changing them from apathetic, uninvolved people to engaged learners, an honorable way to spend ones life I think.

  • #18

    dennis congos (Monday, 16 March 2009 15:47)

    For what it is worth in my 30 years experience working in learning skills my response to the question "Why are college students less interested in
    learning than ever before?" is as follows. No one shows them how to do the job of learning at the college level before they get here. Trying to do a job with no skills, underdeveloped skills, or poorly applied skills naturally leads to frustration and discouragment. The tools for doing the job of learning at the college level are available and are best taught before students go to college. Next best is to teach students after they get into college. How ever, it has also been my experience that the peopel who least see the connection between learning and the skills for learning are faculty and department of education faculty. So sad.

  • #19

    Essay Writing (Friday, 21 January 2011 06:35)

    Great post! I’m still waiting for some interesting thoughts from your site in your next post thanks.