The Irascible Professor SM
Irreverent Commentary on the State of Education in America Today

by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro

"Learning and teaching should not stand on opposite banks and just watch the river flow by; instead, they should embark together on a journey down the water. Through an active, reciprocal exchange, teaching can strengthen learning how to learn."....  ...Loris Malaguzzi

Commentary of the Day - July 23, 2002:  Students - Partners Not Customers!

The response from readers to Tina Blue's article on grade inflation that we published last week was impressive.  Her assertion that students are not customers resonated with a number of you.  However, one of our regular readers sent along a note that raised two interesting points.  This person, who is a very experienced teacher and administrator in a major public school system, suggested that instead of regarding education a product consumed by students, we should regard it as a professional service -- much like the service that a physician renders to a patient.  This reader's second point was that university professors, to a large extent, were responsible for the poor performance of their students because they did not teach (in the same sense that K-12 teachers do), but merely lectured.

These remarks together with a number of other interesting comments on Tina's guest commentary prompted the IP to think about appropriate models for higher education, and about the differences between college level and K-12 teaching.

Clearly, in the last decade or so many college and university administrators have come to regard education as a "product", which can be packaged and marketed like soap or beer.  This viewpoint is epitomized by the relatively large number of for-profit, storefront "universities" that have sprung up in the last decade or so.  However, more traditional institutions have not been far behind in aggressively marketing specialized degrees, often at high prices, to the public.

As the "education as product" model gained traction in academia, lesser administrators -- deans and department chairs -- were encouraged to regard students as customers who needed to be served.  The immediate needs of students took precedence over their long term interests.  Unfortunately, in this environment more emphasis has been placed on keeping the student (customer) satisfied, than in making sure that the student is intellectually engaged and prepared for what is to come after graduation.  At many institutions student evaluations of faculty have come to be as important as faculty evaluations of students (grades).

The ultimate effect of treating the student as a customer to be satisfied rather than a person to be educated for the world after graduation has been a steady erosion of quality.  This has been reflected in the rampant inflation in grades over the past few decades.

If this trend is ever to be reversed, we must return to a more traditional model of higher education.  We need to recognize that the corporate model of higher education in which degrees are regarded as products prepares a student only for his or her first job after graduation, not for the fourth or fifth job.

It's tempting to think of higher education as a professional service, and indeed we do provide a number of services to our students.  However, most professional service relationships -- doctor-patient, lawyer-client, etc. -- are highly asymmetrical in terms of the obligations and responsibilities of the parties.  It seems to the IP that effective higher education requires an active partnership between student and professor.  Both parties to this partnership have significant obligations and responsibilities, and success is achieved only when both parties meet their obligations to the partnership.

In the IP's view the students primary obligation is to develop the skills to become an active, independent learner.  One of the faculty member's obligations is to help facilitate this.  In other words, to structure his or her courses in a way that encourages students to become actively engaged intellectually, as well as to provide informal guidance to help his or her students achieve this.

For students who are making the transition from high school to college, learning to manage time is an important step towards becoming an active, independent learner.  Many new college students have difficulty coping with the pace of college classes.  They do not realize their professors expect them to learn as much or more outside the classroom than they learn in the classroom, and fail to budget the needed time for study outside class hours.  Success in the typical college course requires two hours of study outside class for every hour in class.  For more technical courses (such as physics) this number can rise to three hours outside class for every hour in class.

The student clearly has the obligation to budget enough time for study and to use that time effectively, but the instructor also has important responsibilities related to the fact that a significant amount of learning takes place -- or should take place -- outside of the class setting.  One key obligation is deciding what should be taught in class, and what can be assigned to the student to learn outside class.  The choice of instructional strategies also is important.  Although lecturing has become the favorite whipping boy of many, it can be an effective technique when used properly.  But, in most cases, it should not be the only strategy employed.

Even with careful planning and top-notch teaching, students are bound to run into problems.  Here is where the partnership nature of the enterprise is most evident.  It is the instructor's obligation both to encourage questions, and to be available to answer questions both in class and in office hours.  However, no amount of willingness on the part of the instructor to provide individual help will do any good unless the student takes the initiative to seek help.

Many other examples can be cited, but they all boil down to the fact that higher education is achieved only when both student and the instructor work in partnership.


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© 2002 Dr. Mark H. Shapiro - All rights reserved.