Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Now I Understand

In my Advanced Legal Research course, I have a reputation for being a hard grader (I prefer to think of myself as being fair rather than hard) and for assigning a lot of work. My students are asked to prepare a research guide on a discrete area of the law, and it does take a good bit of time to do this assignment well. I have noticed that students complain more now than they did in the past about the work required for the research guide even though the course now carries three credits; for years, it carried only two. My faculty colleagues have heard the same complaints about their courses. I have often wondered why students are more likely to complain about the workload now than they did in the past. Perhaps it is because they are graduating from college unaccustomed to working hard.

The Boston Globe has reported that a new study "shows that over the past five decades, the number of hours that the average college student studies each week has been steadily dropping." In 1961, "the average student at a four-year college ... studied about 24 hours a week. Today's average student hits the books for just 14 hours." This trend is seen at all colleges, no matter how selective. The study was conducted by Philip Babcock and Mindy Marks, two economics professors, and will soon be published in the Review of Economics and Statistics. It corroborates anecdotal evidence, noted in "survey after survey since 2000 ... [that] college and high school students ... are simply not studying very much at all." Some professors have been aware of this trend for some time.

Could their failure to study in college be the reason some students arrive at law school mentally unprepared for the amount of work they will have to do? I sometimes work with students who are experiencing academic difficulties. When I tell them they should be studying three to four hours for each hour they spend in the classroom, which I think is a good rule of thumb for law school, they are incredulous. None of them study this much. Nor do they think they should have to study this much.

Why don't students study as much as they used to? The study's authors bring up the "easy culprits--the allure of the Internet ... the advent of new technologies ... , and the changing demographics of college campuses ..." but conclude that they are not to blame. Rather, students' failure to work hard may well be caused by "the growing power of students and professors' unwillingness to challenge them." The study's authors offer a theory that

[S]uggests that the cause, or at least one of them, is a breakdown in the professor-student relationship. Instead of a dynamic where a professor sets standards and students try to meet them, the more common scenario these days ... is one in which both sides hope to do as little as possible.

"No one really has an incentive to make a demanding class ... To make a tough assignment, you have to write it, grade it. Kids come into office hours and want help on it. If you make it too hard, they complain. Other than the sheer love for knowledge and the desire to pass it on to the next generation, there is no incentive in the system to encourage effort."

Has the educational system been undermined by students' evaluations of their professors? "Course evaluations have created a sort of 'nonagression pact' ...where professors--especially ones seeking tenure--go easy on the homework and students, in turn, give glowing course evaluations." At some undergraduate schools, administrators are trying to combat the insidious effect of student evaluations by putting less emphasis on them during tenure decisions, and by directing professors "to give explicit tasks to students. Just telling them to read these days is often considered 'too generic, too general of a request ...' And many professors today are using Internet-based systems ... where students are required to log on and write about the assigned reading ... " However, at most schools, the issue isn't even being acknowledged by administrators.


Jim Milles said...

I suspect that law students know fully well that, as much as many (most) faculty truly enjoy teaching, that's not where the rewards and incentives are. Faculty scholarship is what's expected by law school and university administrators, and where law faculty generally find the greatest financial and intellectual rewards. The down side, of course, is that students know that teaching is a distant second in priority for most law schools. Why should students put any more effort into their classes than their faculty do?

Betsy McKenzie said...

Wow! Jim, take some happy pills. At least some schools and some faculty really LIKE to teach, and find a great deal of fulfillment in it.

I read the article that Marie posted about... I thought about posting it here, but cringed. This is the kind of article that makes my daughter's blood boil. She is a college student and takes her studies very seriously. She has a friends who are also serious. And she gets really very angry about articles like this. While I do have students who try to slide by, I also have students who work so hard, it blows my mind. I don't know that I could honestly say that I have seen a trend. When my husband and I read the article, we did the math and really wondered if people were honest "back in the day" reporting how many hours they studied. While it's hard to remember 30+ years ago, I am pretty sure I did not study as many hours as the article reported. On the other hand, I do think I studied more hours than they are reporting currently.

Marie S. Newman said...

All I can say is that the observations noted in the article match my own observations of law-student behavior over time. I cannot speak to what student behavior is like at the undergraduate level, but I do know that not all students are coming to law school prepared to work really hard. I tend not to blame the faculty for this--it seems to me that we pay more attention to teaching than we did in the past.

Jim Milles said...

There are deans I know personally who explicitly award faculty salary increases solely on the basis of publication, not teaching innovation, service to the law school, or other factors. I suspect that almost all deans, if they are not as singularly focused on faculty scholarship, still weigh publication more heavily than other factors--especially at schools that at least aspire to top 100 rank.

It's not a matter of faculty not liking to teach; in my experience most faculty do like teaching and find it emotionally rewarding. However, it is not incentivized or financially rewarded by law deans.