On an almost daily basis, the permanently busy Penn student must make difficult decisions about how to allocate time. When should we schedule our meetings? Can we fit in a new commitment? Perhaps most pivotal are the decisions relating to our classes. Do we do our reading? How much time to we spend studying for midterms? And of course, do we attend class at all?
Different students deal with these questions — and the pressures associated with them — in different ways. Indeed there is a spectrum, ranging from those of us who would never miss a lecture, read every assigned page and prepare for midterms a month in advance to those who take a more laid-back perspective.
A friend of mine at Columbia University — who asked not to be named out of concern for reactions he might receive from his professors who might happen to read this — takes non-attendance to a whole new level. He has skipped an entire week’s worth of class at times. Over a semester, he regularly misses more lectures than he attends in many subjects. He said he often finds himself “learning the material the day before the exam, not reviewing it.”
Professors not used to seeing him have asked him to prove his identity during exams. And yet he finds his own way to succeed, performing well in his classes and maintaining a respectable GPA. Though I have yet to meet one, I’m sure there are students like that at Penn as well.
There are many routes to academic success. Yet few classes allow students full rein over how to manage their time and efforts. Many professors instead use a variety of techniques — from taking attendance to cold calling to weekly reading response papers — to push students towards 100 percent participation, 100 percent of the time.
In some classes that makes sense. Seminars are built around the idea of discussion, and if no one did the reading, no discussion can occur.
But those classes are the minority. Indeed many classes virtually encourage non-participation, even non-attendance. We’ve all had a class where the professor seemed to do nothing but read the textbook, which we can all do at home. This is to say nothing about classes where a tiny minority of students not understanding the material leads to an endless barrage of questions and tumbling attendance from students who realize the professor is now repeating each lecture three or four times.
Micromanagement of student learning practices seems all the more bizarre given the existence of exams. The final exam serves as a filter, because all students — regardless of learning technique — must still acquire the proficiency to pass. Surely that dangling truth should ensure students learn the material, even if it is right before the exam.
History professor Peter Holquist suggests otherwise. He recounted the experience of teaching a class in which only a minority of students were doing the readings, leading to poor midterm grades. A subsequent reading-response program lifted performance thereafter.
Holquist said that apart from the ideological commitments that many educators have to their work, there is a pragmatic aspect as well. “It’s not good if students fail courses,” as a poor grade can have tremendous implications for a student’s future education and perhaps even post-graduation life.
Holquist is probably right. Abandoning all structure within the classroom and letting us all run as a horde of leaderless mice towards examinations and papers would probably result in lower performance. Many students would not seize the opportunity for self direction.
Professors in that sense are a little like police officers: they exist because not everyone follows the law automatically. But who can deny being a little jealous of those brave souls who stand completely outside the system? Like that Robin Hood of Columbia, taking classes the way we all wish we could.
Luke Hassall is a College senior from Auckland, New Zealand. His e-mail address is hassall@theDP.com. Hassall-Free Fridays appears every other Friday.Comments powered by Disqus
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