Unachievable classes are a form of structural violence.
A college degree opens the door to higher income, more cultural prestige, and a wider variety of dignified career choices. Beyond those benefits, a college education empowers us on a personal level by fostering critical thinking skills, improving self-esteem, and by introducing us to diverse fields and ways of thinking. When a course has too many barriers to success, it separates students from society’s necessary resources which is a form of structural violence. Quite simply, there is a moral imperative to make our classes achievable. We must more effectively integrate college education into our students’ lives so that more people are able to access society’s resources.
If you’re paying attention to popular media surrounding education, then you may have noticed a new emerging attitude about our students: There is nothing wrong with them. Contrary to the trope that students are irresponsible and lazy, and contrary to the narrative that good grades always reflect hard work, the truth is far more complex.
Here is what we are increasingly realizing:
Our students are not lazy: Our students do not procrastinate because they are lazy but, rather, because they are debilitated by anxiety surrounding tasks that historically have led to bad experiences (See: New York Times, NPR, and a fellow Medium writer).
For example, imagine a student who worked very hard on a major assignment in the Spring but, having never been offered a rubric by the instructor, still failed the assignment. Then, you can expect that same student to procrastinate and possibly even to plagiarize his major assignments in the Fall semester. He would fear repeating his mistake of wasting precious time that could be better used at work or in family life. In this example, it was poor course design that set the student up for both short-term and long-term failure. This student was so emotionally devastated to witness his hard work not pay off that he struggles to find the willpower to work hard in the future.
Traditional assessments don’t reflect ability: As the entire University of California system starts to phase out standardized testing, educators are facing the reality that traditional assessments are typically quite biased and rarely a reflection of intelligence. We know that standardized tests and IQ tests reinforce white supremacy, and they do not actually reflect a person’s abilities.
Imagine a college student who dedicates 40 hours each week to team-building with a diverse group of co-workers and using her intellect to problem solve in a demanding work environment, while also balancing her financial responsibilities and childcare at home every night. Or, imagine a student who is awake all night — in a moment of inspiration — creating a piece of art that is quite profound but unrelated to your coursework. These students may not perform well on your exam due to a lack of free time dedicated to studying. The “F” on the exam in no way reflects their intelligence, ability, or value to society but purely reflects the fact that the student didn’t memorize the series of facts that you wanted them to memorize. We must not conflate good grades with intelligence, ability, or value.
School can’t come first: When we ask students to pay to attend college, they must maintain employment throughout their college career. You will be hard-pressed to find an employer who cares enough about your particular class’ deadlines to custom build your students’ work schedule around the class.
Imagine a student who knows that a major paper is due on Monday morning and therefore requests the weekend off of work to compose a meaningful assignment. Then, when this student’s co-worker calls in sick, our student will be expected to cover the shift and will lose the entire study weekend (in spite of his sincere efforts to plan his schedule responsibly). Imagine how this student might, then, fail your class and find himself paying off student loans for a class in which he didn’t even receive credit (thus requiring more years of employment which will impede future study time). This is a truly unjust system that can be improved by building a flexible course that recognizes students’ competing priorities.
I surveyed 338 students (across four colleges in Los Angeles) in order to better understand their experiences. When asked to rank the daily concerns that compete with any given class, they responded:
- Family obligations
3. Other classes
4. Money; health issues (tied in 4th place)
For most, all of these elements are on their minds every day. How must we design our courses in a manner that works for more types of students?
1. Continuously learn and integrate new technologies: We must use new technologies to seamlessly integrate our courses into our students’ daily lives. Our classes compete with many other equally-important responsibilities. Technology can make education more accessible for all.
2. Embrace student-centered policies: When you re-develop your course policies to accommodate our students’ real lives, you create opportunities for more students to succeed. For example: accepting late work with no penalties ensures that students will actually complete the assignments that you created for them. Or, offering alternative formats to assignments gives different types of learners a chance to complete your course. When we put our students’ needs first, we will joyfully witness more and more people graduating.
3. Create equitable content: Students cannot retain information when the course material isn’t meaningful or compatible with their learning style. Whenever possible, bring in authors that look like your students and reflect diverse ways of thinking so that they can imagine themselves succeeding in your field. And, address topics that dignify their lived experiences; it’s easier to remember course material when it’s applicable to our lives.
I try to ensure that my classes are easy. I do not water down the course material (my course is very rigorous). In fact, most of my students tell me that I assign them more homework than any other instructor. When I call my class “easy” I mean to say that, in spite of challenging material and a heavy workload, my students still earn A’s more than any other grade. Students call my class “easy” because I strive to make their well-being my first priority.
I accept universal late work with no penalties, I let my students text me any time on weekdays or weekends, I offer a seemingly endless amount of extra credit, and I actively seek out new teaching technologies. As a result, I’m often dismissed as, “too nice.” But, from my perspective, it’s time for a major paradigm shift in education: We need to make education “easier” in order to educate better.
I recommend the following steps to my fellow educators. Each is student-centered and highly rated by 338 of my former students. Click on the links to learn more:
Using technology effectively can make all the difference for students seeking to advance their position in life. Throughout my career, I have heard some compelling stories from my students who achieve incredible things in addition to their course work. Here is what some of them have to say:
“I cannot afford a babysitter; my 19-month-old is always with me even at work. Online classes give me the opportunity to be able to earn a degree, work, and be a mom to an active toddler.”
“Taking online classes is a way that I use technology to manage my time between multiple jobs. It allows me to get work done ahead of time and on my own schedule.”
“Technology allows me to work on stuff while being at home helping my siblings with their work as well. It also makes it simpler for me to not constantly need to drive all the way out and spend gas money.”
I am, first and foremost, an anthropologist and professor who closely examines systems of power in all areas of our society (including the power dynamics between teachers and students). In order to better advocate for my students, I mentor and instruct faculty in online instruction and I am a Peer Online Course Reviewer. In all areas of my work, including this piece, I strive to reflect my students’ interests in order to make education work better for them.
A huge thank you to the 338 students who completed the anonymous surveys necessary to put this piece together. You are generous, brilliant people, and I am honored to have worked with you.