Last week, I reflected on the grading process and the tendency for us as faculty to sometimes judge that a student’s performance is more tied to internal motivation issues rather than external issues and a lack of experience. When you think of a cohort of students, you can group them into three categories – the group that “gets it” and performs well, the group that is motivated but has knowledge gaps, and the group that lacks the motivation to want to meet the course outcomes. Of course, these are simplistic categories, but I think it’s a useful illustration of how faculty approach their class, because how we choose to define the middle category impacts how we think about students and their performance. If you frame the discussion around a group of students who want to be helped (are motivated to succeed), then you are more likely to want to extend yourself to help the student. However, if you frame the conversation around whether the student should bootstrap themselves to catch up, you might be less willing to take extenuating circumstances into account.
When we assume that students are the sole reason for their failure, it’s possible for us to close off other considerations that questions whether we are dealing with a level playing field. I don’t mean to say that students should not be responsible for their performance (and by extension, failure). We as teachers must hold students accountable to their performance. Yet, when a student fails to meet an objective, we should ask ourselves a number of questions:
- Was the assessment fair?
- Was the assessment clearly communicated?
- Should the student have worked “harder” or “smarter”?
- Is there something I could have done to better prepare the student?
- Was there factors that influenced the student’s performance?
It is this last bullet point I’d like to discuss, because I think there is something really interesting going on that we often miss.
Engineering programs share a common trait – the problems are hard and the only way you will get the material is by slogging through the practice problems. Many of the concepts are difficult to master, and the only way you can see the internal logic is to grind through problems, get feedback, and understand where you go wrong so that you can fix your methodology. Some students appear gifted and grasp concepts easier, but most engineers will tell you stories of how they spent huge chunks of their time on manual computation.
Setting aside discussions about learning styles, this way of learning how to be an engineer is a good reflection of how the brain works. The brain really hasn’t changed much in the last few thousand years, and we haven’t found genuine shortcuts to get around this limitation. Structured education, being the only systematic way that allows you to efficiently teach advanced concepts, is the best approach to bringing someone to proficiency.
Students aren’t just students. They are also members of this cultural and historical epoch. Outside of the classroom, their lives are informed by culture, technology, and social norms, and increasingly over the last several decades, culture and technology has prioritized reducing friction. Technology and corporations are incentivized to innovate ways of reducing barriers in our lives. The technologies and corporations that achieve this end up shaping culture. We spend less time focusing on basic survival, sustenance, communication, and transportation, because technology, innovation, and scale has reduced the time and resources we need to devote to these tasks.
As an experiment, consider this: when was the last time you had to carry cash? For the average person, you can go weeks without needing to go to a bank. Almost everything in your life can be handled through banking cards, e-transfers, direct deposits, and apps that instantaneously resolve payment upon the completion of service. These services are available to us because they make things frictionless (and this is good for corporations because it helps us spend more).
If you want to buy stuff, you order it online. If you want entertainment, you can find it on-demand. If you don’t know something, a search algorithm will sort and rank answers for you. If you don’t know how to do something, video tutorials are freely available with a few keystrokes and clicks to walk you through it.
Life outside of the classroom is frictionless, and yet we are insulted when students expect their experience in the classroom to conform to every other experience they live through in their daily lives. Students ask for shortcuts to mastering hard concepts because literally everything else in their life operates this way. The surface level encounters they experience have been refined through intentionally designing the user-interface (UI) and user-experience (UX). Students have little grasp of the underlying mechanisms that hold this up because they’ve never had to worry about it. If something breaks, it is either repaired as a service, or we cast away the broken and move on with purchasing new.
I was an undergrad student in the mid-aughts, and when I look at what life is like for students now compared to when I was a freshman in the dorm, I am startled at how easy it was for me to be a student. I didn’t have the distractions that students experience today. My life was less guided by algorithms and the whims of corporations and technology. You may argue that technology has put the world at student’s fingertips today, but I think that the signal-to-noise ratio has shifted from my time. Yes, I had to work harder to get answers, but that’s because there was less distraction clogging my search. And don’t get me started on the attention economy and designing to maximize user engagement…
When we dismiss performance as being the result of “kids these days” not valuing hard work, we miss the fact that there is no incentive for the kids to work hard when life has grown frictionless. I personally now value friction, because I understand what friction does for the learning process. Much in the same way that you have to introduce low level stress to the body (exercise) in order to promote health, the introduction of friction can be a good thing. But without understanding the motivations and lived experiences of your students, your demand for frictioned lives reduces you down to an old person yelling at the clouds.