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  • Writer's pictureJoanne Jacobs

Prof: My college students are helpless

Lori Isbell’s community college students had been discussing and writing about a book for two weeks. Then a student emailed the professor for help with an assignment on the author. She didn’t know his name.

“I had to explain to her, carefully, and with what I hope was compassion, that if she hadn’t picked up his name in the class discussions so far (or, I was thinking, in the course syllabus and calendar), then she could always try looking on the front cover of the book,” writes Isbell in Insider Higher Ed.

Increasingly, college students are helpless — or willing to act helpless, writes Isbell.

It becomes like a game of tennis, this batting around of responsibility. We serve an assignment over the net with clear guidelines and expectations, and they either let the ball drop, claiming they somehow weren’t prepared (I didn’t know … You never told me … The assignment sheet didn’t say …) or they question whether the ball was even fair in the first place (Too long! Too hard! Hey, out of bounds!).

Some students lack academic ability, but even more “lack academic agency,” she writes. “They are unable or unwilling to recognize their own role in developing college skills, in earning a college education.”

Many of her students don’t take notes. They buy books, but don’t bring them to class. They claim her calendar is too difficult to read.

Her college has created “student success” courses that offer college credit for learning “time management and a sense of self-awareness,” Isbell writes. Instructors must pledge to “respond to student emails within 24 hours and to return all graded work (with feedback) in seven days.”

By enabling the “helplessness culture,” she concludes, colleges are denying students the chance to learn “accountability, autonomy and self-awareness.”

My sister taught remedial English at community colleges a generation ago. Her immigrant students worked and improved. Those who’d made it through 13 years of U.S. schooling without mastering eighth-grade English did not seem to understand that they had to do something to learn.  After all, she was the one being paid, so she should do the work.

Ricochet, who teaches high school math, is battling “willful ignorance.” Students who aren’t even trying to learn feel entitled to a passing grade.

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