Tuesday, July 5, 2016

To what extent should we babysit undergraduates?

Fifty years ago in most universities there were generally only three academic activities for undergraduates: lectures, labs, and end of year exams. Students did not have to show up for lectures [which mostly consisted of transcribing the lecturers notes from the board]. Students were considered adults and held responsible for their actions. They were more or less left to study on their own. If they failed exams that was their fault.

Times are now very different, for better or for worse. There are a host of additional activities  and assessments to enhance learning,  keep students engaged, and motivate them to work: tutorials, weekly problem sets, class blogs,  randomly timed in class quizzes, mid-semester tests, on-line reading quizzes, clickers, ...
In some courses students even get marks for just showing up at lectures and/or tutorials.

I give one example, that is not unusual. At one Ivy League university in the freshman chemistry course, attendance is monitored by requiring students to register responses to questions with their clickers. Students game the system by taking turns going to class with a large collection of their friends clickers and registering responses on their friends behalf. Graduate student TAs are then asked to police this practise, something which they are not exactly enthused about.

I have very mixed feelings about all this. Here are arguments for and against.


These activities do enhance learning.

If we don't require students to jump through all these hoops
  • too many students will fail and I will be blamed for poor teaching
  • students will complain because they expect them, especially if they are paying.
  • I will get poor student evaluations and not get promoted or get tenure.

The administrative workload of "teaching" a course becomes onerous and overwhelming.

Assigning assessment credit to many of these activities is dubious because many are a poor measure of student learning and understanding, particularly those that are amenable to group work.

Students should to be treated like adults and take responsibility for their actions. They are not in high school anymore. They may have been micromanaged in the past by their parents and (private) school teachers, but they need to grow up.

An important part of higher education is developing self-discipline and learning how to learn. Spoon feeding and hand holding does not help this.

Just like indulgent parents, if we pander to the immaturity of students we are doing them a great disservice by not giving them the opportunity to (or forcing them to) grow up.

The best employers are looking for motivated and disciplined self starters who can solve problems for themselves, take responsibility, and don't need to be micromanaged. University education and grades should provide an appropriate filter and signalling.

I welcome comments.
What do you think?
Should we babysit undergraduate students?


  1. Some of these issues (if not the precise form of the symptoms) are also relevant to postgraduates. Particularly, with the rigidly enforced timescales in Australia.

  2. As also mentioned in the post, I think "learning how to learn" is one of the most important points. Any structure that does not enable the students with this will leave them at a serious disadvantage to tackle the real world challenges.

  3. Just some comments, with the disclaimer that I'm a PhD student, so I might be way off here.

    I find curious that in the Age of Administrators there is this trend of forcing professors to indulge the students with more time and activities. Teachers are not trained for this, the efficiency is questionable, and the time drain is obvious. How come administrators did not put it down for cost-effectiveness reasons? At least I'm my university (in Brazil) it seems that the resulting good PR, and therefore department attractiveness for undergrads, is a factor.

    In a different rant, I do believe that not all undergrad courses are equal, and not all undergrad majors are equal. Maybe this system is in fact advantageous in some instances, say just for freshman courses because high school is not doing a great job and the university needs to pick up the slack. Or for majors not really academical in nature, such as business.