It’s easy to get focused on how much students don’t know. We all have stories—such as my student who, when I said “paradigms,” heard “pair of dimes”—that we laughingly share with colleagues. Much more serious is the absence of all sorts of essential information and basic skills, and how not having them threatens academic survival. Knowing what students don’t know and can’t do saves us from making erroneous assumptions. We can move directly to teaching that helps students fill in those gaps.
As I see it, the trouble arises out of what we conclude about students who lack the necessary prior knowledge. Ignorant, like stupid, is an ugly word, and few teachers use those descriptors. But how do we think about students not well-equipped to handle college content? What do we conclude about their abilities and chances for success?
In any given semester or term, we teach 50, 150, maybe even 1,000 students in the three, five, or however many courses we teach. Even with 50 students, it’s impossible to know each one individually, and so we deal with them in groups, put them in categories, and respond to them generically—as math majors, first-year students, first-generation students, working adults, and a host of other convenient categories. As necessary as this coping strategy is, its consequences cause harm when the assumptions we make about those in the category harden into conclusions—rigid expectations that quietly morph into stereotypes.
The most harmful stereotypes are the ones about ability. After a few weeks in most courses, we can make some guesses about who doesn’t have what it takes succeed in the course, the major, and probably college. Particularly insidious is how accurate those predictions can be. We have lots of experience with students. We know what knowledge and skills they to need master college-level material. Still, even if we’re right most of the time, all of us can name students who succeeded against the odds.
We tend to forget that what we think about students gets communicated, subtly, and often unconsciously. Students pick up on those messages—how we respond to questions that they should be able to answer, to incomplete assignments, error-ridden writing or failing exams scores. Our feedback to students must accurately evaluate their performance. If they do work that’s unacceptable, we must communicate as much. But our goal should be messages that focus on the performance, not the person; that direct improvement efforts; and that offer support, encouragement, and a willingness to help.
A variety of reasons account for students’ lack of prior knowledge: the disparity in public school funding that compromises educational quality, the cultural devaluation of education, teacher burnout, students’ mental health issues, and their lack of interest in learning. All these problems and more have to be of concern to postsecondary educators. But these big-picture considerations don’t help us when we’re facing an individual student. Conversations with students revolve around what they need to know and how they can learn it. Why any particular student doesn’t have the prerequisite knowledge matters far less than what that student needs to learn.
All kinds of students do things that wear teachers down. When they aren’t doing well in the course or as well as they think they should be doing, excuses abound, and teachers have no easy ways to assess their legitimacy. Sometimes teachers get blamed for what’s actually the student’s fault. Intellectual maturity develops slowly, sometimes all but invisibly. It’s hard to always think the best of students, to believe in them and see their potential. But that’s precisely what students need—a teacher who understands the power of a college education to make a lifetime of difference.
I’m reminding you of something you already know. Most of us care deeply about students and want them all to succeed. We know that we shouldn’t make judgments about their abilities or expect behaviors to line up with their group affiliations. But we do, even with good intentions not to. So, consider this a gentle reminder to go ahead and put students in categories, recognizing that not all of them belong there. When face-to-face with a student, discard foregone conclusions and believe that what isn’t known can be learned.