Students must comply with lots of educational requirements. They take “required” general education and major courses. Sometimes the sequences of those courses is also mandated. In most courses students must submit required assignments on specified due dates. Policies mandate student actions, such as attendance, participation, and academic integrity.
For much of my career I’ve struggled with finding the balance between teacher requirements and student choice. It’s easy for teachers to make requirements. We have the power, and it’s largely unquestioned by students or those in the administration. Most educational requirements rest on good intentions and sound justifications. Many teacher mandates grow out of years of experience dealing with students. Those who come to class tend to do better than those who don’t. Assignments have deadlines because being late has consequences. It’s better for students to first experience professional requirements in courses instead of on the job.
Good intentions aside, some requirements exist for reasons that are hard to connect with learning. It’s the requirements that affect learning outcomes that cause my consternation, which was recently stirred by a study of clicker participation (Tang et al., 2020). The research questions were pretty straightforward:
The findings were consistent with a lot of previous research. The more frequent grading treatment raised participation rates and course grades more than the less frequent grading option. Students who preferred less participation evaluation were those with lower GPAs and self-control scores. They were also the students who benefited most when they participated in the more frequent grading treatment. But although the instructional intervention improved their performance, that didn’t make them any more likely to choose it.
When students don’t make good learning decisions, do they shoulder all the responsibility for those poor choices? What if they fulfill a requirement that improves their performance, but they don’t recognize the improvement or can’t identify the reasons for it? They know they got a better grade but can’t say why. I don’t think they’re totally off the hook, because learners should be metacognitively aware. Students need to be paying attention to themselves as learners. The related question is whether teachers have any responsibility to cultivate that learner awareness.
Most learners avoid what they don’t do well or think they don’t do well. So, reticent students refuse to volunteer and reluctantly respond when the teacher calls on them. Does requiring their participation decrease their reticence? The research doesn’t offer a clear answer, which probably means participation requirements develop confidence in some students but not others. That uneven effectiveness of requirements is typical and raises questions as to their short- and long-term impacts.
In the short term, in courses where grades are involved, most students comply with the requirements or appear to. Research on the effects of required attendance also offers mixed results. Attendance policies do get more students coming to class, but that doesn’t always translate into better course grades.
What happens when we make courses required? In case of general education, they become the courses students least want to take and teachers least like to teach. Most degree programs now require a full slate of courses, leaving little or no room for courses unrelated to the major. Universities offer a veritable buffet of courses, but most students are confined to the salad bar. More and more I question our ability to anticipate career-long knowledge needs. Given the rate at which new knowledge rolls over old, do we need to teach these large amounts of content? Would we be smarter to let students pursue more of their own knowledge interests?
What we mandate that students do merits our vigilant attention. The salient question remains the same: What are the effects of those requirements on learning—in the course, during college, and across the years that follow?
Tang, L., Li, S., Auden, E., & Dhuey, E. (2020). Who benefits from regular class participation? The Journal of Economic Education, 51(3–4), 243–256. https://doi.org/10.1080/00220485.2020.1804502