Do Your Students Have Harmful Expectations?

There is often a mismatch between how we want our students to be changed in our courses, and their expectations of those courses.  This tension can be particularly acute for first year university students or high school graduates taking a MOOC whose expectations about education are based on how they experienced high school which privileges marks over deep learning and individual performance over working collaboratively.

This two part article considers (in this part 1) the expectations high school graduates might have about education and then (in part 2) suggests some strategies to alter student expectations so that they become more focused on deep learning and the true objectives of the courses they undertake.   

Course objectives and student expectations

As teachers our objective in running a course is ultimately to change our students.  These desired changes typically occur at several different Bloom-style levels of cognition.[1]  At the lowest level we usually want our students to know certain facts, and at higher levels we want them to think like engineers, to be skeptical, to be able to analytically design, to be confident problem solvers, and so on.

Higher-level changes are particular important in tertiary, professional, and adult education.  However they can be difficult to bring about.  This article considers one factor which contributes to this difficulty – the (often unhelpful) expectations our students have at the start of our courses – and suggests ways to deal with the difficulty created by those expectations.

In my first year computing classes the students newly graduated from high school have the following characteristics, the first four of which pose challenges and the last four of which provide opportunities:

  • They are very concerned with marks and their final grade.
  • They view their classmates as rivals rather than as colleagues.
  • They are expecting to game the system – to best devote their time and energy to maximise their marks for minimum effort.
  • They view learning as predominantly acquiring knowledge to echo back in examinations, rather than as changing the way they think.
  • They are excited to be starting university and embarking on a new adventure.
  • They are unsure what university will be like, what their experiences and feelings will be, but they are optimistic.
  • They are worried about forming friendships and hopeful of creating a strong social network.
  • They are thinking about their future, what their life will be like, what sort of person they will be.

I discuss below two significant mismatches that arise from the above expectations.

First, high school graduates tend to view education as being more about low-level outcomes of knowing and understanding facts and mastering difficult practical skills than about high-level skills.  Further, they regard the marks achieved at the end of a course as being at least as significant as the actual learning they acquire in the course.  In many cases they see being able to get high marks for an activity or difficult topic without having to fully engage with the activity of topic as a victory rather than as a problem.

For example at the start of my large CS1 computing course I ask students to identify what they hope to get out of the course.  This year 75% of the responses spoke only about specific knowledge and skills (eg “Learn [the programming language] C”) and 61% mentioned getting a high mark or passing.

It is not surprising that my students have low expectations for their education.  In my state of New South Wales, Australia, the last two years of high school education culminate in an intensive series of examinations at the end of which each students receives a number – their “ATAR” – which is used to determine entry into university.  Amongst students and teachers the purpose of those last two years, and by implication the whole of the 11 years of education leading up to them, is seen as being to get that mark.   It is the mark, not the learning, that is important.  The external pressures on students, teachers and schools to maximise their ATAR are inexorable.  My students report that it is common for high school teachers to respond to curious students’ questions with things like “don’t worry about that – it won’t be in the exam”.

The second significant mismatch I find with the expectations of high school graduates concerns team-work and competitiveness.  It is essential that engineering students learn to work effectively in teams and MOOCS are most effective when students form engaged collaborative learning communities.  However my students report that in high school their collective learning activities were often not a pleasant or productive experience, and so they are initially hostile to undertaking further collective learning activities in my courses.  It seems that high school group work is performed under the shadow of the need for individual marks to be reported at the end, so conscientious students feel they have to perform extra work to cover for freeloading group members, and overly controlling group members can place stressful emotional demands on more relaxed group members.  These problems seem to arise from the tension of working collectively for a collective outcome and yet being assessed individually.

Whenever there is a conflict between acting in a way that benefits the group and acting in a way that benefits the individual my students have been trained in high school to act individually.  It is telling that collective work at high school is typically called group-work rather than team-work.  The nature of the ATAR calculation process in New South Wales further undermines co-operation and collaboration – the ATAR computation is complex but in summary half of the final score is determined by how many of their immediate classmates a student outperforms in the pre-exam work – and simple game theory shows they can improve their final score by harming the results of their peers, and are at risk of hurting their final score if they help any of their classmates.  One has to question what notion of education was held by the inventors of this system…

So in summary the learning objectives of my courses involve undergoing high level changes in thinking, learning deeply, and working effectively with others,  yet my students expect to be mainly working alone to learn low-level content and then to be quizzed this individually at the end of the course.  This is a dilemma which extends far beyond my own courses, indeed read Taubman’s Teaching by Numbers [2] for a compelling survey of such problems internationally.

What can teachers do?

There are a number of ways a teacher of high school graduates can design and teach their courses so that these unhelpful learning expectations do not become an impediment.  Part 2 of this article sets out strategies you may find helpful to achieve the following:

  1. Focus on high-level learning over marks
  2. Focus on high level changes in thinking not just on recall of facts and methods
  3. Encourage students to collaborate with peers in a team rather than as a collection of self-interested individuals in a loose group.