“Student quality”


When you are sizing up the teaching part of your job, what is the role of student quality?

I often hear other scientists talking about how they enjoy the teaching part of their job when they have high quality students. They are successful teachers when they have high quality students.

I also hear professors sympathizing with other professors who report that they have poor quality students in their classes.

These conversations make me want to barf.

What the hell is a “quality student?”

I won’t say anything about a person behind their back that I wouldn’t be willing to say to their faces, admitting that at times it could be an uncomfortable conversation. Would anybody be willing to say to their own students that they are of low quality? Clearly, students can do low-quality work and have a low-quality investment. (Actually, I just said this last week to my class after slogging through some lackluster exams.) Are these students, themselves, poor quality?  I feel like I shouldn’t have to say so, but maybe I do: of course they aren’t.

When people are talking about student “quality,” they could mean a variety of things. They might be thinking about how smart the students are (whatever that is), how hard working they are, or how motivated they are to learn.

All of those variables change given the context. Some students will not work hard at all in some classes, but work hard in others. Some students will be disinterested in some classes but be fascinated by others. I suppose the “high quality” students are the ones that will work hard and be fascinated regardless of the context.

In other words, high quality students are the ones that would learn even if they had a poor quality instructor.

If you have traditionally “high quality” students, it doesn’t matter if you teach well. Do you really want that kind of job?

Clearly, if our classrooms are filled exclusively with bright, hard-working and inquisitive students who are always willing to learn, then our jobs would be really easy. In fact, the students wouldn’t need us other than to assign readings, play videos of lectures and have labs set up for them. We wouldn’t be required as teachers because they would be all ready to learn whatever is put up in front of them. I guess that’s a high quality student – one who is the least amount of work. The one who always understands and always does perfect work.

If that’s the case, then I don’t want these high quality students who are easy to teach. I want to be the person that made a difference in the life of another person. I want the students who come into my classroom to be the ones that don’t think that biostatistics matters, or not really caring much about the mechanisms of climate change. When I am successful at the end of the semester, which means that my students are successful at the end of the semester, I want it to be because of the quality of my work. I don’t want to preach to the converted, and I don’t want to spend an hour in class on a lesson that the students could have learned for themselves. I want the students who couldn’t just sit down in a MOOC and take it all in.

It means that all of the time and preparation that I put into my lessons actually matters.

Perhaps, some might think, that with classic “high quality” students, highly effective teachers can take things to extraordinarily high levels so that their students excel far beyond what any lesser “quality” student could ever imagine. If you are thinking that way, then please stay away from the classroom. You need to enter the room thinking that every person has unlimited potential. If you start out assuming that some students aren’t capable of extraordinary achievement, then you’re never to going to expect or get it from them. You need to expect the outstanding if you’re ever going to get it. And you need to expect it of everyone. Once in a while, I get outstanding from students that who have already been written off by everyone else. Now that is a quality student. And I have that opportunity every time I enter the classroom.

By the way, why is it that some of the most famous experts on science teaching come from universities that only admit students who earned top notch grades in high school, and mostly from private schools and public schools in wealthy school districts? Do their experiences with white middle- and upper-class students really reflect how education works for everyone else?

Almost none of the students in my university would be able to land admission to a highly selective institution, in part because of their social class but also because of their performance and preparation.

How I do I feel about teaching students who could be labeled as “poor quality?” I love it. There’s nothing better. I have unlimited opportunity to make a difference, and every day I am challenged to inspire and create a need for understanding. If you want to teach well, then how do you know you’re even capable of doing so if all of your students are pros at learning?

If you are teacher by profession, and all you want to do is teach “high quality” students, then you’ll never master your craft.

7 thoughts on ““Student quality”

  1. “In other words, high quality students are the ones that would learn even if they had a poor quality instructor. …If you have traditionally “high quality” students, it doesn’t matter if you teach well. Do you really want that kind of job?”

    If we’re using “high quality” to mean “highly motivated,” then I’m not sure that I agree with this. I would argue that many highly motivated undergraduates, for many classes, are motivated to get good grades, and not necessarily motivated to learn the material. That doesn’t mean that they don’t enjoy learning, but that they probably wouldn’t seek out and learn the material if the professor wasn’t teaching it, and teaching it well. (For instance, biology students taking a year of general chemistry.) Therefore, highly motivated students might get good grades in a class with a poor quality instructor, but they probably aren’t learning anything. Or, they might not get good grades in a class with a poor quality professor, because highly motivated students aren’t necessarily super geniuses; they’re in school because they don’t know the subject material, so there’s no saying that they’ll understand it without having a good instructor. So… teach well, or no one is going to learn anything.

    “ Once in a while, I get outstanding from students that who have already been written off by everyone else.”

    I’m really glad that you view low motivation -> high motivation as a continuum. I think that all it takes to turn a not-very-motivated student into a highly motivated student is someone telling them that they’re awesome (and believing it). People might argue that professors can’t possibly take the time required to do that for every student, but I bet they could. I certainly know professors who do.

  2. I’m actually not trying to define “high quality” is, but speculate what others mean. If I had to pin down a definition, which I wouldn’t want to, it would be a student that works hard and wisely and learns a lot.

    I agree supremely that positivity and confidence has a lot to do with the success of any learning environment. You don’t have to be a cheerleader for individual students all the time, but your demeanor, remarks, and approach communicate to the students if you really believe in them. That’s not something you can fake in the long term.

  3. Interesting idea. I wonder if sometimes people say “high quality” when what they mean is “prepared for the material” which strikes me as something very different. Do you think that sometimes it is just a poor choice of words?

  4. That’s a generous interpretation, and just as we give our students the benefit of the doubt we should give it to our peers, too. We should be more careful with words, though – around my campus, the word that we use (and far too often) is underprepared. Usually I hear the phrase ‘better quality students’ when comparing two different campuses, when someone is looking at jobs or is switching. I think that teaching as a few faculty member is so overwhelming when we’ve never received any prior training in teaching (typically), that students that will learn even when you cannot motivate them, or even when they didn’t come into the course with enough prior knowledge, are probably an asset to junior faculty seeking tenure.

  5. Another interesting post! Totally agree – one of the rewards from teaching, for me, is being forced to find new ways to explain things or to look at things from a different and/or unexpected perspective. This usually comes in equal measures from the “high quality” students and those with the least immediately obvious talent. Too often students who are not seen as “high quality” are just those who haven’t had to, wanted to, or been given the opportunity to learn how to play the grades game…and not necessarily students who have least insight or understanding. And if they ARE students who have little insight, motivation or understanding of the subject, that’s presumably why they are sitting with a teacher in the class: to help with all of the above!

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