As university students prepare to return to school, professors preparing classes must decide how to deal with disinterested students: coerce them into paying attention, or let them be. My recommendation will always be to respect their desire to disengage.
If an adult prefers browsing Facebook to listening to my lecture, that choice is theirs, and they are old enough to bear the consequences.
When I was a fulltime university professor, my teaching philosophy was that it was my job to present the material clearly to my students, to help them understand it, and to certify that they did understand it from exams. Where I differed from many of my colleagues was in my attitude toward motivation.
Some professors exert tremendous effort in making the material fun and engaging. To further sharpen the incentive to learn, they would also require students to attend classes, they would place a high weight on class participation, and they would ban laptops lest they distract students from the class material. In the age of COVID-19 and remote learning, these professors insist on cameras being turned on.
In contrast, having been saddled with an important but traditionally boring and difficult subject (econometrics, which is statistics applied to economics), I preemptively gave up trying to make the curriculum exciting, apart from the occasional attempt at in-class humor.
Moreover, when meeting the class for the first time, I would explain that attendance was entirely optional, as was turning on their Zoom camera. Should they wish to play poker or watch Netflix during class – as many did – I had zero problem with it.
My reasoning was that these are adults who are responsible for their education. They are paying for a service (possibly with the assistance of government or parental funds) – being taught and having their knowledge certified – and so it is up to them if they wish to consume that service or not.
My five-year-old son doesn’t know better, and as his father, I have to coerce him into listening to the teacher. But when dealing with a 20-year-old undergraduate, if they prefer to zone out during class, or stay in bed, that is their right.
Notably, every year, I would have a few students who would exercise this option because they preferred to teach themselves using the textbook, and they would ace the final, earning an “A+” grade. Why should I force such an individual to waste their time attending class?
Others would not attend and would fail; perhaps they would have passed had I forced them to attend class, but a university professor is neither a nanny nor a social worker. We have no more responsibility to force them to learn something against their will than we do to help them maintain a healthy weight or get enough sleep.
Admittedly, I would allow for some minimal weight on class participation, because in certain settings, student comments were very effective in promoting peer learning. This was especially true of my executive MBA students, who had years of experience leading important organizations, and sharing that experience was valuable to me and the other students. But this was never a device to stop the laggards from dropping off.
Fortunately, 80 percent of my students did perceive value in showing up and listening quasi-attentively. The university also distributed teaching evaluations, and I would pay attention to constructive comments from those who did attend – while those who were at home were not in class to submit an evaluation.
One of my older colleagues used to remark that education was the only service where paying customers thought “less is more”, and he backed this assertion up by the cries of jubilation that would erupt when students learned that class was canceled. While most students do in fact want to learn, a small minority definitely do not, and it shouldn’t be a professor’s job to change that.
This is especially true in light of the large number of responsibilities that modern professors have.
Less time spent coercing and teaching disinterested students means more time teaching the committed ones, and more time for research, administrative responsibilities, community engagement, and so on. Therefore I call upon all of my academic colleagues: stop spoon-feeding adults whom you have forcibly strapped to a baby chair, as failing due to a lack of work is possibly one of the most important lessons a university student can learn.