University of Windsor: Service Provider?

Brian Cowan, CFL

Today's student is of the opinion that they pay good, hard-earned money for their courses and they want their money’s worth.

“We are demanding. It may not be a positive but I don’t entirely believe it is a negative. We have come to view, as students, the institution as a business. You are our service provider. We are the client… I’m paying you more. Am I getting more? What are you giving me?”  asked Eryn Campbell (fourth year Business). Eryn, Matt Drouillard (first year History) and Lianne Desrosiers (third year Drama) were student panellists at the April McGraw-Hill conference sponsored by the CFL.  They took time from their busy lives to prepare, and participate in, the final panel of the conference, The Student of the 21st Century.

To understand the views about teaching and learning expressed by the panel, we must first understand how 21st century students see themselves. They point out that students of today are different from those of years ago in many ways. First, there are many more of them. Second, these students represent greater diversity in terms of culture, nationality and socio-economic strata. Third, many hold part-time or full-time jobs and volunteer to round out their life experience for their resumes. Their time is at a premium. Today's student is of the opinion that they pay good, hard-earned money for their courses and they want their money’s worth.

They tend to see themselves as more inquisitive with better developed critical thinking skills than previous generations of students. They feel their opinions are worthy of consideration or, at least, tolerance. “We expect you to respect us right off the bat, right away. We demand that of you but you have to earn it from us.” said Lianne Desrosiers. The student of the 21st century puts the institution and the faculty under a microscope from the very first class to the very last.

The student panel outlined a number of areas where they would like to see improvements in instruction which would benefit them as learners.

Course Conduct

“I’m shocked and appalled sometimes by how students in the classroom act towards the professor.” (Desrosiers)

  1. Cell phones and video game playing should not be allowed in interrupt class. They encourage professors to remind students at the beginning of each class to turn off phones. One faculty participant replied that she had answered phones for students and explained to callers that the student was in class now and could not answer.
  2. Although laptops can prove a benefit to students in class, when several students huddle around one, it should be obvious that something very non-class like is going on and the professor should end it.
  3. In accordance with university by-laws, do not change the syllabus after the course has started.
  4. Don’t be dismissive of student complaints, “… life does happen to them just as it does to you.”
  5. Be inviting to students. This means more than simply being available. It means assuring them you are interested, not only in helping them with course problems, but listening to their views, even out of class.
  6. Try to learn students’ names.
  7. Try to ensure the qualifications and expectation of your Teaching Assistants and that you and your TAs are consistent with instruction and expectations.
  8. Put at least one copy of courseware and the course textbooks on reserve in the library –and let them know. This should prove particularly helpful for low-income students.
  9. While they appreciate that learning will take place from reading assignments and research, students feel that lecture information should be given in the class not split up over class, notes, podcast, website etc. Their thrust seems toward useful work, not busy work.  Remember, like the rest of us, their time is very valuable to them.
  10. Lastly, they would like to be taught how to research effectively in the library.

Class Attendance

“The main thing we’ve all noticed lately is there’s a lot of students are skipping class… There’s a high increase in demand for distance education course because there’s nothing calling us to the classroom.” (Campbell)

Despite what one might think, the students of the 21st century do not regard the old-fashioned lecture as a mortal sin, but they have high standards. Reading from a textbook under the guise of delivering a lecture is “insulting.” Publishing all your lecture notes on the course website tempts  them to stay home. Instruction that brings them to the classroom has been known by every good teacher since Confucius. Students want to be engaged in their learning and they can’t always get that from an on-line course or notes on the web.

“I’m coming to the classroom and paying that extra money, aside from my textbooks, for you to teach me; for you to inspire me.” (Campbell)

The panel outlines the following strategies to keep students coming to class.

  1. Show enthusiasm for your subject. Enthusiasm is infectious and it will draw them into your teaching. “It is being part of you that helps it become part of us.” (Drouillard)
  2. Treat your students as valued commodities. Learn their names. Listen to their opinions.
  3. Listen to their complaints, even the ones you think are groundless and try to consider them fairly. Sometimes they just need someone to listen
  4. Invite them to your office as individuals, not just as students with special needs or course difficulties.
  5. Appreciate that there are different learning styles (visual, aural, kinetic) and try to incorporate them into your class presentations so each type of learner gains.
  6. Refrain from comments like, “It’s common sense.” What common sense might be to one may not be to another.
  7. Use a course website to outline what students will learn and when. Do not publish your lecture notes. Use it to outline the course. Tell them what they will learn and when.
  8. Do not be afraid to use technology.
  9. Discussion is a great tool for engagement, both on-line and in the classroom. Remember, students already feel they have valid opinions. Expressing them and listening to those of others can help them appreciate when they are, or are not, valid.

Class Presentation

Whatever style of teaching you use, presentation is an important aspect and technology usually is an important part of presentation.  Students see technology not as good teaching, but as a supplement to good teaching. It is not to be used as the primary source of lecture but as a stimulating, supplemental resource.

“As time and technology are both progressing, there is a tendency, I don’t know how great so far, but it’s like there’s a natural; barrier forming between the professor and the student … even in the classroom.” (Drouillard)

Often, in order to penetrate this barrier, faculty will resort to technology without an appreciation of its strengths and weaknesses. It does not take long for students to figure this out.

  1. Students expect faculty using technology to have a certain familiarity with the technology they are using. In short, they expect set up difficulties to be handled quickly rather than having to endure the frustrating wait for everything to be hooked up. If you are really having troubles, see if one of your students can help--sometimes they can.
  2. Students praise the multimedia control consoles installed in many classrooms on campus. Familiarity with their use eliminates time delays and confusion in setup, resulting in smoother presentations. However, students sometimes need to use them for their own in-class presentations and find themselves at a disadvantage. They encourage student training with the consoles so their own work presents better to the class.
  3. If you do not project your voice well, or you have a large classroom, use a microphone. Check the room in advance with your TA to see if you are well heard at the back of the class when using your normal speaking voice and remember, a room full of people absorbs a lot of sound. You may be heard well at the back of the room when it is empty and not when it is full. When in doubt, use a mike.
  4. While use of multimedia can make lessons more interesting, they can also overwhelm to the point of distraction. Keep PowerPoint simple. Do not worry about flying titles and do not overload the screen with text. Do not play an entire video when snippets can make your point or illustrate a concept.   “Present your topic, not your visual aids.” (Campbell)
  5. Students do not decry the use of the simple blackboard or whiteboard. They are emphatic though that only a black marker should used on the whiteboard as other colours are harder to see. They also feel that any distance beyond four rows from the front is useless for reading from a black or white board. They also suggest exercising care not to stand in front of what you have written.
  6. The use of  “clicker” technology is seen to have potential but it is expensive for students to purchase and may prove to be a barrier to low-income students and the novelty wears off quickly. Make sure that investment in, and employment of, this technology is of continued value for the student and the instructor.
  7. Students see a course website as a valuable aid. It can be used to quickly relay course information to the class. Discussion boards on the website are an excellent way to entice evaluated participation from students who may be too shy to participate in class and ESL students.
  8. Though students see advantages to podcasting, they see the advantages in terms of a back up for those who missed a class or for ESL students who may need to hear it again. They also expressed concern about students not showing up if lectures are podcast. This could be circumvented by only podcasting the lecture portion of a class while saving a certain amount of class time for evaluated discussion. 
  9. “It just comes down to how much does the student want to learn and how much they do they want to learn from that professor.” (Desrosiers).  Realize that despite all your best efforts, there are some who will not appreciate them, but most will.

Assessment and Evaluation

  • Remain consistent with assessment and accountability. 
  • English should be the only language spoken during a test or exam. While the panel appreciates the difficulties encountered by ESL students, they feel as a matter of fairness and propriety, English should be spoken at all times.
  • Outline tests or exams the week before they are given so students can focus their study efforts according to the evaluation method and expectations.
  • Ensure TAs who help with marking understand the criteria and assessment practises you have developed for the course.
  • Post test, assignment and exam marks ASAP, even if only on the course website or by email. They believe they should have at least 20% of their course marks before the course drop date so they can make decisions about continuing with the course.
  • Review tests and exams as soon as they are marked to help students learn from their mistakes.
  • One of the great fears in group work is the lack of individual evaluation. Even in a group work project, they would prefer to be evaluated individually.

Winston Churchill said, “I am always willing to learn, however I do not always like to be taught.”  The 21st Century Student panel would indicate that students are willing to be taught. Whether or not they will like being taught is up to you.

Brian Cowan is an instructional designer at the CFL.

© 2006, Brian Cowan. All rights reserved.

Reader Comments

2006-Jul-11 at 12:10
Catherine Hundleby
The service-provider mentality is not a surprise, but it's more of a problem than students may realize. Demanding students are fine, but students expecting spoon-feeding is another matter. It's no way to get an education. (On this note, it's refreshing to see that they prefer not to have complete lecture notes/podcasts available on the web, that they recognize the importance of in-class engagement.)

Consider the analogous service of physiotherapy. We all want strength, and to recover from injuries, but the work is hard and sometimes painful; this we don't want. Much the same can occur with education. Providing a service does not necessarily mean providing pleasure.

It's unfortunate we can't evaluate student impressions 5 or 10 years later. Even then, of course, questionnaires are highly problematic forms of psychological evaluation, and should be greeted with scepticism by the academic community. We don't always recognize what is to our own benefit.
2007-Mar-28 at 09:56
Raj Patil
All the points in the artcle are very well presented and very useful. There is some information for distance education instructors under "Course Conduct" but if there is more in notes taken, such as for "Class Presentation" publishing it will be very helful.

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