Here be elephants (part one) struggling students

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One of the interesting results of nearing retirement from Carey is that I find myself becoming more aware of “elephants in the room”. Somehow while I was still counting my remaining teaching at Carey in multiple years they remained, by and large, unnoticed.

In this post I’d like to address the “elephant” of struggling students. Like many, perhaps most, theological institutions in Western traditionally English-speaking countries Carey has an increasing number of students whose origin or previous education have been in non-Western contexts. Some of these students, picked for intelligence and ability, perform excellently. Others, despite their intelligence, diligence and other qualities frankly do not perform well.

Their difficulties are varied, but often some or all of these elements are present:

  • poor command of English, or at least of that strange dialect of English used in the academic world:
    • this sometimes leads to complex sentences with strange (to a native anglophone teacher) word-choices or uses
    • on other occasions it results in a student who fails to understand something, but who the teacher assumes does understand because they can echo the “right” words and phrases (often it is only in more complex situations like a final essay where the misunderstanding becomes clear)
  • some students, believing that education is about the ability to know and repeat certain key information and ideas, will “plagiarise” copying the words or ideas of a perceived authority (which may be a textbook, academic article or item found through googling – for such students are often not well-equipped to judge the quality of material they access)
  • poor quality work produced with good intentions after a hard struggle by the student leads teachers (and not only the erroneously soft-hearted teachers ;) to award a passing grade (just) to work which ought to fail.

Our standard procedures and mechanisms would lead to either a poor pass for a student who should be getting good or excellent results, a mention on the institution’s plaigiarism register, or a fail. Because teachers workloads (in terms of numbers of student-classes and assignments) have roughly doubled in the last twenty years1 we do not have enough time to provide sufficient help to assist the student to overcome their difficulty (or, e.g. in the case of language knowledge, we do not have the skills needed to help).

This situation is not new, but I think it is getting worse. The result is students who receive diplomas but who do not really exhibit the qualities and understanding that the institution’s graduate profile would suggest.

A quarter of a century ago in another place we used to sometimes refer scathingly to certain European and American institution’s habit of granting “African Doctorates”. Such awards, given with the best of motives, do not help the “developing world” or minority cultures. They are dangerous lies!

  1. This is a very rough figure, and is based only on my experience and observations, but I believe is at least approximately representative at least of the situation in NZ. []

7 comments on “Here be elephants (part one) struggling students

  1. jonathan robinson

    well this is one of my favourite rants from my time at Carey! BUt a big part of the porblem is not just second language students but anyone who is allowed to scrape through and clearly are not interested or able to benefit from the education they are receiving. a number of students at Carey were white middle aged men who already knew all the answers. And yet we are pressured by our systems of funding to not fail students, so a C becomes the new fail and you have to really blow it to get told not to come back for more. UNfortunately other students will notice this trend and start scraping by as well, so the effect spreadens! ;-)

  2. tim

    I think the (quite often) middleaged (usually) male students who arrive knowing all the answers are a different problem. I also think the (usually) young (quite often) male students who can’t be bothered to make an effort are a third different problem…

    The students I am thinking of are by and large open to learn, and motivated to work, but culture and prior education does not fit them for a western higher education sausage machine, and we teachers no longer have the luxury of time to really help them. So, I have much more sympathy for them than for the two cases above…

  3. Judy Redman

    This is an issue for most tertiary institutions in English-speaking countries that take students who have non-English speaking (NESB) backgrounds. Larger institutions have formal language help programs in place, but there are still problems.

  4. tim

    Yes, things were better at the U of A which had several good programs (and 39,000 students) Carey with only 1-200 students does not have such programs…

  5. jonathan robinson

    but one exacerbates the other, if you refuse to flunk a recent migrant for barely passable work then fairness prevents you from doing different to a local who acheives the same standard – and so the standard continues to go down. :-(

  6. Brook

    We had the exact same issue at UoA in the post-grad science department. We were required to present papers once a month, and the ‘point’ was not just in the preparation but also in the presentation itself. However given many students were not native english speakers, we had to sit through hours of very difficult to comprehend presentations. However, 90% of these “presentations” passed. I do have a large degree of sympathy for these students – it’s hard enough doing postgrad (or any study for that matter) in your own language, let alone another! However I also do wonder if it is the institutions “Problem” to resolve? perhaps it is for larger institutes like UoA, but maybe not Carey?

  7. tim

    Being larger makes it easier to provide more nearly comprehensive services, but this does not (I think) absolve smaller institutions from responsability to ensure that:
    (a) their diplomas have indeed the required standard that they claim to offer – they ought not to debase the academic currency (see Jonathan’s comment above)
    (b) their students have a reasonable chance of success – I’d claim that the students I mentioned in the post (though not the ones Jonathan adds) do not currently have this, they should either be excluded (a move neither politically expedient nor justifiable in terms of such a college’s kingdom role)
    (c) students are treated fairly by one common measure
    (d) teachers are treated fairly and not expected to work 60 hour weeks (often ;)