Home Newsletter Challenging Questions for Millennials in the College Classroom: Why Read? Why Attend College?
Challenging Questions for Millennials in the College Classroom: Why Read? Why Attend College?

This article was prompted by the author’s participation in the Archibald Bush Foundation Grant for Enhancing Student Learning through Innovative Teaching and Technology Strategies

Janelle Wilson, Sociology/Anthropology

Why Read Assignments?
Finding ways to motivate students in constructive ways to do the assigned readings in their classes has always been major unresolved question for instructors. As a participant in the Archibald Bush Foundation Grant group for Creating Self Directed Learners, It is the question I  selected to study.

In recent years, I have been amazed at the extent to which many college students do not do all of the assigned reading in their classes (sometimes not even purchasing the books for their courses). I wanted to arrive at ways of encouraging students to do the required reading in a way that is both supportive and positive, rather than relying upon fear tactics. First, I needed to understand the students’ perspective and to learn what obstacles or disincentives might be involved in their choice of whether or not to complete assigned reading in their courses. This ongoing research project primarily involves individual and focus group interviews with students. I wish to share some preliminary observations because I believe they will help to enhance our understanding of today’s students, the Millennials.

Some results of informal data gathered in my Social Psychology class last spring revealed attitudes that may strike a chord with what other instructors are observing in their students. I asked the class if they were familiar with the book, My Freshman Year: What a Professor Learned by Becoming a Student by “Rebekah Nathan” (pseudonym). The book was actually written by anthropologist Cathy Small who became a freshman student at the university where she teaches. The students were not familiar with this book. I shared with them the following passage from the book:

Students mentally ask themselves a series of questions, so as to decide whether they should do the required reading in their courses:

‘Will there be a test or quiz on the material?’
‘Is the reading something that I will need in order to be able to do the homework?’
‘Will we directly discuss this in class in such a way that I am likely to have to personally and publicly respond or otherwise “perform” in relation to this reading?’ ”
The author notes that, if the answer to all of these questions is “no,” then students don’t do the reading, or at least the probability of their not doing the reading is much higher (p. 138).

I asked my students for their thoughts and reactions to this. One student responded that if the instructor is assigning reading material that is not covered on a test or in some way covered in the class, then the instructor shouldn’t be requiring it. (When I suggested that instructors may recommend reading that is relevant to the subject matter of the class, and enrich their learning, I did not receive any kind of response from the group). Another student noted that if a book is boring, then she simply doesn’t read it. One student indicated that if students will be expected to discuss reading material in the class, then this will motivate them to read. On the other hand, if the only way that not reading the material will be reflected is through their performance on a test or quiz, then there is less incentive to read because the consequences are private as opposed to public. Another said that if professors go over material in the classroom that duplicates what the textbook covers, then students do not view the reading as necessary.

Results from a focus group conducted with 15 student participants last fall, moderated by an undergraduate research assistant (I played the role of “observer/note-taker”), uncovered similar sentiments. Students indicated that they will be more likely to read the material if they know they will need to participate in class discussion on the basis of the reading. The students identified the following disincentives for reading: The textbook is written in a way that is hard to get through (“some are just written like crap”); the professor doesn’t test on what is in the book; and the reading is not directly tied into what is discussed in class.

In summary, the following were the disincentives to reading reported by this particular group of students (These also correlate with what was reported by the “subjects” in Small’s study): a) the material is boring, b) the material is not covered on quizzes or tests, c) the students are not required to discuss the material in class, and d) the in-class lectures duplicate the reading.

Why Attend College?
In addition to interviewing students about their reading, I inquired about their reasons for attending college. Many of them responded by saying that it was expected--the next step after high school. One student, clearly aware of privileges afforded him due to his social class location, observed: “I am from a white, suburban family. I had the option of going to college.” The majority of responses focused on college being a vehicle for a better job and making more money.

Research I conducted in 1999 , on a sample of 154 undergraduate students who were, primarily GenXers shows a significant contrast between the GenX and millennial mindset. When asked, “What are the main reasons that you are in college?” The most common responses revolved around getting an education to prepare for a meaningful career. But the following comments by the GenX group reflect goals or motives that are more synchronous with what many of us feel is the mission of a liberal arts education:

“To get an education, broaden my knowledge, and gain independence.”
“To learn, to be opened to ideas I might not find on my own.”
“I think college is a time to cement social relationships and find out who you are and where you want to go in life.”
“To find myself, and to educate myself – in that order.”
“To meet new people and expand my intellect.”
“To gain a wide range of useful knowledge, and to ‘think the deep thoughts’.”
“To obtain a higher education that will benefit my moral, spiritual and financial future.”

Certainly, of the myriad reasons our current students are in college the pursuits of expanding one’s intellect, finding oneself, or positively affecting one’s morality do not appear to be as prevalent among Millennials. Learning in the college setting is not considered all that meaningful to many Millennial students. Great emphasis is placed on “getting the degree” rather than on the process or experience of being a college student. In some cases, parents may contribute to this emphasis on “getting through,” “getting done,” “getting a job.”

Given college costs, there is a lot of pressure on students to complete the degree as quickly as possible and get a good job that pays well. Parents are ever aware of the economic realities facing their children. Although it sounds like a cliche, it is indeed the case that the rich are getting richer, and the middle class is getting increasingly squeezed. Part of the motivation of “helicopter parents” is to do what they can to give their children an edge in a highly competitive environment. Bringing this back to what we attempt to do in the college setting, though, we realize that to the extent that the college experience is viewed as a means to this end – i.e., to “the JOB” – rather than as an end in itself, true learning and the real meaning of what college is all about is potentially lost. Certainly, there are real, practical concerns and considerations – students DO pay a lot of tuition and incur huge amounts of debt; they want to know that getting the college degree is going to help them secure good employment. But if this is the primary goal or idea about college, then it seems to invite a student perspective that is not consistent with what it means to be in a community of learners.

Another significant (and related) obstacle to being engaged in the learning community, of course, is the fact that many of our students work at jobs that end up competing for their learning/study time. Students need to learn how to best manage their time and how to prioritize their school and work obligations. Is college only a means to an end or an end in and of itself?  As instructors, we may indeed need to be understanding of the challenges our students face with respect, for example, to incurring of huge debt and attempting to manage and balance everything they have going on in their lives.

Yet we must be careful not to compromise standards and expectations. Each instructor must arrive at particular strategies and approaches for reaching students and nurturing a positive learning environment. As we work on being more reflective in what we do as instructors, we can model this for our students who, we hope, will become more reflective themselves. This may, in part, help to facilitate students taking more responsibility for their learning. On one level, this could mean that students read the required books and articles for their courses. On another level, it could mean that students appreciate the intrinsic value of what it means to be immersed in a college setting and to take advantage of the opportunities afforded by that experience.

[Side bar:} Reading’s Reported Demise Is Questioned

“To Read or Not to Read,” a report from The National Endowment for the Arts, November, 2007, examines all kinds of reading, including online, and paints a picture of what The Chronicle calls a “distracted society,” in which reading is endangered and reading proficiency is dropping.  Among the findings:

“Only 38% of adults in 2006 said they had spent time reading a book for pleasure the previous day.”

However, Dr. Stephen Krashen, Professor Emeritus, USC and renowned linguistics expert, takes a longitudinal look at the report. He said, “The report fails to note that in 2002, that figure was 34%, and in 1945, it was 21%.... 

American writers have been complaining about the decline of literacy since 1874, when Harvard flunked more than half of its incoming freshman class on a writing test. There was no clear evidence of a decline then, and there isn’t any clear evidence of a decline now.”

The study is reported in “Enhancing Our Teaching: A Call for Taking the Role of the College Student”

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