As a journal editor, I intermittently see articles submitted that choose as their rhetorical opening some generalization, often alarmist, about “today’s students” and their supposed challenges or deficiencies. As someone who is regularly involved in providing professional development on the topic of teaching and learning, I also sometimes get asked to provide input on the best ways to teach “this generation of students”. And of course there is quite an industry built around giving us a fix on the capacities and expectations of the ‘digital natives’ or offering a characterization of one generation or another.1
I get the usefulness of overviews and statistical generalizations. I get that when entering a new city you might want the map of the overall layout before hearing about the ambience of that particular, out-of-the-way coffee shop. I get the desire for general coordinates when engaged in something as complex as education. I get that institutional education involves economies of scale that force it to approach students in the aggregate. And I am aware that my own scholarly bent towards focusing on particularities more than generalities is not the right approach to every question. So this is a hesitant grumble. Yet talk of what “current students” think or can or can’t do always makes me uncomfortable, the more so when it is articulated as a confident wayfinder. A recent experience helped crystallize one reason why.
A few semesters ago I decided to get student input on a decision that I had been putting off for a while. It had to do with a series of reflective assignments that I use in an education class. I have students write short, guided reflections before, during, and after each assigned reading to help them process, articulate, and apply what they are learning. They vary in focus. They might aim to bring prior assumptions to the surface, clarify what is at stake in the reading, generate a creative application, or connect our learning to realities beyond our classroom. For many years I collected these prompts in a printed study guide, with spaces to write responses. I collected the completed pages at regular intervals to interact with students’ thoughts.
It had worked pretty well for a long time. A lot of time and experience had gone into it. I had not seen complaints about it on student evaluations—in fact there had been comments of appreciation. But it had been through quite a few iterations, and I was getting anxious. What if I was not keeping up with how students work? What if an online version could do away with the drudgery of tracking pieces of dead tree? What if we could dispense with students needing the right folder in their backpack to be able to complete a task? I had a guilty feeling that I had let the design of this course coast a little under pressure of other work, supported by the regular reassurance on evaluations that it was going rather well. It felt like high time I asked my students for more focused input.
There were 18 students in my class that semester. I met with them after the final exam in two randomly sorted groups of 9 to talk about various things,2 including the study guide and its future. I asked the first group whether I should retire the paper version and unleash digital task tracking. After some discussion, I took a show of hands. The results were pretty clear. One person held out for paper. Eight voted firmly for an interactive, online version. They noted that many of the tasks were of a kind that could be completed at various times rather than needing to be done in a single block. It would be nice to be able to chip away at them even if they had left the folder in their dorm room. They liked the idea of more immediate feedback. They pointed out how much they relied on device-based calendars and reminders to keep track of their days and stay organized amid the many demands of multiple classes. They wanted the option to use their phones to access the material. And typing was more efficient than generating so many paragraphs longhand. Apparently my unease had been well founded. The study guide had indeed slowly become a dinosaur. I resigned myself to a summer of redesigning the resource.
The next day, I repeated the procedure with the other half of the class, another nine students. I asked them the same questions and took the same show of hands. The results were equally conclusive. One student wanted a digital version. Eight insisted that a paper version was much better. There is already too much digital information to keep track of, they noted. They did not want to spend their whole life on devices, and the paper study guide was an oasis. They described the feeling of satisfaction that came from gradually filling the pages with real handwriting. They also described a sense that when they typed things online, at the end they did not feel as if they had actually done anything in the real world. The words lacked weight. They wondered if they would really think about their answers as much if they were typing and checking off tasks in a digital interface. The advice of this second group was that I should definitely keep the paper version. The notion that it would move online worried them. Apparently my unease had been unfounded. The study guide was just fine. Maybe I could do some gardening.
If you are particularly good at math, you will notice that the two groups, despite being randomly selected, ended up balancing one another perfectly: nine articulate votes for change, and nine equally articulate votes for the status quo. Of course, it is quite likely that the direction of the group discussion swayed some individuals in each group towards an emerging consensus, though many views seemed firmly held. Far from inspiring confidence that the responses of this group might help me predict the predilections of next semester’s students, the exercise instead suggested that the preferences of one random half of this class did not even come close to predicting those of the other half. I was also struck by the fact that I did not hear a bad argument. The reasons advanced by both sides were thoughtful and eminently defensible. Both groups talked thoughtfully about what might enhance their learning, and I enjoyed both conversations.
Of course all was not quite lost, and I was glad that I had taken time to listen. It did seem that more thinking was warranted. In either direction, the expressed needs of half of my students are good enough grounds for reconsidering strategy. But they are not good enough grounds for blanket change. (For what it’s worth, I have moved to a kind of hybrid approach in which tasks are incrementally made available online and I explicitly encourage students to consider whether they want to type or handwrite their responses and to think through what might deepen their learning. We’ll see how that holds up.)
Perhaps an anonymous survey would have given me a different distribution of responses, but the biggest thing I took from our conversations was a reminder that the particular students in front of me cannot be adequately understood as representatives of some time-stamped aggregate who a priori prefer their learning packaged in some particular way. Of course my students share some characteristics, and of course it might helpful to be aware of some things to look out for. But I worry about the seduction of generalizations becoming interpretive frames that hide, rather than reveal, the specific human beings that I have in front of me. Neither your class nor mine is typical. Students commonly come before us in small enough groups that there is a realistic chance that practically all of them are statistical outliers relative to a national study. They are different from one another, and while they have plenty to learn about their own learning, many of them can articulate sensible reasons for managing learning the way they do. Keeping up with the times is a flimsy pretext for blanket pedagogical change. So is holding on to the past. In a Christian classroom, the single sheep will always count for something, even if the 99 are all demonstrably in the same place.3 At the local scale at which we teach, generalizations are likely to deceive, perhaps even become false witness, unless we create sufficient opportunities to listen.
- For a random example, framed with a confident-sounding “what we know,” https://www.pewresearch.org/social-trends/2020/05/14/on-the-cusp-of-adulthood-and-facing-an-uncertain-future-what-we-know-about-gen-z-so-far-2/
- See https://christianscholars.com/reflections-on-how-to-end-a-semester/
- Matthew 18:10-14