I love teaching, but what's going on?

Posted Monday December 15, 2008 by Lisa Gunders in |

This year I have been teaching again for the first time in a couple of years, which is at least part of the reason that I haven’t been posting quite as often as perhaps I should. I know that the matter of teaching has been discussed both here and elsewhere recently, but I’m going to add yet another post on the topic, although from a slightly different angle.

First, I need to point out that I love teaching, have been teaching casually on and off for many years, particularly love my first year students, and am going to genuinely miss teaching students over the next little while. However, having had a break of a couple of years before these last two semesters, I have noticed some distinct differences from the previous times that I have taught. On the basis of the little evidence that I have from colleagues, it is not only me noticing these changes.

Here are a few of the things that stood out as different this year to previous years:

  • About half of my students were skipping classes and still expected that they were going to pass the course without problems. You can’t facilitate learning for someone who doesn’t show up for class. In some instances, I was marking assignments for students that I had never even seen.
  • A significant proportion of students did not collect their assignments after marking and therefore did not receive feedback on their written work. Even fewer seem to have actually taken notice of the advice given in the feedback. Now there have always been a proportion of students who don’t collect their final assignment, but in the past they at least collected the first two pieces.
  • The students’ ability to read closely and critically was noticeably less than I have seen in previous cohorts. They could pull strategic facts from readings to back an argument upon which they had already decided, but seemed not to know how to critically engage with an argument or closely analyse the structure of a text. This was among second and third year students, not just the first years.

Of course not all of the above applied to all students, and there were some students for whom none of it applied. And despite these observations, I thoroughly enjoyed teaching this year and I am sincerely grateful to the students who allowed me to engage in discussion with them and share in their intellectual journey, if only for a little while. I was genuinely delighted to have the opportunity to watch several of them graduate earlier this month.

What I found most distressing, though, was that few students did not seem to care about the points listed above. Even sadder was that so many of them seemed content to do the minimum necessary to get through their subjects and get their degree. In most cases, if they harboured aspirations to do the best that they personally could do and keep the options open for further study, it did not show in class.

Now campus life has been declining for years as voluntary student unionism has stripped services at universities and income support has become increasingly inadequate, necessitating most students carrying heavy paid workloads in addition to their study. Furthermore, HECS/HELP schemes implicitly tell students that they are buying degrees rather than gaining an education. But in the last couple of years there seems to have been a significant change in the degree of the above problems even if not strictly in their nature.

On the matter of carelessness in reading and writing, Naomi Baron may provide a partial answer. In her book, Always On, she sets out to determine the effects that new communication technologies have had on writing and reading practices, thinking habits, and interpersonal relationships, and she engages with debates over the effects of new technologies on writing standards. At least part of what is perceived as deterioration in writing standards is, according to Baron, the effect that a trend towards casualisation in social relations has had on attitudes to writing. As everyday life and relationships are becoming more casual, is it any surprise that this is flowing through into writing practices. As we become less concerned about the rules of proper social etiquette, so we also become less concerned about the rules of grammar and punctuation. Her theory seems plausible, and certainly lack of formality in students’ writing seems to be increasing, at least in the classes that I had this year.

One of the other books that I’ve been reading lately is 12 to 18, by Lyn Yates and Julie McLeod. Their longitudinal study of Australian students found that in the middle years of schooling students were preoccupied with family and peers and not really focused on school or concrete future plans. Nevertheless, at the point when their interviews were conducted (1993 to 2000), there was still a reasonable amount of optimism among students, particularly girls; boys were more likely to say “mixed” when asked whether they were optimistic or pessimistic about their future. However another study by John Ainley, Margaret Batten, Cherry Collins and Graeme Withers contrasts with Yates and McLeod’s findings in some aspects. Their study covered more than 8144 students from Year 5 and Year 10 across state, independent and Catholic school systems, conducted as part of the Annual Report on Schooling in Australia. They found a significant drop in students’ optimism for the future between Year 5 and Year 10, and determined that this effect could not be accounted for by the difference between schools (Yates and McLeod had found a small school effect). They also found a drop in concern for rules and conventions.

I can’t help thinking of the findings of these studies in relation to my observations from teaching above and the experience of my own two teenagers in the Queensland schooling system. Both of my children have been through that point in Year 10 where they are pushed to agree to a set plan for earning or learning for the next five years. This was at a point when, consistent with Yates and McLeod’s findings, schooling was not their top priority and being made to think about concrete plans for the future just annoyed and distressed them. (Fortunately many kids settle down to schooling again in the senior years).

I wonder to what extent being forced to commit themselves to a future career plan induces a sense of fatalism in students and extends the phase of not really caring? If your future is laid out for you, do you continue to dream and aspire? Or do you simply do what it takes to meet the preset goals. Most students don’t settle down and take their study seriously again until they are in their senior years of secondary school. If we push them to choose their career path when they are still emerging from the lack of focus of the middle years of schooling do we then limit their potential based on their achievements from Year 9 before they really get their act together and see what they are capable of?

I don’t know whether these things are connected, but something has changed in recent years. I certainly don’t think that the ‘earning or learning’ policy that requires students to set out their career plans in Year 10 can be solely responsible for fatalism and lack of motivation in university students: Ainley et al.’s study counts against this as it predates the policy and looked at schools across a number of states. It is probably a complex web of trends affecting what happens in tutorial rooms and elsewhere. Still, I wonder and worry about what is going on.


Ainley, John, Margaret Batten, Cherry Collins, and Graeme Withers. Schools and the Social Development of Young Australians. Melbourne: Australian Council for Educational Research, 1988.

Baron, Naomi. Always On: Language in an Online and Mobile World. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.

Yates, Lyn, and Julie McLeod. 12 to 18: A Qualitative Longitudinal Study of Students, Values and Difference in Australian Schools. Deakin West, ACT: Australian Curriculum Studies Association, 2007.

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