Do students think?

That is a question I ask myself a lot during my time as an adjunct faculty member of a local university, As much as I enjoyed interacting with young minds, I found it exceptionally difficult to get students to think, in particular to think beyond the immediate and the obvious. There would be times when I was so frustrated that I find myself making the statement, “students don’t think!” But is that really the case?

Do students think? I think they do. When I have cooled down and when the emotions have faded, I recognize that students do think, they merely are not thinking in my way, i.e. the way I hope they would.

In the three semesters I spent working with undergraduates, mostly freshmen, I observed an almost obsessive preoccupation with instructor expectations. The most frequently asked question among students is, “Is it okay?” followed by “Can we do that?” Underlying these questions is a desire for the ‘correct answer’, to be on the ‘right track’, which results in many students expending their energies thinking about what does the instructor want. They spend inordinate amount of energy second-guessing the perfect answer that they think I have, hidden somewhere in the recess of my mind. If not, they would be bombarding me with questions such as, “Can we do that…?” “What about… Is it okay?” “Which of the two would be better?” Students communicate loud and clear a strong need for external validation.

This brings to bear my next question: So is this a problem about thinking or about confidence, or rather the lack of?

In all honesty, I am not sure. My gut response would be to say, “How can that be!” Outwardly, most of the undergraduates I interacted with thus far are generally outspoken and out-going. Though not all of them would jump in during class discussions and weigh in with their points of view, most of them, if not all, articulate a point of view when I engage them on a one-to-one-basis. (And this is why I don’t believe our undergraduates don’t think, no matter how they frustrate me at times, and no matter how tempted I am to draw that conclusion.) The way they present themselves in class and out of class suggest healthy levels of self-esteem. Unlike the undergraduates from the previous eras, this generation of undergraduates does offer alternative narratives and perspectives to those presented in class, they ask difficult but pertinent questions about the topic at hand, and they sometimes are able to point out my blind spots as well as raise issues regarding methodology. To do all that requires both confidence and thought, which I do observe them to be in possession of.

So what went wrong? Why do so many instructors seem to have the impression that students do not think.

I have a hypothesis, and on hindsight I would say, a rather obvious one: that the student as a learner and the student as a GPA machine are two different personas. The student as a learner, which I see more of prior to the release of the first assignment grade, is a person who is willing to engage and be vulnerable, in terms of expressing personal opinion and sometimes outlandish ideas. The student as a learner is a pleasure to have in class, who gives as good as he or she gets, who is genuinely interested or not in the topic of the day. And to me, this is what university is about, the meeting of minds, the exchanging of ideas and the forging of friendships over rigorous debates.

The student as a GPA machine is a different animal altogether. He or she is primarily concerned with obtaining the best grade possible for the module, and is generally fixated on impressing the instructor in ways that I often find it difficult to appreciate. He or she makes comments to impress rather than to enrich the conversation, only do work that is graded and work that displays his or her talent, so to speak. The student as a GPA machine is one who adopts the mindset of “every man for himself” and is stubbornly silent during group activity unless there is a graded component, or better yet, a graded individual component. Any question asked is to elicit a response that will point them to the right answer, to the A+ that they desire, their thought and energy channeled into a conniving game of grades rather than an intellectual pursuit of knowledge. As a result, they engage with the realities of college life but not with the subject matter. They appear unthinking because as their instructor, I was looking for thought in the domain area we are working in, not thought at the level of strategizing for top grades.

My sympathies are with these undergraduates. Top grades, student exchange to top universities, internship at the top firms, nothing less than the best would get them the success they desire in life. Is that the Singapore dream that many of our undergraduates bought into? I don’t know. What I do know is that this is a worldview that is touted widely enough among our young, a world view that majority believes in and strives toward. The desire to do well and give themselves a good head start, is there something fundamentally wrong in pursuing that? Undergraduates choosing to strategize for the top grade rather than focusing on learning and acquiring new skills and knowledge, why is that so? Is this an outcome of the kind of messages that they have been bombarded with? Can we blame them? I think not. Because whether they are aware or not, they are in a ‘game’ where the rules have already been pre-defined.

This again leads me to wonder, is this then a problem of culture? After all, it is undeniable that our environment does have an impact on our behavior. Unfortunately, I do not have an answer for that. And who are the custodians of culture? Parents, teachers, employers, government?

At the end of the day, when students are not thinking in the way I am expecting them do, I need to recognize that I am as responsible as they are for this. It is also my duty as their instructor to question my expectations, whether they are valid or not, and if my way is the only way of processing information and ideas. Very often, I recognize that my way or whatever I am trying to impart is not the only way, and I share that candidly with my students. However, for the thirteen weeks that we are together, I do have an agenda, and that is to show you my way and assess you based on how well you perform in the way that I have taught you to. We will not end up with the same ideas but we are working on developing similar mental processes. (And this is the part my students often stumble over.) And students are free after that to leave what they learn aside till the time comes when they find it useful again.

Does that make my class a waste of time? I don’t think so.  Four years ago, I took a class called “Creative Gym” where each seminar was organized like a gym workout. What we did in that class had little bearing on the master degree that I was working toward. Fast forward to today, four years down the road, I continue to draw inspiration from that class for different projects that I work on, including the opportunity to develop my creative thinking programme for undergraduates. Maybe the class looked like a waste of time in the eyes of my younger self and many others, I now know better. I hold close to my heart this Chinese saying “养兵千日、用在一时”, which means you maintain an army for a thousand days for that one moment you need them, and I think this applies to learning too.

Do students think? My answer now would be a resounding “Yes!” But I now realize that this might not be the question I should be asking. Instead, I should be considering “What are the students thinking about?” “What do I want them to be thinking about?” “How can I find the middle ground between the two?” “Who does thinking on this middle ground look like?” These questions perhaps would make for a more constructive conversation, at the same time, allowing our students to participate in this conversation that is more about them than about us.

Do students think? Yes, they do. And as instructors, as educators, I am of the view that we have a duty to show them that there are more domains that can be subject to thought and the quality of our thought can always be improved.

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