(really bright) College Students

I’ve been teaching college students since 2003. I’ve taught at six different schools and I have met some pretty bright students. This (brief) post is intended to give some general thoughts on college students and some more specific thoughts on a few students with whom I have had the opportunity to work closely.

First, the bad news. From my perspective, too many students come to college without any real desire to actually be “in” college. Oh, they enjoy the social aspects of college, but the idea of learning holds no real appeal for these students. I regularly teach fairly large sections of introductory economics courses and I would guess that as many as 40 percent of my young students should not be enrolled in college. It’s not that they are not necessarily smart enough to be in college, they just are not mature enough nor mentally ready to be there. These are the students who regularly miss class, fail to complete assignments, or submit assignments late. These students do little studying, rarely read the text (that’s another story, by the way) and generally perform poorly on exams. Maybe as many as 20 percent don’t care at all. They do about 20 percent of the work, but they don’t complain (although a few do when they receive their course grade). Another perhaps 20 percent care more, but not enough to keep track of their coursework.

I could go on and on about the students who really need to spend a year or two, after high school, living in mom’s and dad’s basement and working at Taco Bell (after all, I’m the guy who missed nearly 30 days a semester in high school, graduated 410th out of 509 and had a 2.0 GPA, but spent four years in the army), but I want to focus on a few other students.

There is ample research that suggests a close, mentoring relationship between students and college professors offers a profoundly positive experience for the student. One such example is Bernier, A., Larose, S., & Soucy, N. (2005). Academic mentoring in college: The interactive role of student’s and mentor’s interpersonal dispositions. Research in Higher Education, 46(1), 29-51. However, rather than focus on the literature, I’d rather look at an article like The Blown Opportunity. That article reported on a survey of college students that examined mentors in college.

That article discussed results of a poll released by Gallup, which essentially asked if students ended up with “great jobs and great lives.” The article summarized by noting that “[f]eeling supported and having deep learning experiences during college means everything when it comes to long-term outcomes after college.” The three most important indicators of future success all involved having a significant link to at least one college professor. Admittedly, the article implicitly recognizes that given student-to-faculty ratios, it is not feasible for every student to have a close, supportive relationship with a faculty member, but the importance is not diminished.

This post discusses my experiences.

I have largely held one-year positions since I finished graduated school and it is pretty much impossible to establish close relationships over two semesters. I have been in my current position nearly three years and during this time I have been able to work closely with several students. I teach mostly larger sections of principles of microeconomics, which is largely populated by freshmen. Freshmen students, in general, aren’t ready to work closely with faculty. By and large they lack clear goals, they are still exploring their new personal freedoms and school life is pretty much a social experience for them.

However, I have been assigned to teach a few upper division, elective courses (law and economics is the primary one) and this is where I met most of the students with whom I have worked closely. So far there have been six such students. These students have all been extremely bright and motivated (or at least until the semester they graduate, then they tend to run out of steam). I have taught independent study courses with five of the six. One student I met in Virginia. We kept in touch and he told me he wanted to research and was wondering how to go about it. I suggested that he could contact faculty at the school he was attending (although I did warn him that they would likely ignore him). I mentioned that I had some ideas and, if he was interested, we could work on one together. We presented an early version of our paper, “An Examination of Crime and the Macroeconomy—A New Framework” at the Western Economic Association International 2016 Conference in Portland. He just accepted his first, post-graduation job.

Every student with whom I have worked closely has been very curious and open about knowledge and learning. All have worked on a research project and five of the six have worked on serious, co-authored research projects with me. Although they lack experience and specific skills, undergraduates are able to learn what is research and how to do it properly. Working with them is a lot of work for me because when they start out they do not really understand the quality of the process, but it turns out that they learn a lot and are very willing to put in a significant amount of time and effort. So far, three projects have resulted in conference presentations (in addition to the WEAI, I have taken students to the Southern Economic Association 2015 Conference in New Orleans, and the Eastern Economic Association 2016 Conference in Washington D.C.) and the fourth will happen fairly soon. Publications should be coming soon as well.

This work requires a significant amount of  time and effort and, combined with the six classes and nearly 1000 students I teach each year, it slows my personal research agenda to a crawl. Overall, however, it is has become an intense source of pride and accomplishment having been able to work with such a group of smart, creative, talented and energetic college students.

The last observation I would like to share is the difficulty students face after they graduate. Of the six outstanding students I have discussed, three have already graduated and graduation is approaching this semester for the other three, only two have “reasonable” jobs that match their potential. Two have definite plans to continue on to graduate school, but the others have and are struggling. I think college faculty could help with that. We have the ability to make personal contacts among regional businesses (most students want to “stay local”) that can be used to develop internships and entry-level jobs for these exceptional students. Personally, I would like to see more of that. Many college professors develop consulting contacts they use for personal gain. How about sharing that wealth?

 

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