Northwestern is an institution of higher education; yet, students often seem to overlook this. Many student athletes “didn’t come here to play school.” However, this goes beyond the athletes at NW. The student culture is often very negative towards learning, especially in prerequisite and general education courses.
As a math tutor, the worst classes to tutor are entry-level statistics and calculus courses. These classes are often full of students who need the class to fill a requirement or a prerequisite. These are the same students who are typically not invested in learning the actual material and will take any shortcut available to them. When they come into the tutor center, they sit down and expect to learn entire units in one evening (side note: the tutor center is a great resource and is not abused by most students being tutored). They say things like, “They never taught us this!” or, “How am I supposed to know how to do that?” when in reality, they seldom pay attention in class and would not even consider opening up their textbooks.
The lack of passion for education produces negative consequences for more than just grumpy old math tutors. The group this most directly impacts is the students who have poor attitudes toward learning. Students who take shortcuts in their prerequisite calculus courses should expect to struggle once they reach higher level courses. It is not the professor’s fault you managed to pass statistics without retaining a single piece of knowledge. Do not be surprised when you feel swamped by new material; you started this course an entire semester behind. Additionally, the consequences of failing to learn go beyond these students’ four years at NW. For many students, college is the most transformative time of their lives. Allowing yourself to repeatedly seek out shortcuts now will make it much easier for you to continue to do so after graduation.
This attitude toward learning will also have a negative impact on these students’ peers and professors. If these students need a “review” of what they have failed to learn in past semesters, the first week of classes will always be incredibly dull for those who take their education seriously. This can also be frustrating for professors who want to make significant progress throughout the semester. Professors have to choose between teaching the course at a high level and receiving positive feedback from students in faculty evaluations.
The negative externalities of these students’ attitudes also go beyond NW’s campus. Wherever they are or whatever they are doing, alumni represent their alma maters. Graduates who fail to learn anything will represent NW whether we want them to or not. An employer who hires a NW student will base their expectations for future graduates on their current employee. Graduates who have developed poor habits as students will have a much more difficult time representing NW well once they reach the real world.
This leaves me wondering what can be done about this culture of negativity. Without any serious data it is hard to say who is to blame. Maybe professors need to focus on stressing the importance of the material they are teaching; however, these students might act this way regardless of the way a class is taught. Maybe NW needs to focus on attracting students who will value learning and desire more than just a diploma. Maybe current students need to do a better job of encouraging each other’s education and taking interest in what their peers are learning. Adding more events like the Celebration of Research is definitely a way NW can facilitate a culture that places a higher value on learning. Whichever way NW decides to handle this, it ought to be addressed if the school wants to attract students with a willingness to invest serious time and effort into their education.