The Challenge Of Under-Prepared Students

Reference work may occasionally live up to its glamorous reputation. For every experience with a student of high potential that challenges the reference librarian’s skills and knowledge, there are more interactions with students who give the impression of being under-prepared for college-level research. So we academic librarians may groan a bit, but we ultimately dig in and use our skills to bring those students up to speed. But I never gave much thought to the anxiety that the under-prepared student causes for the faculty. Apparently that anxiety is far reaching.

A recently issued report titled Campus Commons: What Faculty, Financial Officers and Other Think About Controlling College Costs revealed the extent to which faculty are troubled and frustrated by students who get admitted yet are not ready for college-level work. What I found most unexpected was that the report, based on the description of its authors’ focus, at first appears to have little to do with the issue of how well prepared students are for college. The study was designed to capture information from college presidents, financial officers and faculty about ways in which higher education could improve its quality and achieve greater affordability. As I read the report in more detail I discovered that from the faculty perspective an important factor in improving quality is improving the students.

Here’s a summary of what the college presidents were most concerned about:

Instead of viewing higher education as a private good that benefits individuals, many presidents argue that the country must come to understand and act upon the idea that higher education is a public good that benefits the entire society. As a consequence, they believe it should receive a significant infusion of public reinvestment.

And the state financial officers had a somewhat different perspective:

They share the presidents’ concern that higher education is caught between declining state subsidies and rising internal costs, but many state financial officers interviewed for this report feel that colleges and universities can be more cost-effective. Many emphasize the need to graduate more students, and their first priority is often to increase the retention rates for those already enrolled.

The college financial officers did little to surprise with their mostly practical concerns:

Many of those interviewed were interested in increasing higher education productivity and were willing, at least in confidential interviews, to ask hard questions about higher education’s assumptions, especially about class size and teaching loads. Many were also interested in greater use of technology to save money.

The faculty brought a different perspective to the discussion about the challenges of higher education. For them the problem was mostly a lack of preparedness among students:

For the faculty members we interviewed, the major problem facing public higher education is declining quality. They often believed strongly that many incoming students are not ready for college, that they have weak academic skills and are not yet mature enough or self-disciplined enough to take advantage of what is offered. Although there is little indication
that faculty are unalterably wedded to the status quo, it is important to emphasize that most begin the conversation from a somewhat different mind-set. They may be eager to look at measures aimed at improving student preparation for college and open to those that focus on administrative

So what exactly did the faculty have to say about the challenges of higher education? Here are a few examples:

* To some degree it’s amazing that some of these students are actually given a high school diploma. You wonder what it was that they studied and learned and what was the whole basis other than seat time.

* I don’t know if they’ve been over-parented, or if they’re the millennium students who have
had the helicopter parents who hover and are there to take care of any little problem, but they just don’t really seem to be ready for the college atmosphere.

* Yep. We’ll be forced to lower standards and graduate more numbers. That’s why you get paid. You know what? You’re going to find ways to get that done.

There are several pages of this and it leaves one feeling that faculty, at least those interviewed for this report, are genuinely cynical about students and the future of higher education. Not only do they see under-prepared students as the problem, but they are skeptical about almost any plan to correct the problem. It all surprises me because I’ve come to know many faculty who are eternally optimistic about the potential of their students or who acknowledge that many students are under-prepared but that it’s the responsibility of the faculty, working collaboratively with librarians, tutors and other teaching and learning professionals, to help the students rise above their lack of preparation.

Academic librarians see their share of under-prepared students as well. They ask you questions at the reference desk or attend your instruction session. Who hasn’t encountered a student in an instruction session that doesn’t understand the difference between an article title and a journal title or has difficulty understanding the concept of a synonymous term. Do you silently cringe in disgust at the student’s lack of preparation or do you commit yourself to achieve a teachable moment? At my institution I understand that many of our students come from school districts where there are no libraries or librarians, where cut-and-paste Google research was accepted and even encouraged and that the joy of reading, owning books and visiting the public library may not have been family values. I’d like to think that academic librarians can participate in this debate about how to improve the quality and productivity of higher education. But when we do let’s be mindful that the issue of the under-prepared student is our challenge and opportunity – not our burden.

4 thoughts on “The Challenge Of Under-Prepared Students”

  1. Personally, while I do enjoy the challenging reference requests, I get the most satisfaction helping the underprepared students. They are often the ones with the most anxiety about using the library and I get a lot of joy out of helping them not only with their research needs but with changing their view of the library and librarians. These are the ones who become my regulars, ask for me by name, and refer their friends.

    I would also like to comment on the issue of what they should know vs. what they don’t know. Many of them are underprepared, either of their own fault or that of the school system they come from, but it doesn’t matter to me what they should know or whose fault it is that they are underprepared. My only concern is what they do know, what they need to know, and how to best address that. Yes, they should know a lot of this stuff, but they don’t, and that’s all that matters when they are sitting with me at the desk stressed out and wondering how they will ever complete their paper or project. While it does amaze me sometimes when I encounter a student who’s never written a research paper before or doesn’t know how to use the index in a book, it does not frustrate me. I simply help them. That’s my job, and I love it!

  2. I had great dreams of trying to get bib instruction embedded in at least a few freshman courses to help work on these well known and increasing problems. It was an idea that seemed ready to explode into academic institutions when I was in grad school.

    I had great dreams of getting into any library for any age to help create programming for just these students because it became apparent that getting the problems solved early would prevent them from being the cancer they are later at university. Hello Big3 and Big6!

    Now, however, I realize that
    *no one is willing to pay for this instruction
    *politics interfere with the meshing of library staff/fac into department area in almost every campus I have experienced (despite the research that it is a big help!)
    *faculty are so behind technologically that the IT plans (often poorly explained) that are intended to bring students into the U experience are often failures and crutches instead of draws and tools.
    *libraries are not considered each department’s resource.
    *library budgets are easy targets as usual
    *IT and library management are still too separate and polarized
    *Departments refuse to learn from other’s mistakes and are institutionally on the defensive.
    *librarians are often considered personal resources instead of institutional resources if they are considered at all outside of the library
    *faculty have no time to cover basic research and writing fundamentals, but have no means in place to refer students to the library for instruction that is too minimal or not sexy enough for students to even attend.
    *most incoming freshman in the US academic world should not even be attending U, but technicon or trade schools…which are not sexy or available in the US.

    I would love to help and would love to be loving it and I am still trying to get into the position to do so. But, I cannot volunteer all the time, and I cannot get another masters degree to accumulate a reading endorsement certificate to find a part time position in a primary and secondary school, and finding work in an academic library is just not happening now, and my position within a college is considered disconnected from any library work…

    So, I am creating my own school/tutoring services for those cringe-worthy students to use if they need it and can afford anything at all above their tuition and other expenses…

  3. When I read this:
    “Who hasn’t encountered a student in an instruction session that doesn’t understand the difference between an article title and a journal title or has difficulty understanding the concept of a synonymous term.”…
    Wow. I would be prepared to say that NONE of the students in our library tutorials know either of those things.
    Many of them do not know how to read a text, whether print or electronic, and extract information from it, and they don’t know why they should care to.
    Sometimes, they don’t know what the “back” and “home” buttons on the computer screen are.

    I think the lack of preparation among students entering college is the biggest challenge faced by higher education in this country (and probably others as well). How can we make up in 2 years (for us community colleges) what should have started when the child was born? And how can we not only teach all the basic skills, the work ethic, the love of learning, but also get students to a genuine college level academically so they can transfer to four-year institutions? Not to mention, what about supporting the students who ARE prepared and motivated, but can’t find the higher-level classes they need and want because all the budget support is going to Basic Skills? It’s really daunting. Oh, and we have to do all this with ever-shrinking budgets.

  4. I agree, we should always see it as a challenge. We may not be called teacher or professor, but we are still educators. And while I sometimes do inwardly cringe (because I am just as human as everyone else) I am also applauding them for being in school. Then of course I remind myself how much I don’t know in a lot of areas. I would be grossly unprepared for most freshman math and science classes. They are just not my forte. Granted, many have many different opinions on the matter of the underpreparedness of students but come on folks, we get to work in some amazing places with a lot of amazing people. All in the pursuit of knowledge (a bit cliche I know). I get to go to work in a library, every day of the week. How great is that? Anyway, enough from me.

    But Steven, your post, and the one from Oct., reminded me of a phone coversation I had with someone from another library not too long ago (not a student, a staff person). This person was looking for a book with the word Nazi in the title. I could not locate the item in our catalog. So, I asked this person to spell the title for me. The word that was being pronounced Nazi was actually Nietzsche. Rather than cringe I realized this person had never come across this word before and was doing their level best to pronounce it the way they believed it should be. They simply did not know Nietzsche is not pronounced Nazi. We all learn things at different times, isn’t it great we get to be a part of so many people’s learning experiences?

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