Some End-of-Semester Thoughts on Academic Struggle

shoes_palsjune18Running has been a part of my life, off and on, since I was about 6 years old. I always loved track but at my high school, cross country was a big deal and you couldn’t do one without the other. So began 7 years of competitive distance running where I did great in workouts and absolutely fell apart in races. I struggled. With the heat. With allergies. With what was then diagnosed as exercise-induced asthma but in retrospect was probably related to anxiety. I struggled to stay positive when it got tough in the middle of races. I struggled to stay awake in 8am classes after early morning 10-milers. On several occasions I literally struggled to cross the finish line. Three times I collapsed.

After college I kept running but only a couple days a week, never more than four miles, and never with a watch. I did that for over a decade, until recently. In the midst of a tough semester professionally and personally, this winter I decided to channel my frustration into running and decided to start training for my first half marathon. On a bitterly cold, snowy morning in April, I surprised myself and ran 3 minutes faster than I had thought possible in a local 5-mile race. I was ecstatic. I hadn’t struggled. I hurt, and I was tired, and at every step I had to tell myself to keep going and to keep pushing, but I didn’t struggle.

One of the most valuable things that running has done for me over the course of my life has been to give me some perspective on what’s really important and what’s not and on what it means to be successful. In the wake of the 5-mile race, following midterms as it did, I began thinking a lot about academic struggle through the lens of running. Also about that time, I had joked with one of the PALS editors that we should do another roundtable, this time on “What I Wish My Faculty Colleagues in Other Disciplines Would Stop Doing.” I knew immediately that I had things to say about the kinds of classes where a student can score no higher than a 75 on any exam and somehow still get an A. When I started teaching, it was my students who frustrated me but now, over a decade into this profession, I find myself most frustrated by the college experience my students have to navigate. The college experience feels less and less about learning and more about surviving. Some of it has to do with the increasing corporatization of higher education and some of it has to do with the financial insecurity that skyrocketing tuition coupled with stagnant wages brings. At other times, though, we, the faculty, seem to cultivate a culture that glorifies struggle for the sake of struggle.

In my current position I have the opportunity to serve as advisor to first-year students and this was my first time to do that. In one way or another, almost every conversation with my advisees turned to struggle. While some of the struggle they face comes from outside of the university community, a lot of it comes from within. I can only speak to the students I’ve taught but one of the things I’ve noticed about selective institutions is that there is a sense that all high-aptitude students are capable of anything if only they try hard enough. Sometimes, though, there are other issues at play, and this perspective can ignore that. As a result, students will push on, not sleeping, not eating well (or at all), isolating themselves from friends and family, engaging in destructive behaviors, disregarding their physical and mental well being, etc. By graduation—if they make it that far—they are worn down and burned out. Where I once spent the semester trying to push students to try harder, I more often than not now find myself telling students to stop revising or to stop reading. I don’t want to do that but I find that I have to in order to protect my students. I have learning outcomes and course goals, and I teach to those. I do the best that I can to support my students as they strive to meet or exceed those standards. However, I also find it increasingly important to strive to help my students find balance in their lives as they adjust to college and to help them to process the new challenges they are facing in the classroom. Above all else, I want to make sure that my pedagogy doesn’t compound or enable unnecessary and unproductive struggle.

Students at STEM-focused, selective institutions like those that I’ve taught at come in with very real anxieties about their abilities and their futures, only to be put through a curriculum that many faculty use to “weed out” the weakest students (who, by the way, would be successful anywhere else in most cases). Talk to many students, and you find out that it is very common for the class average on an exam in one of these lectures to be a D. Mysteriously, many of these same students will ultimately do well in the course, earning As or Bs when grades are curved. Sometimes they aren’t even getting feedback besides the grades popping up every few weeks in the online gradebook. This is not to say that all STEM faculty “motivate” students in this way but there are certainly many who do, and the practice is far more acceptable in STEM fields than in the humanities. Either way though, the result is the same for high-aptitude students: they begin to believe that they haven’t earned an A unless they have struggled, even if the struggle was artificially created. Then, when those same students succeed in another class without running the gauntlet, they often seem to measure the value of the course and their own achievement by the standard set by these courses designed to “weed out” students.

As an instructor, I hope students see value in my courses, but ultimately I understand that many will not, and that’s ok. What does bother me is when students measure their own achievement and abilities according to the standards set in courses where struggle is valorized but ultimately unproductive. I once had a math teacher who told me that confusion is good because it means you’re thinking—because you’re in the process of learning. When we talk to students, we can help students think about their academic experiences, helping them to assess the nature of their struggle. Is it because this is new material and your brain is working overtime to process everything? Is it because of the way the class is taught? Is it because you really aren’t invested in the subject matter? Is it because there is something going on outside of class that needs to take precedence in your life right now? It turned out that these were some of the most important questions I could ask. Struggle is good but only if it is productive. While we can’t change what goes on in other classes, we can make sure that our own interactions with students don’t reinforce struggle for struggle’s sake and that we acknowledge that they are experiencing that. Like teaching, I’m learning as I go with advising, but this is the biggest lesson I learned in my first year.

Both as advisor and teacher, I want to give my students opportunities to address the struggles that they face; then, perhaps struggle can at least become something productive, something generative, for them, rather than something that breaks them down. Looking back on my own college experience, I realize now that I would have been better off had I stopped and addressed my struggles head on when a breakthrough moment never came. Maybe some work with a sports psychologist would have helped. Or maybe I should have done as several of my friends did and stepped away from competitive sports. But, I did exactly what I see so many students do and just kept doing the same thing over and over, regardless of that fact that the struggle clearly wasn’t productive and was, in many ways, destructive. Whether it is on the track or in the classroom, struggle is a part of the process but it should always be productive. That doesn’t mean you win the race or get the A, but it means you come out of the experience stronger than you went in—and that’s what I don’t see happening a lot with my students. Sometimes “mind over matter” isn’t going to happen no matter how hard we try, and how we deal with that is where we learn and grow. We can only do that if we come to terms with our own limitations and give ourselves credit for what we are able to accomplish under the given circumstances, and helping students to identify those things is a step in the right direction.

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2 thoughts on “Some End-of-Semester Thoughts on Academic Struggle

  1. This is so important. I had more than one engineering class in college where the average test grade was around a 45. It made me feel like a constant failure, even though I would end up with a B once everything was curved. I got so burnt out in college and had major depression. I wish I had some kind of councilor that pointed out how not okay all that was. That “weed out” classes are just pointless struggle and how I should change my technique.

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