Magazine article Times Higher Education

Beware the Caricature: Students Need Nurturing, Not Negativity, to Thrive

Magazine article Times Higher Education

Beware the Caricature: Students Need Nurturing, Not Negativity, to Thrive

Article excerpt

Widely held assumptions about undergraduates distract from the debate over the responsibilities of educators, says Sarah Moore

Students aren't what they used to be. They're disengaged, passive, absent and unable to summon an original or critical thought. Plagiarism is rife. Writing standards are atrocious.

Sound familiar? Not everyone contributes to the proliferation of such speculation about learners in higher education, but it is hard to deny that such caricatures exist. At best, these are simplistic mantras that don't get to the heart of our responsibilities as educators. At worst, they disparage the people whose intellectual development it is our job to nurture. Some of the glib assumptions made about teaching today's students need some serious questioning.

First, let's take plagiarism. It is certainly a serious problem. Not only is it unethical, but just as worryingly, it prevents and obstructs learning. The temptation and opportunity to plagiarise may be greater than ever now that information and text is so easy to access.

But plagiarism has always been a problem. It happens when students see too great a gap between their abilities and the standards they have been asked to reach. Our job is to help them navigate that gap and avoid the panic that can result in deception. Students often receive the following kind of message: "Sound like academics, think like academics, talk like academics - but don't attempt to copy academics." An intimidating mix of signals indeed.

It is too easy to say that plagiarism indicates a problem with students. Good teachers identify ways in which assignments can be plagiarism-proof. Great teachers also help students to realise that often you have to write badly before you can write well.

We should not paralyse students with demands for grammatical perfection, analytical acuity and expressive brilliance straight away. We need to give them time and encouragement to redraft their work - to show them how each draft can uncover another layer of insight, precision and understanding that they might never have known they were capable of.

Some of the problems that students encounter with academic writing have to do with our ambivalence about our own writing struggles. By being more open about our own failures and battles we can help to demystify the learning process and invite students to become confident participants in a world that they are only beginning to understand.

Of course when engaging in this kind of conversation, class sizes are pedagogically and politically important issues. Sadly, the students who tend to require the most support - those in early undergraduate, large class contexts - are often the very students who do not get the one-to-one time they need. …

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