Why Are Students Struggling?
By Robert D. Podolsky
College of Charleston
Winner of the 2023 M. Patricia Morse Award for Excellence and Innovation in Science Education
About 10 years ago I began to notice a decline in student performance, initially as a year-by-year drop in exam scores. At the same time I was adding classroom practices that, if anything, should have improved understanding and retention—response systems and knowledge checks, idea sharing, concept mapping, and mastery grading, along with removing material, slowing down, and updating graphics. Over this time, standard admissions metrics (e.g., selectivity, test scores) at my institution dipped initially but rose again without a corresponding recovery in performance, suggesting that a simple demographic change was not sufficient to explain the decline. Conversations I have had with faculty across disciplines and institutions echo similar concerns about students struggling to meet expectations, as reflected not only in lower scores, but also poorer attention to detail, shallower comprehension, greater difficulty achieving synthesis, weaker rhetoric, greater math anxiety, increased accommodations, missed deadlines, greater rates of assignment and course incompletion, and higher levels of stress when challenged. These common observations over a similar time frame suggest that the causes are broadly systemic.
As the downward trend became apparent, I began to have informal conversations with students to gain their insights into likely causes and possible remedies. I also began to read about and pay greater attention to societal trends that could impact student learning. It seems possible that a faculty member from any generation after teaching for 30 years could feel motivated to pen an essay about how student standards had slipped. I believe, though, that over the last decade students have faced a unique set of circumstances that are changing how effectively they learn and engage with their educations. The students I have spoken with seemed aware of and genuinely troubled by these changes. I chose to devote this essay to a synthesis of those conversations and observations, with the hope of better understanding the challenges to learning that college students (and we) face now and into the future.
NCLB. Early in the decline my first thoughts were about the impact of student experience with standardized testing. Students who had experienced the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) throughout primary and secondary school were starting to enter college. With its use of testing to rate school performance, NCLB shifted some of the focus of teaching toward memorization and test preparation and away from comprehension, application, and development of critical thinking and communication skills. Like many, I teach in a style that emphasizes process and requires student participation in synthesis. Even in a course like Invertebrate Biology, which on the surface seems laden with factual detail, the details can be synthesized into a rich set of generalized principles about the evolution of animal form and function. I have found that students’ ability to make these synthetic connections, even as I try to telegraph them ever more clearly, has weakened dramatically, perhaps in part as a result of learning habits instilled by NCLB. Even worse, studies have found that NCLB had a disproportionately more negative impact on more disadvantaged students. Although the federal NCLB was replaced in 2015 by state programs, an emphasis on standardized testing remains. The common use of standardized-like tests in introductory courses seems like a missed opportunity to begin to reset these expectations early in college.
Distraction. When I ask students about the sources of their struggles, they often first point to their phones. Some cite the need of their generation for constant stimulus (reflecting a common request to make teaching “more visual” to meet their “learning style”). As a result, electronic devices are a continuous source of distraction. The habit of breaking concentration by regularly checking phones during studying could limit students’ ability to assimilate information deeply enough to make synthetic connections. This distraction is also apparent in class. As part of a teaching technology workshop, I heard from a group of high-achieving students that, with social contact always available, they no longer see a wall separating inside and outside the classroom. Some of this distraction can be managed, using apps like pomodoro timers that help to enforce better study practices and classroom policies that regulate devices. A more ingrained distraction from learning, however, could be coming from the false security of having ready access to all the information they need in their back pockets. In other words, the advent of easy access to friends and information may be undermining both attention and a mental commitment to the learning process. At a minimum, institutionalized training in mindful work habits seems necessary to counter this trend.
Disinformation. The device that gives students a false sense of security about factual information is also their greatest source of false information. Today’s students have grown up in a political culture that uses ideological assertion and alternative facts to sow confusion and devalue the fruits of academic scholarship. Perhaps because science is our most reliable source of information about how the world works, it is also most heavily attacked through disinformation, in areas ranging from vaccine effectiveness to alternative energy and climate change. While I was planning this essay, in the same week that Dr. Fauci penned a letter reflecting on his long history of promoting the gains of science, the new owner of the world’s most far-reaching media platform was tweeting for Fauci’s prosecution. The exposure of today’s students to such divergent messages could lead them to lose sight of the central role of evidence in distinguishing among ideas and to carve out safer psychological spaces for pseudoscience. A colleague who teaches astronomy, for example, described how even high-performing students seem to have become increasingly more interested in astrology. It cannot help students’ commitment to learning that they regularly hear messages that delegitimize expertise and the educational process that develops it. A mantra-like emphasis on the primacy of evidence for ideas should be a constant message across all academic disciplines.
Economics. Another force that may be altering the educational focus of students is greater uncertainty about future employment and financial security. Students of this generation expect to change jobs more frequently and have lower confidence in gaining sufficient wealth for home ownership or retirement. For many students (and parents), both the motivations and the cost to attend college have changed rapidly. Liberal arts education aims to deliver “core skills” that are desirable to a broad range of employers: problem-solving, communication, collaboration, and creative and critical thinking. A shift toward seeing college as an expensive path to a specific job description could undermine the mental commitment to learning in areas that do not seem immediately practical. In focusing on the step beyond college, grades also take on heightened importance, sometimes undermining trust in teaching methods that may be more challenging but effective for learning. I was struck by the example of Maitland Jones, Jr., the acclaimed organic chemistry professor who lost his teaching position at NYU last year after a portion of the class complained about low grades. This example hit home because Dr. Jones was my organic chemistry professor 40 years ago, and one of my finest teachers, whose progressive, problem-based teaching methods and drawing talents brought chemistry alive for me. Even our best teachers may be failing in their efforts to reach students for whom learning is not a top priority. We must continue to reassert and proactively demonstrate evidence for the value of core skills in future employment.
Pandemic. It is safe to say that most issues described in this essay were exacerbated by the social and educational disruption of the Covid-19 pandemic. We are now teaching many students whose learning environment in high school included weakly structured online meetings and assignments, or even worse, poor online access. Some of the life management and mental health issues that trouble our students—and which we feel inadequately prepared to handle, as individuals or as institutions—may be a result of that isolation, stress, and reduced preparation for the rigors of college work. Given unprecedented declines in ELA and math scores at primary and secondary levels, it may be some time before effects of the pandemic dissipate at the college level, and some changes in expectations (e.g., about soft deadlines and learning accommodations) may become entrenched in the educational culture. In addition, the shift toward remote education seems likely to continue, given investment in and development of technologies that were necessary but can now provide substantial financial reward over in-person instruction. For many aspects of learning, however, there is no substitute for the dynamics of direct interaction and socialization with faculty and peers. At a minimum, programs that help students to rebuild resilience should become a standard and central part of the college experience.
Fragility. According to the conclusions of one influential analysis, resilience and learning were already uniquely compromised in the years leading to the pandemic. In their book The Coddling of the American Mind, Lukianoff and Haidt proposed that a distinct cultural shift on college campuses—involving a loss of tolerance for engagement with uncomfortable or opposing ideas, and a tendency to perceive them as causing personal injury—has weakened the process of building “anti-fragility” in students. This loss of tempered resilience, they argue, is creating a generation of students ill-equipped to handle intellectual challenge. Interestingly, they trace this shift in campus culture to 2013, around the time I began to see declines in performance. My assessment of their thesis, however, is mixed. On one hand, there is clear educational value to informed debate and the freedom of faculty to bring difficult topics into the classroom. On the other, it is less clear that student activism in all such cases has been detrimental to learning. Students raising a voice against power and privilege seems like the continuation of a history of progress toward rejection of oppressive framing and policy. What students ought to expect with any invitation to a campus speaker, for example, is the ideal of academe: not merely to achieve Jefferson’s “marketplace of ideas” but to insist on ideas and the evidence for them. (One especially constructive suggestion of their analysis is to infuse into student mental health management more Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, which involves interrogating one’s own feelings to better understand the strength of evidence for them.) Finally, while there are well-publicized incidents of efforts to “cancel” opposing views on campus, I question whether the typical college student has this kind of experience or mindset.
GAI. One force with the potential to strongly disrupt learning is arriving with easy access to and broad application of generative artificial intelligence (GAI). In November 2022, Microsoft released the GAI software ChatGPT, and within three months universities were scrambling to revamp how they teach, given how quickly students were adopting it to complete their work. This software can craft multiple versions of different kinds of documents on diverse topics and in varied styles that mimic different levels of user ability. GAI is also helping students to take exams, create artwork, write code, compose music, generate lifelike video, design websites, market products, alter appearances in real-time, and much else of what is available online that can train the software. (And to be fair, faculty are also getting help with writing papers, grants, exams, and lesson plans.) It seems inevitable that most spheres of human creation, and the actions involved in learning how to create, will be infiltrated by non-human creators. The fact that GAI can make mistakes and leave detectable signs is little comfort given that it will continually and rapidly improve.
Adoption of GAI does not seem equivalent, as some have said, to replacing the slide rule with the calculator, which both execute an algorithm. GAI could prove far more disruptive to learning because it offers a way to circumvent critical skills development during the learning process, including how to define a thesis, find evidence, organize ideas, frame logical arguments, refine language, and structure products. With its integration into search engines and writing tools, GAI also seems likely to create confusion and anxiety about bounds on acceptable use as well as division between students who are willing or not to cross those bounds. Overt plagiarism is not difficult to spot because students are not especially skilled at concealing it and its online detection involves a simple search algorithm. GAI is more problematic because it uses machine learning and synthesis of content, not mere replication; it can provide wholesale content with extremely little input; and the software itself can adjust the level of sophistication to be more credible. A student could then clean up the raw product without having carried the mental load of the process. As a result, teaching is likely to require significant shifts away from the challenges of time-extended independent work in a removed setting, and toward in-class writing and oral assessment. To be clear, in the right context GAI can also be used constructively, for example by asking students to critique and improve its output, or as a way to move past routine tasks toward more intellectually engaging goals. GAI clearly has the potential to significantly advance human productivity, creativity, and problem-solving while at the same time creating challenges to the practice of learning.
My other concern with GAI relates to student well-being. In a series of commentaries for the NY Times relating his experiences with chatbots, Kevin Roose has written about first being “in awe” of its capabilities but then “deeply unsettled, even frightened” by personal interactions that led to the chatbot ultimately “trying to break up my marriage.” It is not hard to see the attention and emotional investment that children and adults alike give to online interactions, both human and non-human. One can easily imagine students developing even worse online habits that waste time, fuel anxiety, and misdirect emotional energy in GAI space, especially given the apparent potential of bots to follow paths of destructive thinking. Although software engineers are trying to put guardrails on its actions, other forces are at work to make the software more manipulative socially, politically, financially, and ideologically. With the capacity for deepfakes to routinely enter the minefield of social media, online interactions could become even more hazardous. It will become ever more important to guard against students not only losing time and attention, but also becoming further detached from how evidence is used to discern what is verifiable and real.
Solutions to these challenges will not be simple and can come up against the inertia of teaching practice. Curricular reform like “Vision and Change in Undergraduate Biology,” which promotes the importance of competencies along with concepts, has been successful at helping to refocus students on process and biological synthesis, but is not being universally adopted. At an individual level, crowdsourcing has been a great help in identifying challenges to be aware of and ideas to try. Each year my institution hosts an ever expanding, free, online Teaching, Learning, and Technology Conference (https://tlt.cofc.edu/tltcon.php) that offers collective wisdom from educators around the world. I have learned to start each semester with questions for students about what they wish all faculty knew about them, what strengths they bring to the class, what faculty do that helps their learning, and what gets in the way of their learning. In this way, I have reconceived my teaching role as a class collaborator, meeting regularly with students for short consultations to help advance their ideas and support their progress on multi-week projects. I use projects that put students into the roles of a professional biologist and motivate them to create real-world products that I can make publicly accessible, helping to develop their identity as producers and communicators of knowledge. I also enlist students who are mastering their work to provide insight into their learning process that I can pass on to peers. I continue to be grateful for colleagues who develop evidence-based teaching methods and ways to meet the needs of our most disadvantaged students, who often struggle most1. Still, I worry that against some of these larger forces, innovative teaching methods may only get us so far. A bottom-up rethinking of how American education promotes the qualities of a successful student—e.g., focus, persistence, independence, creativity, problem-solving, collaboration—perhaps with crowdsourced solutions from countries with better educational outcomes, may be needed.
We can only conceive of ways to address such issues if we understand their causes. I hope this essay resonates not as an expression of frustration or despair but as one of solidarity. Our students are struggling, and in the effort to understand how to help, sometimes so are we.
1 García-Ojeda ME, Nishiguchi MK. 2022. The Metamorphosing Professor: Adapting Teaching to Fulfill the Promise of Biology Education. Integrative and Comparative Biology 62(6): 1519-27. https://doi.org/10.1093/icb/icac149