Adventures in Ethics and Science

After I posted on the issue twice and Julie posted on it once (although she might blog further on it), I got a brainwave about what’s at the core of our frustration with our students who ditch lots of classes.

At bottom, it’s our feeling that we are not succeeding in our attempts to communicate with them — about why being in class can help them succeed in a course, about the value that course could have beyond filling a necessary requirement for graduation, about the larger value a college education could have in their lives. We’re trying to get all this across, but sometimes we wonder whether we’re the grown-ups in a Charlie Brown special; to the kids, what we’re saying might as well be “WAH-WAH WAH WAH WAH” (as played by a trombone).

And perhaps the reason our attempts at communicating with our students are failing is that we are not framing these attempts as well as we could.

“Framing” has been a hot topic in these parts lately. (As usual, Bora has compiled a comprehensive set of links to go with his analysis.) Part of why the discussion rages on is that folks are trying to figure out just what framing amounts to — whether it’s “spin” or propaganda, or rather a matter of knowing your audience well enough to help them understand and care about what you’re trying to convey to them.

Here’s how Bora explains framing:

The short-term framing operates at the time-scale of seconds. Its goal is to persuade. To make the listener believe that what you say is true.

The long-term framing operates at the time-scale of decades. Its goal is to make new generations much easier to persuade, and once they are persuaded, much easier to teach and inform about science.

My stand as a philosopher is that persuasion is (or ought to be) different from tricking someone into believing what you believe or doing what you want them to do. With a good grasp of logic (and some introspection about one’s own interests), I’d hope that a student could look at the case an instructor is setting out and evaluate it on its merits. So, the “framing” in which I’d want to engage would be about making my assumptions (and the data I see supporting those assumptions) crystal clear to my target audience.

Here’s where the differences between the professoriate and our target audience rear their heads. Julie put it nicely:

Students now are so very different than when we went to school that it just makes me very sad; Janet’s slightly older than I am, but we’re of the same GenXy kind of age range. I hated a ton of classes (mostly those science and math ones) but I always went, I always did my work, and I still cared that someone might not think I was an appropriate member of the scholarly community at my school. It seems like very few students have that attitude these days, at least not at our school.

It’s really important to note that it is not the case that Julie and I were perfect college students, nor that every class meeting we attended as students was a thrill and a joy, nor that we knew we were on trajectories to eventually teaching college students. (Please resist “othering” us that way!) So what makes our own students different from ourselves as college students? What is the disconnect that keeps us from understanding their motivations and keeps them from understanding our motivations?

I can’t help wondering if part of it is that they haven’t ever really thought about what they’re doing in college and what they hope to get out of the experience. It’s almost like some of them are sleepwalking. You go to college because … uh, that’s what people do after high school. You need a college degree to get a good job. (Doing what? Uh, making money …) All those required classes are just obstacles you have to climb over to get the degree.

If this is really where a lot of our students are coming from, it’s no wonder they seem utterly unmoved by our arguments that learning how to write well, or how to think critically, or how to solve problems using theoretical machinery of a particular sort, is a worthwhile goal. If a particular course is only instrumentally valuable (as a set of credits on the way to a degree), caring about the course content might well seem like wasted effort.

So, I’m left with three connected questions here:

  1. What are our students’ interests and values? How are these connected to what they want to get out of a college education (or, for that matter, to whether they’ve even thought about what they want to get out of a college education)?
  2. In the short term, what’s the best way to frame our arguments that class attendance and otherwise engaging with the course material would be beneficial to our students in pursuing their interests?
  3. In the long term, what’s the best way to help students develop a broader and deeper understanding of their own interests and values, and of the role a college education might play in furthering them?

Recall that our goal here is successful communication, not mind-control. How do we achieve it?


  1. #1 coturnix
    April 10, 2007

    I knew it! I knew it! I knew you were heading framing-way with your attendance posts.

  2. #2 ceresina
    April 10, 2007

    That’s exactly what I was thinking. For skippers, college is somewhere between a stepping stone and the first taste of freedom. For non-skippers, college is a goal in and of itself. (For the goal-ees, it might be a stepping stone to something else, also; I’m not saying that non-skippers have no plans beyond college.)

  3. #3 Steve
    April 10, 2007

    As for your question #1, there’s likely no simple answer – various students have various interests. Well, I guess that’s kind of a simple answer. But beyond that, it probably gets messy.

    But, as for question #2, I have an idea. We could present them with a nice modus ponens argument on the first day of class:

    P1. If you want to do well in this course, you need to participate.
    P2. You want to do well in this course.
    C. So, you need to participate.


    (a) ‘doing well’ =df getting an A or B (maybe a C)
    (b) ‘participating’ =df at a minimum, showing up and paying attention

    And after we give this argument, we could analyze it a little bit:

    (i) If (P2) is false in a given case, then that student needs to be encouraged to think long and hard about why they’re taking the course. They may need someone to explain to them that they SHOULD want to do well in this course, if doing so will help them get other things they DO want (like a degree). In order to be rational, you need to want (at least in a sense) to do those things required to get other things you want.

    (ii) If we, the teachers, are offering courses where the average student could learn everything we expect them to learn just by reading the material on their own, then (P1) is false. We have a duty to either design a course that’s not just a reading of the text OR not require or worry about attendance. So we could explain to the students which type of class this will be, and how, if at all, we hope to expand their understanding in ways that they couldn’t get from just reading the book (i.e., by explaining background not covered in the book, by promoting discussion that will get everyone talking, and so on).

    I’m not sure what to say about your question #3. Isn’t going to college supposed to be a way of helping people develop a deeper understanding of themselves? But that may invoke some recursion – you have to go to college to figure out why you want to go to college. Ack.

  4. #4 Bill
    April 10, 2007

    Students now are so very different than when we went to school that it just makes me very sad

    No they aren’t. Seriously. Plato and Hesiod had similar things to say, and they were wrong too, but you can learn from their musty mistakes.

    Fraidy-cats, fuddy-duddies and squares of all denominations have been predicting the imminent demise of civilization, as a direct result of Those Damn Kids, for millennia. I don’t see any reason to take this round of complaints any more seriously than the last thousand rounds.

    (Which, I hasten to add, is not to say that thinking about how and why to improve class attendance is a bad thing. Just, you know, lay off the Kool-Aid of Fear.)

  5. #5 JM
    April 10, 2007

    Well, my “Kool Aid of Fear” drinking lasts for about a moment when I realize that I can’t do a damn thing about it and yes, my profs said the same thing about me fifteen years ago.

    That’s not really the point.

    The point is how to communicate to at least one student every so often that we’re not there just because “they pay us” to be there. Really, they don’t. Given the amount of taxes _I_ pay, _I_ send six of them to college each year. So, perhaps I’m sad because my tax money is wasted. Wouldn’t be the first time.

  6. #6 Ambitwistor
    April 10, 2007


    The Plato quote despairing of youth, at least, is apparently not a real quote.

  7. #7 Scott Belyea
    April 10, 2007

    Students now are so very different than when we went to school…

    Naaaah. The Elders have been complaining about this sort of deficiency in the younger generation for 3,000 years. Sure, attitudes blip up and down, but I doubt that there’s any support for the notion that something unique has happened in the last 20 years.

    I was in university in the late 60’s, and everything being complained about in your posts sounds very familiar. About the only difference is that taking “class attendance” was not forbidden back then, although I can only recall one professor who did.

    One of the best university teachers I had took the attitude that “I have some knowledge that you people say that you want to have for yourselves. I’m willing to help you understand why it’s worthwhile, and I’ll try my best to convey that knowledge in an interesting and coherent manner. But ultimately it’s up to you – some of you will come and take it; and some of you won’t.”

  8. #8 JM
    April 10, 2007

    Scott: your last chunk (“One of the best…”) is exactly what we (and many of our compatriots in our depts) do. Not saying that makes us The Best, just saying that’s what we do. It’s good to be forthright like that.

    I think what we’re despairing about (to the extent that we are, which is to say not terribly much) is that the open defiance seen when we say such things really puts a wrinkle in the “trying to teach” schtik!

  9. #9 greensmile
    April 10, 2007

    It might seem the students do not share your values regarding education [in spite of paying more to skip an hour with you than you paid to skip an hour of your undergraduate education].

    Personally, I think attention spans have been reduced to well below one hour by the compbined effect of all sorts of media that play a larger and a growing part in the lives of these students than they played in your upbringing even if your “upbringing” predates theirs by only a decade or even less. Attention span is something we unconsciously reccon on when we quickly bin all prospective demands: many get tossed in the “I don’t have time for that” bin.

  10. #10 Scott Belyea
    April 10, 2007

    …your last chunk (“One of the best…”) is exactly what we (and many of our compatriots in our depts) do.

    Great! A touch of realism never hurts.

    The fact that you despair even slightly does you credit, but thinking back, there may not be any other reasonable steps you can take.

    Mind you, on the “open defiance” point, you could always try the parental, “You’ll thank me for this someday!!” shtick .. 🙂

  11. #11 Scott Belyea
    April 10, 2007

    As memory kicks in, I also recall a line from another fine university teacher – “I will teach; that’s under my control. Will you learn?”

  12. #12 Bill
    April 10, 2007

    Ambitwistor: thanks for the correction. (I’ll bet he did complain about Kids These Days, though, we just don’t have a record of it.)

  13. #13 jt
    April 10, 2007

    Well, as an engineering grad student, it seems to me like the onus is on the students to show up.

    I mean, this isn’t third grade, where I needed the ‘Number Munchers’ computer game to stay interested in my multiplication tables– even freshmen and sophomores undergraduates need to meet you halfway.

    Particularly in a field where there’s a good amount of ‘grind’ work, and where each semester’s new work is built on the foundation of the previous, there MUST be some self-motivation. If it’s not there in the first couple of years, it’s good to take the hint. (A ChemE professor used to hand out notes to poorly performing students in his organic chemistry class along with returned midterms, suggesting they reconsider majors. Harsh, but a good kick in the butt).

    In the last couple of years, if you’re not self-motivated, it means that you’re choosing the wrong specialty (something I found myself doing on occaison).

    This is not true for all fields.

    My brother is a sociology major — for him, missing class to do some fieldwork is an entirely reasonable decision. Also, the progression in that field isn’t so pyramidal (as far as I can tell). He’s learned a bunch of techniques and specialties that may interact, but aren’t necessarily building on each other. So if he finds one class less interesting, he hasn’t closed off an entire path.

    As long as you’re making it clear that there’s ‘good stuff’ at the end of the grind, there’s only so much you can do.

  14. #14 Garrett
    April 10, 2007

    Maybe kids don’t go to class because going to class is a waste of time in some instances. Some material can simply be better learned in the middle of the night with a book or supplemental materials.

    When I first came to med school at UofMichigan, my tour guide explained to us how she never went to class. Her quote: “I don’t have time to go to class AND actually learn anything.” And she was right. It was much more efficient to spend 12-14 hours a day with the material in the notes provided by a subscription scribe service, textbooks, and lecture slides than to waste 6 hours a day in class and try to then go home and study for another 6-8 hours.

    Lectures are videotaped, and if there’s something not well delineated in the notes, we’d watch them streaming online, often sped up using a neat software called 2xAV. Maybe 15% of the class still attended lectures regularly, and that’s fine, because that’s their style. But for the rest of us, our education benefited from the freedom to learn the way we chose rather than the way someone else thought we should learn.

    We still had plenty of small groups and plenty of time to form cohesive relationships with our classmates and faculty otherwise. But for basic science didactics, the only thing that suffered was the ego of faculty members who thought that medical students should be paying 35k a year to dote on their every stutter.

  15. #15 Lab Lemming
    April 10, 2007

    If the core problem is the reluctance of the students to take control of their educational destiny, then won’t any incentivizing or coersion on your part simply delay the point at which they have to take control of their own destiny?
    p.s. Nice gwen stefani ad. Do all the feminist sciborgs have that on their page?

  16. #16 riptide
    April 10, 2007

    Having gone to two different top schools, I think the attitude towards attending classes can vary greatly. Case in point, what do you do if two classes you want to take conflict?

    School A: You may not take any classes that have conflicting schedules. No exceptions.

    School B: How many conflicts do you think you can handle?

    Personally, most students I know only tried it once max, because it is quite difficult… As to your quote that “Students now are so very different than when we went to school…”, one of the more famous chemists to attend school B was the Nobel Prize winner Robert Woodward, who (our chemisty professors informed us), took 10 classes one term, and literally could not attend several of his tests, let alone his classes! Thus pointing out his brilliance, and the value of attending lecture…

  17. #17 Janet D. Stemwedel
    April 10, 2007

    Lab Lemming, it’s not just that they’re reluctant to take control of their educational destiny, but that they don’t seem to realize that they have an educational destiny to control. Which is why, I guess, I’d like to be sure they look their possibilities square in the face before they screw ’em up or make ’em real.

    Gwen Stefani’s in an ad on my page? The things I miss by using Adblock …

  18. #18 Karen
    April 10, 2007

    Having been an undergrad in the late ’70s and now a graduate student in a different field, I would agree that there are lots of undergraduates who take class attendance a whole lot more lightly than I did. The attitude of the student population as a whole, however, may not be all that different.

    There seem to be a lot more students today who go to college because it’s the thing to do after high school. I’ve met a number of undergrads in engineering and the sciences who’ve changed majors two or three times before finding something that clicks for them; far more than I remember from the ’70’s. There also seem to be more drop-outs, and more people sliding through a year or two of college, working for a few years while they finish growing up, and then going back in earnest. At that point they’re often juggling work and raising children with school, and attending class is sometimes a luxury.

    I’m not sure of how to help either those not ready for college or those past ready for it. It isn’t an easy problem to solve.

  19. #19 Alan Kellogg
    April 10, 2007

    You’re talking about a bunch of irresponsible brats, let loose without adult supervision because we’ve deluded ourselves into thinking they are adults. Some college kids do act responsibly because their parents or guardians raised ’em right. Others are thoughtless dweebs because their caretakers thought turning 18 would magically render the twits functionally mature.

    Now they’re off in a world where nobody’s telling them to behave themselves, and they’re running wild. Of course they’re going to do stupid things with no concern for their future.

    Some people learn how to be responsible for their actions, others don’t. But you can’t expect this knowledge to miraculously appear out of the blue, you need to teach it.

  20. #20 Amy
    April 11, 2007

    I wish all my professors approached the issue like you did. I suspect that I’d actually want to attend your lectures.

    I think Steve’s comment on how you can convince students that attendance is beneficial is right on. It has to be true, first. It’s been my experience that attending some classes actually gets in the way of learning, both because of the lost time and because some professors actually say things that make the reading make less sense. It’s not always true, of course, but it’s true often enough that I no longer believe that class attendance is inherently beneficial. It’s something you have to judge on a case by case basis.

    I don’t know what the average college student wants, but I want to experience new things and new ideas, in and out of the classroom. When I come to lecture, I’d love to get something out of it that I couldn’t from reading. Maybe that’s an interactive discussion. Maybe it’s something that’s so new it isn’t in the textbook yet. Maybe it’s just a clearer, more detailed version of the information in the book. I want to understand the world around me, and I really don’t think I’m alone in that. Sure, college is also a means to an end, but the experience is in fact valuable in itself.

    In general, it’s been my observation that the professors who were enthusiastic about what they were teaching had a significantly higher percentage of the class attending than those who didn’t. That’s the one thing I can think of that helps the most–apart from having, say, a group of students that already cares about learning, which you can’t really control.

    Regarding long-term framing, I’m not sure how much you can do to shape a college student’s perspective if you have them for a single term. Perhaps a societal change would help. I don’t know. Why do you think you are curious? Why do you care about science? Why are you different from your students who don’t care? Did the people who just coast through required classes have a bad experience with science or math? What can be done to alleviate either fear or dislike of those subjects?

  21. #21 James
    April 11, 2007

    As someone who actually does skip, and more often than is good for my grade, allow me to explain some of the reasons I have found places to be that aren’t class over the years:

    1. It doesn’t always affect my grade. During my first bachelor’s degree, I graduated summa cum laude; it would seem that either a) I have the brains to make up for lots of missed class, or b) the papers I wrote and tests I took didn’t happen to cover the 10-15% of class that I didn’t show up for, or c) missing 10-15% of class affects your grade, but not enough to affect your GPA (which is based on the letter grade you get, not the percentage grade).

    2. It is often difficult to determine how a particular class meeting fits in with the goals of the whole course. I tried being a biology major for a while, but found that the weekly lab didn’t have much/anything to do with the lectures. The lectures, which did have much/anything to do with the previous lectures, would start out with a half-hour review of the last meeting, followed by a twenty-minute introduction of new material. Why go all the time when I get the same information attending only half the classes?

    3. I now have a job which starts at 10:30 pm. During the day, I am exhausted; I sleep through classes. Often.

    The people who decide to skip are adults; they are just inexperienced adults. Myself, I think a professor who engaged students in that way would become more popular, and see class attendance increase.

  22. #22 Super Sally
    April 11, 2007

    In these comments and the blog posts, much of the identification of negative educational values is in “these kids today”. Do you see a marked difference in attitude between those attending college immediately after H.S. starting while they are teens and those “delayed vocations” returning to school after some years of work, child-rearing, etc?

    Personal experience indicates the difference should be visible. Part of the reason is that the returning student has CHOSEN to be there, and will make a go of it, or discontinue schooling.

  23. #23 Mark
    April 11, 2007

    Here’s what I think: recognize the difference between teaching and leaarning. You teach, students learn. It’s not your job to make students learn (using “learn” to substitude for “attend class”). That’s their job, and they are responsible for the consequences of failing at their job. Failing is a learning experience, too.

  24. #24 John Dupuis
    April 11, 2007

    I think the key here is that a good number of today’s students don’t see the traditional lecture format as a particularly engaging or relevant to the way they want to learn. Now, if you could get a Twitter interactive Second Life video MySpace podcast on their cellphones so they can collaborate on creating their own wiki lecture while they’re driving to work…

  25. #25 Liz Ditz
    April 11, 2007

    I’m working from my daughter’s computer, since mine is having extensive cognitive-behavioral therapy due to parental neglect. I wanted to share the following posts with you and JB:

    Blog description and some apropos posts:

    “College instructor teaching human sexuality rants about the dumbing down of America, the lost art of manners, grammar and (the perfect combination of both) the thank you note. Also includes random rants about life, pet peeves, and sometimes raves about favorite things.”

  26. #26 Chris
    April 13, 2007

    I wonder what required courses were like “back in the day.” Because honestly, I’m stuck taking a bunch of classes that I do not care one iota about. I’m in my final quarter as a psych undergrad, and I’m taking an intro to geology class. Every single one of my psych classes is a science class, yet I have to take “rocks for jocks” because that’s what Mr. Transcript says I need. I didn’t get to take the fun, wacky classes that I would honestly enjoy; I absolutely love history, yet don’t get to take any of it for fun, because I’m already taking 20 hours a quarter just to graduate. I just don’t like the arbitrary decree about what a diverse education means. You can say “it’s your money you’re wasting,” but we AREN’T the ones really choosing our classes. Unless they’re major classes, in which case the skippers are lazy and/or stupid. 🙂

  27. #27 ponderingfool
    April 13, 2007

    This might be hard to do since they aren’t going to class and making it difficult for you to communicate with them, but why do they suggest they don’t go to class? What is their motivation for being in college? What do they hope to get out of it? It is hard to get an idea of the frame to take if it isn’t known what they are thinking and where they are coming from.

    “Clearly, our students are making decisions differently than we used to.” The question is why and how you address it. That is one of the roles of a teacher.

  28. #28 Devo
    April 14, 2007

    I don’t think that framing is the best way to get at this particular problem. I’ve sometimes had trouble with attendance in college-level classes, but I usually find that there are outside factors which have a much larger impact on the class (if they’re first or second-year students in a pre-req. class, or advanced students in a seminar course, for instance). And I also feel like it has more to do with my lecturing style — it depends upon how performative, and interactive, how much I’ve been able to kindle that “ah-hah!” look.

    I think the problem with Lakoff and the whole framing argument, is that it doesn’t give enough attention to such contextual issues. It treats framing like it’s context-independent, even expression-independent. This is as much a mistake in the classroom as it is on the political stage. (I’ve got a response post about this on my blog

    And I think that’s what you’re getting at in your post — it’s those larger issues, the big frame, if you will, that determine how a given lecture will register. And that’s not really what Lakoff is talking about — he’s focused on the particular connection you make between a tenor and a vehicle in a metaphor. To apply this metaphorical model on a scale as large as the cultural practice and assumptions which condition how students see education is a mistake, IMHO.

  29. #29 the curious student
    April 17, 2007

    I am a student that at one point in time attended nearly every class, and studied for about 6 to 8 hours a night at the beginning of my undergraduate since I enjoyed the material, wanted to impress my professors, and/or liked seeing A’s on my transcript. I did this plus working 25 hours a week and maintaining other aspects of my life.

    Then after two years reality set in and I realized I was burnt out and had to take a year off. When I came back, I realized that I couldn’t keep up that kind of schedule even if I tried. So now I go to as many classes as I can. I miss on average 2-3 weeks worth of classes a semester. My point is that some students simply have different priorities. School is still important to me, but if I am physically ill or mentally exhausted, then I see attending class as a waste of time since I won’t be focused and able to fully pay attention and participate.

    The general sense I get from my peers, and the attitude I have toward some of my general education classes, is that yes, I am taking this class solely to fulfill a requirement to graduate and if I can get by with a B- or C+, then that’s fine with me.

    I see general education requirements as a way to make more money for the university. College has become an enormous money machine. The university makes me pay for bs classes under the excuse of being a “well-rounded individual”. The way I see it, I’m already wasting my money; I’m not going to add insult to injury by wasting time on something I see as unnecessary. Yes, some of the classes are interesting, but some aren’t and are even a little insulting. One example: “Creating a Meaningful Life”; isn’t “Creating a Meaningful Life” what a person is supposed to learn to do through, well, living, and can’t really be taught? What about personal responsibility? What about students (and society at large) being encouraged to pursue interests and knowledge in their spare time? Wouldn’t that also create “well-rounded individuals”?

  30. #30 tomteboda
    April 19, 2007

    I’ve read through the comments and the associated discussion with great interest, and decided I have a couple thoughts of my own to share. Of course, my comments became verbose rather quickly, so my weigh-in is on my own blog in detail (if you’re interested).

    The key points are as follows:
    (1) I notice that almost everyone who chimes in with “yes, this is a frustrating problem” can be identified (or self-identifies) as a university lecturer

    (2) In stunning correlation, nearly everyone who justifies their own nonattendance in lectures can be clearly identified as someone who has not lectured at the university level.

    (3) The culture has changed.

    (4) Absenteeism is a problem observed in industry as well as academia.

    (5) Absenteeism is one characteristic of GenY that academia will need to adapt to.

    (7) How do we adapt to GenY values, which place low premium on attendence and high value on interactivity and connectivity?

    I do not have a good answer for the final question. At the moment, I rely on a combination of carrots and sticks. Demonstrations, quizzes, class participation activities, and scheduling all play a role. Yet I lose students, even students who subsequently give me good evaluations and nice written comments.

    Students are angry, professors are upset, and course content is suffering. Sometimes it feels like a battle out there, with professors vs. students (Orchestra vs. Conductor,* anyone?) A battle isn’t very conducive to education, so a resolution of some sort is necessary. I wish I had the answers.

  31. #31 JM
    April 20, 2007

    Anyone still paying attention to this thread should click through to tomteboda’s blog and read the full post.

  32. #32 Frumious B
    April 20, 2007

    This is just such a funny coincidence. Here at my work place we are discussing the poor adherence to policy, and the general message seems to be that the policies help nobody, so nobody adheres to them. Why don’t students attend your class? It doesn’t help them, or interest them, or whatever. Painful though it may be to acknowledge, sometimes the problem is with the instructor, not the students.

  33. #33 jeff
    January 22, 2009

    Absenteeism probably is one of the issues that frequently occur in the workplace. At lower rates, the organization would not consider it being a big issue, once the absenteeism rate increases to a certain level, then absenteeism should be immediately taken care of. Ever take a simple calculation on days off and convert into some dollar figures?

New comments have been disabled.