Professor handholding impedes student success

By Maria Castellucci

Throughout high school, teachers prepared me for the trials of college. Announcements and explanations of assignments would be rare. The syllabus is the holy grail of survival, and it is always “subject to change at the professor’s discretion.” Students are expected to be proactive in their education and raise their concerns directly.

Many of my high school friends who opted to attend state colleges are having these experiences. However, I cannot relate much. Like many students who chose Columbia, what appealed to me most was the lack of similarity to state colleges that boast full lecture halls and little teacher-student contact. At the end of a course, Columbia professors know who you are and show their interest in your future by providing useful advice and connections.

I love Columbia for this reason, but I often find myself in classes where students are not proactive in their education and the professor’s interest in their success exceeds the students’. They do not participate, keep up with readings or even focus during class. This does not prepare students for post-graduation life. Professors need to ensure that students are held responsible for their actions.

Students will benefit from such treatment in the long run. For example, at the University of South Carolina, a full-time professor banned all students from emailing her except to set up meetings and encouraged students to ask questions in class. She was tired of the numerous emails she received on a daily basis from students asking questions that could easily be answered by looking in the syllabus, according to an Aug. 27 article on Inside Higher Ed. Students’ behavior changed as a result. They were better prepared for class, performed well on assignments and the teacher got to know them better because of the in-person meetings. The students were treated like adults, and the professor made it clear students had to care about their success in the class. All responsibility was placed on the students.

The professor said she plans to continue this teaching style at Salem College, a liberal arts college for women in North Carolina, where she began teaching full-time this fall, according to her website. The majority of Salem College’s faculty is part-time adjunct faculty, similar to Columbia’s. Because the professor was a full-time associate, she likely had more available office hours than part-time faculty. It could have been more difficult for an adjunct faculty member to apply this teaching technique for their course because adjunct faculty members are often not on campus for more than a few hours on the days they teach. However, this further stresses how important it is that professors’ teaching styles are expressed with clear expectations for their students.

The effects of professors’ teaching styles are widely debated, the question being what is more influential in terms of a student’s success: the student’s work ethic, the professor or extrinsic factors such as socioeconomic status or employment. According to a 2012 study from the RAND Corporation, teachers have more bearing on student success than any other classroom factors. If a professor gives clear guidelines as to what they expect, students who care will follow through. The influence of professors on students was also seen in an August 2013 study conducted by the American Sociological Association where the authors found a correlation between students’ educational choices and their favorite professors. Those who had a caring professor in a particular field were more likely to major in that field.

In many ways, professors are undergraduates’ first introduction to professional relationships in the real world. For students to have worthwhile experiences, they must be treated as adults. That is not to say professors should be overly strict. An April 21 study from the American Psychological Association found that strict professors who are unsupportive to students correlate to a student’s poor performance in their course work. Professors should strive for a balance of clear expectations and positive relationships. The courses I have enjoyed the most were the ones where professors challenged me but also showed me they cared about my success.

Part of the problem is also on an administrative level. Most college professors’ curricula are not regulated by the administration to preserve academic freedom. Although it is great that institutions encourage diverse faculty, the teaching styles of some professors may not reflect the administration’s goals as an academically challenging institution. It could be worthwhile for the administration to evaluate teaching style on a more detailed level when hiring and to continuously evaluate.

To receive the full benefits of college, professors should mandate that students strive for their own success. This will better prepare students for the world after commencement. That’s the point of higher education, after all.