Great Expectations

by Catherine Hillman on October 28, 2014


This past weekend, a friend and fellow Cal Poly alumna called me, concerned that her daughter might not have the grades to get in to Cal Poly.  With the average incoming freshman GPA being above 3.8, and only approximately 10% of applicants being accepted, she is trying to set appropriate expectations for her daughter. I don’t blame her for preparing for disappointment.

The Scarcity Principle tells us that a limited supply of something coupled with a very high demand will change the way buyers view the product, and can influence the price factor. We will see this idea at work next month as millions of consumers line up on Black Friday around the big box stores to jostle for the few special items offered at a discount.  What compels them to line up? Scarcity. If they are one of the lucky ones who gets in first, what do they expect?  Value. In other words, these consumers expect something far better in exchange for their money than others will get further back in line.

It is tough to get in to this university, and we expect so very much of the students who make it through the gauntlet. We are the Black Friday of the CSU system. What do students expect from us after standing in line all night, jostling the crowds and fighting exhaustion? Supreme value. For the $25,000 they could spend at any CSU, they expect a more marketable degree upon graduation, and a better education while they are attending. Much has been written about the Student as Consumer, and while we may decry the crassness of the metaphor, it is how humans behave and to assume otherwise is to ignore who we are.

I have had the privilege of speaking with students from across the university in a series of discussions offered through the Student Success department to learn what these lucky few expect from Cal Poly. In the workshop, “What You Wish Your Professors Knew,” students were eager to share their hopes and expectations about their professors, and how they want to be taught. I am impressed by their answers, and I hope we will listen carefully to this consumer feedback. As a Cal Poly alumna, I concur. They are asking for – and expecting – good things, and not outrageous things. For being Black Friday shoppers, they are surprisingly savvy and appropriate.

Here is a summary of what your students, those lucky few who made it to the front of the line, expect from Cal Poly instructors once they get in, and a smattering of quotes (in the bulleted items) relating to those requests.

  1. Tell us – often – how we’re doing

One of the top expectations students have is for formative feedback and assessment. I have heard some heartbreaking tales of students who have no idea how they are doing in class because there is no feedback other than a midterm and final. When students are given the opportunity to adjust their learning early and often, they will retain more and experience more success. This is not coddling, but mentoring. Here are some ways you can provide educational value to your students:

  • Return assignments in a timely fashion for students to review
  • Allow students to see their assignment or course grades at any time
  • Assign work at a pace that allows for grading and feedback to take place
  • Give practice and review opportunities
  • Review quizzes with the entire class, leaving opportunities for questions
  • If an entire class gets a problem wrong, offer additional resources and learning opportunities before moving on
  • Give us a lot of feedback, and then strive for higher standards or levels on tests (“help us do better!”)
  1. Show us order

Students declare majors to get in to Cal Poly, but that does not mean they arrive with a global sense of the field of study. Students are looking to faculty to help give them perspective, prioritization, context and clarity. A lecture that wanders off topic, allows for inappropriate or tangential questions, or a class that is missing key items or elements (“the handout is on my office desk – sorry”) confuses students. They do not yet have the expertise to forgive and fill in the blanks. Students have indicated a need for:

  • Organized content that shows deliberate design and preparation
  • An organized PolyLearn shell that has supplemental information or class materials
  • Clear directions about what needs to be done, when, and at what level of quality
  • Opportunity to clarify key points before dismissal from class
  • Manageable chunks of reading or homework, indicating a recognition of human capacity (especially when there are other classes taking place in students’ lives as well!)
  1. Help us focus our effort and attention

Students do not have unlimited time or energy, and one characteristic of a valued employee is the ability to use time efficiently. We can help model that for them by respecting their time, as we ask them to respect ours. We can also help them use their limited time to their best ability. This particular sentiment generated a lot of student concerns about lecture classes. Here are some suggestions from students:

  • Lecture is passive learning; give opportunities to respond from time to time even if only to indicate that they’re following you
  • Deliver lectures that use proper presentation techniques. They’ve learned how to use PowerPoint in high school, and they know best from worst practices
  • Don’t lecture by reading out of the book
  • Supplement lectures with handouts so they can follow along better
  • Give students lectures or homework that prepares them for the assessments or tests
  • Tangents can be fun, but not when it interrupts the flow of important (test-specific) lectures
  • Deliver visuals, not just words
  • Give multiple perspectives – tell the whole story, not just one side
  1. Help us engage

Learning rarely takes place in a vacuum. Students want to interact with faculty and other students, and they enjoy the opportunity when it is given to them.

  • “I like to be reminded of office hour availability – my favorite teacher puts her office hours on the white board in class. That feels welcoming!”
  • “My favorite English teacher has us talking to each other and the instructor a lot in class. I’m an engineering student, and I learn a lot from the teacher and other students this way.”
  • “I want more real-world type assignments for practice.”
  • “I have a professor who discourages questions, so none of us want to ask him anything.”
  • Please be relevant and tell students about your experiences in the field
  • Give demonstrations of programs/applications early on so they understand the tools
  • Use PolyLearn more! It’s an extension of the classroom and they can review things when they need to outside of the class time
  1. Tell us why you care

This particular area of feedback warms my heart because it shows how much your students want to learn from YOU, their instructor! Here are their thoughts:

  • Be passionate about your topic, and infuse students with that same passion
  • If you bring energy to the class, they’ll have energy as well for the subject
  • Be approachable – let them ask good questions, or tell you what they’re learning
  • “My music class is very early in the morning, but the teacher is so engaging I don’t notice how tired I am. Now I’m thinking I should have learned about music a lot earlier in my life!”
  • “My dance teacher leads us in acting out the choreography we’re studying as a lecture break. This is awesome!!”
  • A sense of humor is wonderful

I hope these requests for product enhancement are not too outrageous. As one student so wonderfully stated, “We are all here to do well – please help us!”

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