Raising expectations

Image above: A shunter next to a Bullet Train (Shinkansen).

It seems very clear that one of the things that university teachers have to do is to make clear to the students what their expectations are. How much do I expect you to work; how much do I expect you to go and read books on your own; what do I expect you to do while you are in the lecture theatre? But there are also certain things that students should be able to expect about their teachers: they turn up on time; they know their subject and they are able to communicate etc.

Speaking recently to an undergraduate student who has just started at a UK university (possibly my son, or someone who resembled him very closely), I was given a first-hand example of an instance where expectations were miss-matched between student and academic.

In preparing for an introductory lecture the student duly found his timetable, logged on to the VLE and found the pre-reading for the first lecture. After reading the notes and attempting the problems, he was confident that the content was fairly straightforward and that he would have no difficulty during the lecture.

What he didn’t expect was for the lecturer to assume that no one had read the notes and then proceed to go through all the problems in class. What then made it ten times worse was the lecturer’s comment to the class: “If only you had all read this in advance, I wouldn’t have to waste my time with this lecture!”

So what is the result of this initial exchange? Well we now have a number of students who are more sceptical about the institution than they were a week ago. We have students who now see no point in reading before a lecture as the lecturer will apparently go through it anyway. We have students who feel that the teacher thinks that lectures are a waste of time. All in all a fairly negative start to a course.

For those of you who read my previous post, “The model railway analogy for curriculum design”, we can see that in this class the students now think they are going to be treated as ‘shunters’ even though they may aspire to be ‘Bullet Trains’.

If we look to the educational literature, we need go no further than the much-quoted line by David Ausubel: “The most important single factor influencing learning is what the learner already knows. Ascertain this and teach him accordingly” (Ausubel, 1968). Apparently universities can be quite poor at doing this. It seems very basic, but talk to your students first.

Maybe students who feel like this should have tee shirts printed with the logo:

Shinkansen! Teach me accordingly!”

I’ll try to ease up on the train analogies for a while.

Further reading: Ausubel, D.P. (1968). Educational Psychology: A Cognitive View. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston.


One thought on “Raising expectations

  1. Julie

    I think this is an important observation both at undergraduate and postgraduate level. Frequently I see a deficit model of students emerging based on, often misguided expectations of what students will do or what they are capable of. I recently ran an induction session with a new MA cohort focusing on this very issue – starting with the whole idea of expectations mine of them and then the student expectations of us and the course. Lots of what we got back related to notions of respect for them and their ideas. they wanted to engage with learning and share in the learning process and for us to value that.

    the whole conversation was very interesting and has framed how we have been working with them since in terms of the rest of the induction programme and subsequent teaching sessions. We generated a series of bullet points based on this conversation which is now part of the postgraduate students VLE so that everyone involved in the programme can see it.

    keep the railway metaphors rolling – we all need a good intellectual shunt once in a while otherwise we get stuck in the tunnel of misguided thinking.



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