Tightened standards are the antithesis of education

It’s the second half of the semester and you’re drowning. The readings are piling up, the exams are looming and you’re starting to question why you signed up for this in the first place. Your friends are making jokes about dropping out; in fact, they’re making them so much that you can’t help but wonder if they’re serious. It’s getting too easy to wake up ten minutes before your 8 a.m. class and leave a paper until the last minute. Such is the life of a college student. It’s been this way for a long time and will likely never change — not unless, to paraphrase John Mulaney, faculty get really cool about a lot of stuff really quickly.
There are very few positive outcomes of the COVID-19 pandemic, especially when it comes to education — young children lost key years of socialization and teenagers experienced arrested development, leaving high school as sophomores and coming back as seniors. On college campuses like Allegheny’s, the shift to Zoom school put everybody’s attention spans to the test and made skipping class all too easy — not to mention how Zoom is extraordinarily ill-suited to discussion, plaguing seminars with conversational lags and dropped calls, encouraging instructors to switch to more independent work like quizzes, discussion posts and worksheets. In short, the pandemic forced instructors to work against the grain of best educational practices, turning school into a Sisyphean slog of gallery screens and grading.
The only positive effect of COVID-19 that I experienced in my college journey was increased empathy from faculty, who were also struggling with disruptions at work and home. Deadlines became more flexible and syllabi were often adjusted or downsized to reflect a sensitivity to others’ workloads.
It turns out that everything which goes up must also come down. In other words, unless faculty adopt alternative or looser grading practices — more on that next week — they need to grade everything they assign. The actual usefulness and pertinence of assignments became crystal-clear under the microscope of pandemic workloads and most faculty, at least in my disciplines, adjusted accordingly.
This does not mean that everything is perfect. Even now, after the height of the pandemic, after we have returned to the classroom, students are still noticeably overwhelmed and disengaged, and everybody has a cure-all solution.
The most dangerous fixes are the reductive suggestions to return to normal — to tighten the reins, pack the syllabus and sharpen the battle-ax. Jonathan Malesic, professor of writing at Southern Methodist University, suggested in The New York Times this past May that the only way to get students to re-engage is to overcorrect to “high expectations,” citing “loosened course structures … flexible attendance and deadline policies, and lenient grading” as the causes of the downfall of quality education. He goes on to unleash a verifiable cornucopia of studies and anecdotes that back up his thesis: students have reported less learning during pandemic semesters; his colleagues have taken on an self-described “astronomical, exhausting” workload and found that students needed to rewrite or revise their papers; students admit a greater willingness to cheat on online exams and score lower in person; recorded lectures enable students to skip class, and now students supposedly hold their RSEs hostage as they demand asynchronous options.
The most infuriating part about this article to me was the fact that Malesic is so close to understanding his own point. Yes, faculty are overwhelmed with work. Yes, Zoom is antithetical to the tight-knit connections we build in the classroom. Yes, when anxious about grades, students will likely engage in academic dishonesty. Yes, if a particular class’s format relies upon students sitting still and unblinkingly listening to a lecture for 50 minutes with no engagement, these lectures might as well be recorded so they can watch them in their own time. Yes, when given the opportunity, students will revise their work to earn a higher grade or, heaven forbid, to produce something of quality.
Correlation doesn’t equal causation. Students reporting less learning during the pandemic does not mean that loosened standards are to blame, and loosened standards are not the same thing as remote, disengaged learning. In fact, most of the problems Malesic cited can be easily remedied by loosened standards. When faculty lighten their syllabi or adopt more humane alternative grading practices, they generate less work for themselves, too. When they stop clinging to the bobbing detritus of a lecture-hall format and engage in a participatory pedagogy, they will find that students, too, will be more likely to show up and participate. When they accept that life is not a series of end-all-be-all exams graded on a 100-point rubric but rather a continuous series of opportunities for revision and correction and revise their own curriculum accordingly, they will be surprised by the intellectual output of their students.
The crux of these misconceptions about the purpose and process of education all comes back to one virus: speed. We love to be the first one to finish a race; the highest grade in the class or the one with the heaviest workload. Our culture, especially our educational culture, engages in an intense cycle of sadism and masochism that rewards burnout and self-punishment. It equates being overworked to genius. If the COVID-19 pandemic has taught us anything, this won’t do. This center cannot hold.
In her book “The Extended Mind,” Annie Murphy Paul writes “the way we’re able to think about information is dramatically affected by the state we’re in when we encounter it.” In other words, the human brain is not a computer. It does not perform robotically or consistently; instead, its abilities vary wildly based on a variety of factors: sleep, activity, physical surroundings and anxiety. In our current system, students frequently receive the subliminal message that their intellectual growth must take a backseat to their ability to run a mental marathon. If a student has one bad day, week or even month, they face the potential consequences of permanently setting back their academic career.
So, how do all of these loose threads tie together? Simple. In our current state, across all forms and venues of education, we do not actually value learning or thinking. We value achievement. These are not the same thing.
Paul explains in an episode of “The Ezra Klein Show” that the “brain-as-a-muscle” metaphor has warped our perception of how the human mind works. Learning is not about pushing the brain to its limits, but rather “creating a space and a set of capacities wherein you have more and better resources from which to assemble your thought processes.” Or, as Max Weber wrote more succinctly, “Ideas come in their own good time, not when we want them.”
Thinking — good, productive thinking — takes time. It cannot be forced like Play-Doh through an extruder of exams and discussion posts. It needs time and patience. It needs the flexibility to adjust a syllabus or a deadline to allow students to turn in quality work, to feel proud of their accomplishments as scholars and thinkers.
It’s time that we slow down and really think about what we are trying to accomplish at institutions of higher learning. Are we a diploma factory or an intellectual hub? Are we severe or nurturing? Most importantly: do we actually care about students’ growth or do we just care about quantitative measures of completion?
November is International Education Month. This op-ed is part of a month-long series on education.