Don’t be a thirsty horse

It’s finals week here at MGSC and students are feeling the stress of that time in the semester when everything comes due at once. Some of that stress is an artifact of the academic calendar, but sometimes (let’s be honest, now) it is exacerbated by students not embracing or not recognizing all the opportunities and resources that are available to them. I was thinking earlier today about this phenomenon as expressed in the adage “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink.” No student should be a thirsty horse when a water bucket is available.

Professors have a role in making sure students aren’t “thirsty.” There’s always room to make course material better organized, policies clearer, and communication more timely. For example, a friend and colleague of mine has recently started using a smartphone app that lets her push text messages to her classes (the app protects her privacy by not revealing her personal phone number). She has used it for due date reminders and, most recently, to alert students with new instructions for turning in a final project when her university was closed due to bad weather. Given many people’s increasing reliance on text messaging, such “intrusive interventions” (to use a current educational term of art) seem appropriate. And if we want to encourage independent work and learning, we need to make sure our instructions, policies, and procedures are as clear as we can make them. Another friend and colleague posted on Facebook a few weeks ago about seeing way too many unclear and confusing assignments and syllabi from faculty when she was working as a tutor for students. She linked to an essay from the Chronicle of Higher Education about the importance of clarity in teaching. I can vouch that the colleagues I know are constantly working to improve in this area.

At the same time, students should be learning the best practices in work habits and time management that will serve them well throughout the semester and especially at crunch time. I tell my students that one of the best things they can learn is how to use the resources discussed/provided in class independently. That way, if I am crushed by a piano falling from the sky, they can keep on learning. Look how many resources remain available to students whether I’m there or not: the syllabus, library databases, assignment instructions on Desire2Learn, writing handbooks, fellow students, and probably more that I’m forgetting about. And yet the questions and comments that I hear often reflect that students are thirsty horses overlooking available water sources. I don’t mind answering “When is our final?” or “How many pages is this supposed to be?” or “How do I cite this source?” but I will always gently remind the student asking that the information is available for them to find on their own. Those questions end up being much more frequent than higher-order ones about the course material. Imagine how much the overall level of academic discourse could be elevated if instead of questions like “When is our essay due?” we heard more of “What does it mean when the grandmother’s hat gets broken in ‘A Good Man is Hard to Find’?” (I love opportunities to use my standard answer to such questions: “I am professionally obligated to ask you what YOU think it means.”) The ability to work independently and manage time well is one of the most valuable outcomes of a college education–it transcends majors and professions, is an asset in every field, and frankly will make your life less stressful. So, students: avoid being thirsty horses! Figure out the best way (for you) to become a better independent worker; learn where to find and how to use the resources available to you. And then–don’t worry if you still have to ask questions. That’s what we’re here for.

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