Types of Students

As I go into this Fall, I’m considering student expectations and how to navigate these in light of my own growth and, honestly, my own sense of calling. It occurred to me that students really fall into three basic categories of expectation, and these are part of why it’s hard to please all the students all the time.

I’ve come to these categories after being a student at various places for most of my life, and from teaching students, specifically at Fuller and APU. At various points in my life, I’ve been in each of these categories, so these aren’t offered as judgments, but as a way for me to better come to terms with student expectations. This post is me thinking out loud as I sort out how to help students, so feel free to make suggestions.

I. The first category is what I call Minimizing students.

The key question they ask is, “What is the least I need to do?
Now they may not always ask this out loud, but this is a driving question. They are intimidated, and sometimes even offended, by course requirements, and so will tend to push for doing less, getting more time, wondering how to cut corners.

What they should know: A class is not just about their time and their goals. They should bear the burden of not having enough time, energy, or concern.

What they should do:
1) Know the syllabus, so they know how to best use their time and focus.
2) Learn how to read books without reading every word
3) Don’t make others bear the burden.  Own it.
4) Pick a research topic they already know something about and with a strong focus so they don’t get overwhelmed by research and either give up or just not do adequate research.

Comment: Even when a course has been vetted for how much time assignments and readings take, these students will complain that it’s too much. Some students are honest about this, and don’t offer problems. The trouble comes when a student is both a minimizing student and a perfectionist.Which sounds like a paradox, but it’s not.

They sometimes want to be perfect at a minimal level of expectation, so they tend to complain about the reading, about paper length, about lectures.I’ve even had students complain about how much optional material I’m posting.

Which confused me at first–since it’s optional–until I realized they felt a need to be perfect, felt some inner pressure to do it all, so having that optional material stressed them out. They were confronted by the fact they couldn’t do it all, and thought it was a problem with the class.

I’ve been a minimizing student in courses throughout my life. Sometimes because I’m overwhelmed with life, sometimes because I decided to prioritize another class.  It’s not a judgment, but it is a distinct approach, so a student should own it and do what they are willing to do.

These students are going 55 in the fast lane and don’t think about moving to the right. They might be arrogant about what they know and don’t think they should do more, or they might just not know how to go faster, or they might be in car that’s having trouble so they’re doing the best they can.

II. The second category is what I call Middling students.

The key question they ask is “What do I need to do?

What they should know: They shouldn’t feel overwhelmed by the material.  If they already knew it, they wouldn’t be in the degree program.  They should know their strengths and their weaknesses, so they can organize their energy in a way that gets the most out of their efforts.

What they should do:
1) They should know the syllabus, charting due dates, and how much each assignment is worth, utilizing their time accordingly.
2) They should find a few aspects they’re particularly interested in and focus on those, rather than get lost in the weeds of too much information.
3) Ask clarifying questions.
4) Pick a research topic they are particularly interested in, something based on questions they are asking or people they know are asking. This helps academic research have a sense of real-world purpose, which can be a good motivator.

Comment: These students are generally going to ask useful questions about clarification or about a topic. They generally won’t complain and if they do, it’s probably something to be addressed. They do the work as well as they can, and while it may not always get top scores, it reflects interest and commitment. They won’t go above and beyond in either research or material, but they’ll do what they should do in an enriching way. These students are going the speed of traffic, and move to the right when someone is coming up behind them.

III. The third category of students is what I call Maximizing students.

The key question they ask is “What more can I do?

What they should know:
A class is not just about their time and their goals. They should bear the burden of their learning and do the course tasks well while also seeking out added information and research.  If a class is too easy or not covering a topic/direction of particular interest, a student has the freedom to do more, add more, read more, matching the content to their interests.  If you want fish, and are good at fishing, don’t wait around the docks for someone to give you a fish.

What they should do:
Know the syllabus, know where there’s space to be creative and do more, and ask about policies related to making assignments longer than assigned.
2) Follow the “rabbit trails.” Whether recommended reading, references in lectures or footnotes, there’s no end of material that can be added to the required. Follow those trails and see they can discover.
3) Research thoroughly.  Read as much as they can about a topic or by a particular author, becoming an expert in the time they have. For instance, my first “maximizing” student experience in my sophomore year, I read all of Tertullian’s writings for a research paper. That reading has served me extremely well since.
4) Ask good questions that relate to their actual curiosity and interest, including asking about research directions or more reading. Don’t ask questions to show off what they know or because they want to show they have questions.  I love eager students, but I’m not fond of students that monopolize time.
5) Help other students. Maximizing students may be called to teaching, so they should try it out if there are forums or opportunities. Be a benefit to the whole class, not just yourself.

Whether because they have experience in a topic or because of a strong passion for it or because of a standout work ethic, these students see the requirements of a class as as starting place. Their research paper might add a huge amount of reading to their course work, but they’re thrilled with the chance to do it, and they want as much feedback as possible. They’re doing 80 in the fast lane–or more if no one gets in their way.

Some added thoughts:
I’ve learned that different institutions tend to have different student cultures. And it generally doesn’t reflect overall intelligence or capability.

Fuller has a mix of all three, which probably makes it more of a “middling student” school in general. In large part because most of my students are working other jobs.

Which again is to note these categories aren’t judgments about anyone personally, but how they shape student expectation. I have some students who are very capable and passionate, but are overwhelmed with other parts of their life. They’re minimizing students but really good and interesting people.

The tricky part about teaching at Fuller is that I have think about each kind of student in my course design and assignment instructions. I need to be able to provide clear guidance and introductory material for the minimizing or new students, while also having advanced material and additional resources for maximizing students.

I need to make space for student initiative and interest, so can’t be so narrow in assignments or make busywork, while trying to make sure no one gets left behind. I often teach classes where I have both brand-new-to-seminary students and last-quarter-before-graduating students, as well as the mix of student expectations for all sorts of reasonable and unreasonable causes.

It makes things tricky but I really do think it’s an interesting challenge both because I’m intrigued by strategic organization and because this is also the situation for churches.

There’s people with a mix of expectations, and far too often the minimizing attendees get all the attention, with the middling folks becoming the backbone of the community, and leaving the maximizing people out altogether–unless they’re on staff.  People can, I’ve learned, actually mature out of a church community. They’re needing more than milk, but there’s no meat or bread to be found. So they wander.  Sometimes wander away if they don’t know where to find more substantial guidance.

The challenge in teaching both in seminary and church is to find a way to pull the minimizers along (and hope that they get charged up) while also encouraging the middling and the maximizers to continued growth.  Create space, maintain space, allow space.  I think that’s a good mission for a teacher and a pastor.

That’s my challenge and maybe even my calling in both arenas, as long as they’ll have me.

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