Tag Archives: College Years

Information As Power: Digital Control of Learning in an Era of Superstudents. Or, Tale of Two Eras: Two Stories, Two Generations and Zero Change

1987:  There’s no doubt the learning game is changing, K-16. And the teaching game, in this digital age, is running ten steps behind, as usual. Even 30 years ago, Ivory towers attracted the brightest students. Unknown-1Even in that era students’ acumen threatened a well-established tradition of academia, and professors scurried to ensure their students paid a reasonable price for learning. In 1988 while teaching at a top-ranked university, I designed a scope and sequence of an introductory required Spanish Literature course. After all, I was a curriculum specialist! The course incorporated everything I had learned in my post-graduate work in Education. I wanted to motivate, prepare, teach for retention (in hopes that some students would continue on toward a minor or major). Since these students comprised the top 5% of college-age students, I thought it in their best interest to show them everything I expected of them, including the midterm, the final, the quizzes, an explanation and example of the kinds of papers I would require, rubrics for assignments and criteria for each grade they would like to achieve, the opportunity to submit any work early for my feedback, and much more. Although the course was “transparent,” according to the folder of required submissions of syllabi for every course, mine was more demanding than any other professor’s in the department:  more papers, more difficult criteria for grading, more quizzes and tests, more readings, a “literary theory” portion that is not even included in the course description itself, and more. The students struggled to understand the transparency at first, but as soon as they understood the challenge, most rose to the occasion, and some even submitted their written work to and were published by student publications across academia. As a result, I gave many A’s, and the department immediately chastised me and encouraged me to give less. UnknownSo… I raised the criteria required to complete for an A, B, C, etc., and the students met those expectations as eagerly as the year before. It happened a third year, and my students began to major and minor in Spanish. Unknown-2As they populated the Spanish National Honor Society, they began their own student publication in Spanish. The department, however, never ceased communicating to me their disapproval of my methods and how I am “inflating the grades” and not keeping students in their place by giving lower grades. It was the worst of times!


2017:  Several of my former high school clients approached me with matching issues. They spent time in high school learning to compensate for their dyslexia and dysgraphia and ADD/ADHD, relying on accommodations but learning to take full responsibility for their work. Every client had gotten into top-rated universities and they embraced the challenges they would be facing their Freshman year. They knew that, given their issues, they must orchestrate their time and resources when asked to read and write. But, all of them at their respective (and respectful? institutions) were struggling with at least one of their courses for the simple reason that the professor placed only the next class period’s readings and assignments on-line, with NO access to the reading material until their PROFESSORS released it. In short, they were finishing their classes, doing regular “college stuff,” and would not receive the next assignment to do until the next day or night before the assignment is due in class. And to make matters worse, they could not start on that assignment until they finished other classes for THAT day. 512718467-anxious-picturesThey had on the average 12-18 hours to read large passages and write large response essays. All of my former clients now lamented poor grades and frustration at not being able to budget their time and practice their compensation strategies that got them into the universities in the first place. It was the worst of times!


In the 1980’s, my colleagues believed that withholding information about how they assess their students and what content they will address keeps students guessing and “motivated” to earn that grade, with little consideration as to whether they are actually teaching well or their students are learning well. This information became the power to control every student who expressed any desire to earn a good grade. Unknown-3Almost in a childish or evil way, these colleagues seemed to throw out a vengeful assignment or pop quiz or grade papers very harshly, again withholding the proper feedback as to how the assessment was made. After all, these professors a generation ago had experienced the same hazing treatment in their own academic pursuits.

Yet, nowadays, little has changed. In my work with students who struggle with particular learning differences, I have seen the same harsh, unprofessional treatment in the digital age. I am speaking of the practice of PIECEMEAL online placement of content and assignments- such as Haiku, Bright Space, etc. Professors more and more are placing only the NEXT day’s readings and assignments online, leaving students completely unable to work ahead or work slowly and in their own time. Unknown-4While the digital tool is AMAZING, and truly streamlines many logistical solutions to academic needs, teachers use them as a “digital control” of student study habits, as a source of power over how much a student brings to each class. In my personal and professional opinion, professors who do this struggle with the insecurity that their students’ “learning something” too quickly might ruin that perfect teachable moment they had planned. Unknown-5Or, even more cynical, teachers fear being upstaged or exposed for not knowing something. In a world of Google searches, students can fact-check a professor any time. To illustrate, teachers might only post a reading passage and written response essay prompt one or two days before the class period it is due. With such shallow intentions, teachers like this at the very least deny students the opportunity to learn independently and in multiple modes. But, in addition and especially for those who need such accommodations, this “strategy” strips away the ability for students to budget their time appropriately and process things deeply. student-3176407__480And whether we like it or not, whether it is good or bad, the digital age has allowed our students to do more, have access to more information, etc. When students struggling with dyslexia and/or dysgraphia, for example, receive a 20-page article to read and a two-page response to write the day before it is due, they cannot apply the compensation strategies needed to produce quality work with such short notice. Over and over again in my work, my client says, “I’ve got to read this 25-page article for tomorrow and answer these short essay questions, but I just got the article last night. My professor just posted the questions (“prompt”) this afternoon.” And yet, for the last two years these high school clients and I have been emphasizing “working ahead” to make sure their work has depth and quality.

With such limited time and learning issues, my clients don’t know how to ask me for help now that they are in college. I try not to show my Unknown-7attitude and ask them the obvious WTF questions. Instead I focus on what each client can do and needs to do. I might read the article aloud or do a pre-reading focus session to make sure they reconstruct the meaning of the passage in a way that both facilitates retention AND answers the questions efficiently. Sometime, as painful as it is, I ask them to read the passage aloud to ME after I make myself quite familiar with the questions. Then, as they read, I stop them at each juncture that addresses a question. We brainstorm a response on a digital document, and then they keep reading. In short, I maximize the short time they are given to process large chunks of information. Except for those verbally gifted (and usually female) students who can process quickly, this treatment is academic cruelty.

What are those WTF questions?                      Unknown-8

-Why aren’t all the reading passages for the course available from the beginning? Students (busy or with learning differences) can surely budget when they will have time to read.

-Why aren’t the response questions/prompts available at the beginning of the course? That way, students can create efficient ways to reconstruct the passages they attempt and attack them with quality. If a student can (and needs to) budget her time to do work, why can’t she do it with this course?

-Do professors really believe quality reflection can come in writing that is being assigned only days before? It seems pedagogically counter-intuitive.

-Do the professors really believe that doing the work on a limited distribution timeline will make learning “better.” What about the NON-linear learners or the ones that must see the WHOLE elephant before biting off one bite at a time?

-Do the professors believe their students might sabotage the class if too many of them already know what they might be addressing in class that day merely because they have done their reading and understood it profoundly? Does this mean professors are insecure or perhaps ignorant of how to utilize student input while they teach?

-Do the professors really mistrust the students to “dig deep” and therefore make sure students do some sort of busywork to prove they have been inspired by the reading material?

Online placement of content and assignments is an efficient communication tool, and students really do benefit from doing “prep” work before coming to class.

Especially in a college environment where some of the distractions are part of the total experience and classes do not meet daily, students need the autonomy and flexibility to decide how they must study taking into account all they value:  Unknown-9social interaction, learning differences, course load, obligations and other deadlines, distractibility, interest, quality of their work, anticipated grade, and so much more. But here again, just as I have seen in many high school educators, the constant, daily work load with surprise content and even more unanticipated assignments related to that content, discourages students to gage how they should spend their time. When those students (especially those with learning challenges) underestimate the work and time assigned to them, they end up turning in poor quality work or no work at all. Teachers, then, can assess that work with poor grades and blame everything on the students. Surprising students with online assessments, reading materials and assignments strips them of any joy of learning. And, in my professional opinion, the only kinds of students who “succeed” in this scenario are those that boast superb executive functioning skills or who have been groomed to do academic work to the exclusion of everything else (nerds). I encounter so many twice exceptional students every day whoseUnknown-10 intellect shines like the sun. But, the clouds of haphazard assignments over which they have no control to organize block the rays, producing discouragement in very capable students. In addition, outwardly, professors can simply absolve Unknown-16Unknown-15themselves of any professional responsibility by merely labeling such students and their behavior “disorganized” or “lazy.”

The big picture here is that in this current era, educators are using digital information to hold students hostage instead of assessing how students learnUnknown-11 in a digital age. Just like a generation ago, the issue is control. Did controlling students by haphazard grading and assignments, along with the threat of being “graded down,” help students learn best? And, today, does releasing content and homework assignments hours before the assignment is due help students to learn best? If these control strategies continue to be “best practices” at the university and high school levels, Unknown-12they will deflect the Unknown-13professors’ responsibility and place it on the students, allowing that ever UNcollaborative chasm between the ivory tower and student learning.


The digital age, along with the elearning platforms available, hold amazing potential for all kinds of students. But, these are still the worst of times! Zero changes have occurred between 1987 and 2017. The onus of learning lies on the student only. Professors seem immune to reflection about the effectiveness of their teaching. And, to make matters worse, the current environment merely attracts a population of students more and more homogeneous in the way they learn, slowly matching the information dump, hostage-taking strategies of current age higher education models. While the academic world relishes diversity, they subversively weed out all kinds of learners by their very adherence to a pedagogy of insecurity and pressure. The hyper-organized students and the unidimensional-thinking professor will survive in the current system, but they will both miss out on the beauty and diversity of thought from other kinds of learners. These students have the ability to learn and communicate and contribute ideas to academia, ideas that have passion, compassion, insight, depth, debate, inquiry and more. The “best of times” would embrace both the diversity of student learner and the diversity of instructional strategies. Digitally efficient does not make a teaching strategy effective. Providing all students the time, opportunity and dignity to learn and communicate that learning is possible, even in a digital world.



The Race to Nowhere: University Years Parte Deux

Now that I have two children accepted into colleges of their choice, I, like many of you, have rehearsed over and over again, “Remember, you’re not trying to get into the BEST school, but instead, you want to apply to schools that are the BEST fit! I’m grateful both my children are mature enough to understand that they will have to imagesfigure out whether their choice of university is the “best fit” for them personally throughout their entire college experience. Even with such a vague definition of “best fit” for them to perform well enough in high school to be accepted into college and even with “sage” parents in the Education field, the Race to Nowhere continues the longstanding tradition all the way through college. My daughter, now a senior at Duke, writes a terrific blog (wordsofhope.com), a small part of which exposes the harsh, psychological realities of living in an environment that has no clue it is even on the treadmill, selling the treadmill, recruiting students who only know how to run the treadmill. We were talking about my former blog post about frogs (please read if you haven’t), and she dropped a bombshell… well, actually, Unknown-1it was just a pithy statement I wanted to use as inspiration for this post. She simply said, “Dad, college success is 80% documenting your past, present and future and 20% learning.” I asked her what she meant, and here are the nuggets of our conversation.

Documenting Your Past?

I didn’t understand what she meant to “document your past,” but I wanted to see into the psyche of a rising college senior who purports, like most students her age, to know it all. Hope (that’s my daughter), told me that since she’s arrived on campus, she has had to make sure she can personally document what others consider necessary for success or inclusion. She’s had to go back and get her former recommendation writers to fill out even more paper work guaranteeing that her resumé is “legit for when [she applies] to all the clubs, programs majors, etc.” She’s had to prove her interest to be included in student organizations and living situations by handing over archives and artifacts and documents and assessments of her opinions and lifestyle. She’s had to show professors and administrators her transcript containing very high grades in two UPPER-LEVEL Spanish classes from another quite prestigious and very competitive university. This was for not for admissions but for professors and administrators in order to be eligible for classes and study-abroad opportunities. Thank goodness she just happened to order several copies of the two-course transcript “just in case” or she would have missed deadlines to go to Spain. Of course, she is my first-born, and, even better, imagesan amazing progeny of my wife. She possesses everything and anything necessary to organize, locate and/or “document” important events. If she needs it, she has it… stored or saved somewhere!

Documenting Your Present?

What? At college, aren’t we by default documenting everything we do? According to my daughter…. NO! In order to be “successful” in today’s “competitive” academic institutions, it is no longer enough to be there “just to learn.” Everything one does on the campus must have a tie to some future payoff, some trajectory, some nebulous trail of completing two majors, two minors, a certificate, graduating with honors, making the Dean’s list and much, much, more. Hope provided me with amazing examples. Students document the worst professors, the hardest classes, the easiest A on campus, and much more, thanks to social media. This, in turn, informs students to take classes in strategic ways so that they can get the easiest A on campus and, hence, the highest GPA. With proper documentation, students strategically delay taking the “harder course that makes one work for an A” and purposely matriculate in an “easier university” during the summer. Unknown-2Many universities allow such “transfer” simply because they do not offer (those strategically avoided) required core courses in the summer. “Who cares about learning and joy, I must get the highest GPA!” Scurrying for a 4.0 is like running a sprint with “record time” but with no finish line in front.

In the present, students must be savvy to organize and document any, 9b8678591b7c4a4a8de63549ef39ab33--reward-charts-for-toddlers-reward-charts-for-kidsand I mean any interaction or accomplishment or achievement they have done or are in the process of doing, in real time, because the race to nowhere throws students off the treadmill if they have not proven themselves or they cannot prove themselves in an instant. The only defense that one measures up is to have documentation of one’s personal value… and to present it to someone who values those documented credentials. So much for the joy of learning!

Documenting Your Future?

Quite similar to any institution of higher learning, the moment students secure some reputable internship or learning opportunity, they immediately push the “accelerate” button on the treadmill. They consider their achievement as helping them “stand apart”Unknown-3from other students, inflating their own egos and resumés, reinforcing the desire to keep running the Nowhere Race. Running faster means you document your future internship and then run even faster to the scholarship application process to make sure you get a reputably named scholarship to fund your travel, expenses, and in some cases, even the internship itself. You see, the scholarship is not just a way to help students financially, but it is another notch in the CV, another resumé-building activity that has no planned end to the construction. In my own sardonic perspective, students won’t wipe a dog’s nose if it doesn’t have a slot on their resumé! For AMAZING ideas to help students think about learning and their own interests, I recommend Katharine Brook’s book You Majored in What?

20% Learning?

Ultimately, Hope concluded that 20% of her time is devoted to studying, applying what she has learned, learning above and beyond what is being delivered in the classroom. Unknown-4Her study and organizational skills make her successful in that area, but, since so many are on the race to nowhere, she feels inferior with an A-! She feels helpless when she compares herself with other “runners” in the race. She loses focus and sight of what brings her joy and what she is designed to do and be! What charges her? Knowing she has something more to contribute to the world to make it a better place, to share with others and grow from a community of other altruistic heroes! What charges most Nowhere racers? Getting the prize before someone else! I can’t help but picture them running and narcissistically hogging the treadmill rails, making it harder for others to run ahead, blocking access for others to “succeed.” I really like this metaphor stuff!

Am I Whining? Isn’t This Just Competitive Academia?

Unknown-5In short, YES! I’m whining! Yes, this is the norm for anyone who needs to or wants to “get ahead.” And, yes, in many or most cases, “ahead” is enough to become another one-percenter! But, remember my son? He, too, has been accepted into an amazing institution of higher learning. And I fear for him! I truly believe it is THE BEST FIT for him! But, the apple does not fall far from the tree! My son LOVES being! Not doing…! He is present in the moments he deems important or meaningful… which are many but not necessarily traditionally academic! He applied to this university bravely revealing his true self in the application process:  academic prowess, stellar community-building skills, intellectual curiosity, independent thinking and… yes… overcoming learning differences that make it difficult to “run their (traditional) race their (traditional) way.” They graciously accepted him. He loves learning and soaks up more than the average information dump…  But, he does not document his life…! Comically, he DOES document his experiences and relationships with Snap-whatever, or Insta-thingy! But he does not behave like he is on a treadmill winning the race to nowhere! He would images-1rather make sure his friends are accompanying him, pulling them up to the front, where he will probably dwell most often merely due to his natural intellect without even knowing or caring that he is “winning.” Is this success? In the world of Race to Nowhere, turning around to help others succeed is a death sentence, a guarantee you will “get behind” or “get left behind.” Will my son have to metamorphose into something he is not merely to “succeed” at his university? He is mature enough to stay true to himself, but is he willing to document his whole life, taking him away from the things he loves and turning him into a competitive, arrogant, scheming, superficial monster? Will this university pose the same challenge/definition of success, upholding standards that don’t allow him and many others to demonstrate their learning? I’m afraid I’m the one worrying about this… which may be evidence that I am part of the problem and not part of the solution, that I want my son to “fit in” and “be successful” like everyone else. It may even mean I do not have faith that he will succeed if he doesn’t continue to go against his nature and run this pathetically exhausting and counterproductive race.

So, yes, I’m whining because I, like every parent, think my son is special. parent-clipart-proud-parents-hiHe may surprise me and jump again into Nowhere Race Training with gusto, just as he had to do for 12 years to get into a school that might bring him joy and meaning. Eighteen years old is too late to change a child or an entire system of Education. I am hoping he will rise above the dehumanizing manner in which academic environments “compete.” I am praying he will remember how to take the knowledge he learns and turn it into wisdom, compassion and servant leadership. I so want him to succeed and be self-sufficient and happy. Perhaps going to college, whether the institution espouses the Race to Nowhere or not, really is about growing up, maturing and becoming comfortable with oneself in an ever-changing society while also learning a “cultured,” predetermined curriculum prepared by an institution of higher learning.

images-2Do any of you have advice for me? Insight into how to guard ourselves and our children from losing their humanity in this crazy treadmill Race to Nowhere? I welcome your comments? I also offer you my own counsel if you so need. Together, we can learn!