Why Students Are (Partially) To Blame

In keeping with the topic of my frustrations with the current general education system, I want to analyze who is at fault here: students who generally pick classes based on how easy they are rather than how interested they are in the subject or the colleges that mandate these thorough requirements.

This post will focus on how students deserve part of the blame for this modern academic annoyance. Next week, I will focus on the university side and hopefully arrive at a conclusion.

To clarify, one of the things that excited me about coming to Penn State was the breadth of courses available to me and the say I had on what I studied in my four years here. However, that power of choice has gotten the best of me as well as many other students, I imagine.

With the opportunity to decide how I fulfill the College of Liberal Arts’ demanding requirements, I have been able to learn about interesting topics that have educated me about our world with classes like COMM 150 (Art of Cinema) and GEOG 20 (Human Geography). However, I have also found myself taking other classes that I chose as an easy way to fulfill requirements without much motivation beyond maintaining my GPA.

That extrinsic motivation focused on the grade rather than genuine interest or my usual love of learning has made it hard for me to approach the work in those classes with enthusiasm. In psychology, too much extrinsic motivation ends up making tasks usually driven by internal motivation seem less fun and enjoyable. This effect is known as overjustification, where you lose sight of why you truly do things.

It’s an effect that is commonly observed in people who receive compensation for doing something that they love such as art, music, or a sport as well as in lab settings. I believe that it can also apply to students too, although not too much research has been devoted to its impact on them yet.

In my psychology classes for instance, I actually enjoy reading the textbook so learning becomes exciting since I am so interested. I still care about the grade a lot but that isn’t what I’m thinking about when I’m doing a reading. And I think that makes a big difference.

An article on Psychology Today described the implications of this achievement-driven mentality as de-motivating, and de-moralizing, those students” and “convincing them that the main motive for learning are high grades and honors.” The article analyzes all the way that this system deprives students of truly learning and the world of all the benefits that come from them being encouraged to go above and beyond in mastering their studies.

I didn’t choose to take COMM 150 because I read that it was easy. In fact, I blindly chose it based on the course description at my orientation without the aid of RateMyProfessor.com. As you move deeper into your major with demanding 400-level classes or even while fulfilling Schreyer and Paterno Fellows honors and grade requirements, you’ll probably feel the urge to go with easy gen eds to make your life more bearable. That urge is very real and is pretty rational. After all, who would want to take organic chemistry voluntarily when you could take something like Energy, Earth, and the Environment or Earthquakes and Society instead?

Being so hung up on the grades rather than actual knowledge is something that Harvard professor Dean Briggs described in that article as being a mark fiend, someone who never really learns because he or she is too focused on padding his or her grades. A fellow Harvard administrator was quoted in the article as calling this education system “an empty game of score maximization.”

All of this focusing on grades and a course’s lack of difficulty is truly that; it kills the whole essence of learning and turns students from learners to test takers and that’s how college becomes a waste of money.

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