Opinion / Berlin Fang

Low expectations nurture mediocrity

By Berlin Fang (China Daily) Updated: 2013-04-01 07:48

Low expectations nurture mediocrityThirty-three students at Nanjing Normal University have submitted a petition to the university asking for the removal of their teacher Jonathan Ben-Israel, a 23 year old from Canada, who they accuse of being too strict and aggressive. In his class, students get penalized if they are late for class, play with their cellphones in class, fail to submit homework on time, or plagiarize their assignments.

It may be a little harsh to penalize students for a single instance of tardiness throughout a semester, but other than that there is nothing wrong with these requirements. Students should expect a fail grade if they plagiarize or do not submit their work on time.

If these rules were clearly explained at the start of the semester, they should have been honored by both parties, unpleasant as they may be. This is how the world works.

Ben-Israel said he didn't want to be one of those "professors who only play PowerPoint in class and outline 'key points' before a test" to make sure everyone passes. There are indeed many professors, including those in institutions with good reputations, who inflate grades to please students, as favorable ratings from students can help them secure tenure or promotion. However, students ought to realize that they are squandering their futures and their parents' money getting easy grades and a watered-down education. They should settle for nothing less than the best from the institutions they attend.

From elementary to high school, teachers and parents train students like academic Spartans, so that they can pass one test after another. They continually push children so they get into the best possible school at the next stage of learning.

But once in college students no longer have to put as much effort into their studies, and learning is not taken seriously. Shandong University recently gave warnings to 368 students whose grades were borderline and 97 students were asked to withdraw entirely from the university because their grades weren't good enough. Some of these students spent most of their time playing video games, and they couldn't care less about either their grades or the learning such grades are supposed to represent.

Such a lack of motivation may be partly attributable to the difficulty in changing majors in Chinese universities. However, the main reason is the low expectations universities communicate to students, which results in the students having even lower expectations. Many students perceive their college experience to be no more than preparation for a diploma, which they can use to get a job. For decades, there has been a culture of mediocrity, as embodied by the phrase "long live the passing grade". Some professors have become accustomed to this culture and they have lowered their expectations of students accordingly.

Most incoming college students are single children. Compared to students from the previous generation, these young people have a greater awareness of their personal rights. As a result they are generally more assertive when they feel their rights are being infringed. But abusing their assertiveness can push them over the line of decency. If a teacher is petitioned to leave because he is strict, it ought to worry other educators.

As students with different levels of competency enter colleges, giving them an education based on low expectations will frustrate the best and brightest students and fail to raise the standard of the rest. People used to believe in the wisdom that "strict masters produce talented apprentices". Having high expectations ought to be a rule for any institution of higher learning. While educators should motivate students, healthy doses of stress and high expectations are also necessary ingredients for a student's academic and personal success.

High expectations shape students through a psychological phenomenon called the Pygmalion Effect, namely the self-fulfilling prophecy that happens when expectations are communicated and accepted. Likewise, having low or no expectations leads to student mediocrity or even failure. As well as academic requirements, universities should also communicate high expectations for time management, self-discipline and other self-management strategies. College is often the last station of life where students can practice such strategies before they are really put to the test.

The author is a US-based instructional designer, literary translator and columnist writing on cross-cultural issues.

(China Daily 04/01/2013 page8)

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