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New insights on characteristics of US college students

“Coming of age in the deepest recession in 70 years, yet eager for the economic opportunities their parents enjoyed. In a hurry to be grownups, but more dependent on the adults around them than any modern generation. Global citizens in theory, but ignorant of other cultures. Always in touch, but hampered in face-to-face communication. And perhaps most importantly, digital natives, but maneuvering in a still-largely-analog world.”

Observations from Inside Higher Ed on a review of Levine’s latest book

Dr Arthur Levine, president of the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation and former president of Teachers College at Columbia University, has been exploring the psyche of college students for the past 40 years. His latest book, “Generation on a Tightrope: A Portrait of Today’s College Student,” written with Diane R. Dean, covers 2006 to 2011, distilling information from surveys and interviews with both undergraduates and student affairs officials at 31 campuses across the US.

Below we share comments from a New York Times interview with Dr Levine last month as well as a few other observations, additional research results, insights and advice on today’s youth.

Life-defining moments

When asked about the key event in their lives, students said (in this order):

  1. the advent of digital culture
  2. the economic downtown
  3. 9/11
  4. the election of President Obama

On the subject of today’s digital revolution, Levine further explained, “It seems likely that we’re about to confront accelerating and deeper change than we’ve gone through so far.”

Yet millenials are not necessarily well-positioned to deal with an environment in a constant state of change, he says, given their lack of independence, the fact that they are largely “rules-followers at a time when rules are changing,” and their relative ignorance about the rest of the world.

“Taken as a whole… the research indicates that these students will not be prepared for the world they will enter,” Dean says, and it falls to parents, institutions and others to “make adjustments to better-mold coming generations.”

Characteristics of this generation of college students

According to the authors, today’s youth are much more pragmatic.

They say their primary reason for going to college is to get training and skills that will lead to a job, and let them make money.

They’re willing to have a major they’re not really interested in if they think there will be job growth in that field. They’re much less likely than their predecessors to say they’re in college to develop their personal values, or learn to get along with different people.

They deal with diversity better than any generation before them. Also, this generation is very optimistic about their personal futures but almost equally pessimistic about the future of the country.

And they have a great fear of failure. This is a generation that was not allowed to skin their knees. They got awards and applause for everything they did, even if it was being the most improved, or the best trombone player born on 5 April. So it makes sense that they think very highly of their abilities, and expect to go on getting awards and applause.

The grade inflation on college campuses plays into that. Two out of five students have a grade-point average (GPA) of A- or better, almost six times as many as in 1969, and 60% of them nonetheless say their grades understate the true quality of their work. Only 5% have a GPA of C or less, even though almost half have had to take remedial courses.

These observations come in light of the now-famous graduation speech from English teacher David McCullough to the graduating class of Wellesley High School (located in a well-to-do town in Massachusetts, USA), which hit the media waves in early June. In what has been dubbed the “You’re not special” speech, McCullough says what many have feared to tell young aspiring minds for decades: get over yourself.

McCullough goes on to explain that experiences have become diluted to nothing more than bragging rights:

“We have of late, we Americans, to our detriment, come to love accolades more than genuine achievement. We have come to see them as the point — and we’re happy to compromise standards, or ignore reality, if we suspect that’s the quickest way, or only way, to have something to put on the mantelpiece, something to pose with, crow about, something with which to leverage ourselves into a better spot on the social totem pole. No longer is it how you play the game, no longer is it even whether you win or lose, or learn or grow, or enjoy yourself doing it… Now it’s ‘So what does this get me?'”

Parent-child relationships

Kids now talk with their parents about their sex lives, their drugs and drinking, their classes, their social uncertainties, every aspect of their lives. And students who say they have heroes usually name their parents as their heroes.

One in five college kids in the US are in touch with their parents three or more times a day, and 41% are in touch every day.

That is reflective of a dependence on parents and other adults that leaves many of them under-prepared to enter the world on their own, and leaves many college deans and other officials telling the authors that “the biggest change on campus since 2001 is parent involvement – and sometimes intrusion – on campus.”

Student affairs officials regaled Levine with amazing stories such as a mom who called 15 times in a single afternoon, all the way up to the president, when her son had trouble with his wireless connection. One mother called to report that her daughter was caught in an elevator; the daughter never called the elevator service people, whose number was posted in the elevator. Another mother complained that the college, in assigning roommates, should match the parents as well “to make sure the other mother is of the same culture I am so we can support each other.” One student came in for a heart to heart about whether to join a fraternity and, at the end, whipped out his cellphone, and said, “Now tell my mom.” And one mother whose son had a dispute with another student called the college to ask how it would be handled. When told that the dean of students’ office would contact the boy to arrange a meeting, the mother responded that her son was too busy to meet with the dean’s office, but “she would do so on his behalf.”

Relationship building

This generation is not very good at face-to-face relationships. The image that comes to mind is two students, sitting in the room they share, angrily texting each other, but not talking. They all want to have intimate relationships, they want to get married and have kids, but that’s hard to do if you don’t know how to talk with another person.

Just under half of freshmen said they’d been on a date. Relationships often begin with two people meeting at a party and hooking up. Then the next day they check each other out on Facebook, and if they like what they see they might send a message saying they’re going to a party the next night — but not inviting the other person. And if they both show up, and hook up again, that might go on for a while, and then they’d consider posting on Facebook that they were in a relationship.

Technology defines so many things about them, Levine and Dean write, for good and bad. They are extremely connected, and yet isolated; while they are “in 24/7 contact with a tribe of friends, family and acquaintances via social media, they are more alone in many of the activities they pursue,” with only a third of undergraduates reporting that they attend college social and community events at least once a month. This connectedness/isolation contradiction makes them “weak in interpersonal skills, face-to-face communication skills, and problem-solving skills.”

How technology is changing student’s learning behaviour

Meanwhile, The New York Times had a separate article reviewing the findings from two reports on how technology is changing student’s learning behaviour. One was conducted by the Pew Internet Project, a division of the Pew Research Center that focuses on technology-related research. The other comes from Common Sense Media, a nonprofit organisation in San Francisco that advises parents on media use by children. It was conducted by Vicky Rideout, a researcher who has previously shown that media use among children and teenagers ages 8 to 18 has grown so fast that they on average spend twice as much time with screens each year as they spend in school.

In the Pew survey, which was done in conjunction with the College Board and the National Writing Project, nearly 90% of 2,462 teachers surveyed said that digital technologies were creating “an easily distracted generation with short attention spans.” Teachers who were not involved in the surveys echoed their findings in interviews, saying they felt they had to work harder to capture and hold students’ attention.

Similarly, of the 685 teachers surveyed in the Common Sense project, 71% said they thought technology was hurting attention span “somewhat” or “a lot.” About 60% said it hindered students’ ability to write and communicate face to face, and almost half said it hurt critical thinking and their ability to do homework.

Scholars who study the role of media in society say no long-term studies have been done that adequately show how and if student attention span has changed because of the use of digital technology. But there is mounting indirect evidence that constant use of technology can affect behaviour, particularly in developing brains, because of heavy stimulation and rapid shifts in attention.

But the surveys also found that many teachers said technology could be a useful educational tool. In the Pew survey, roughly 75% of teachers surveyed said that the Internet and search engines had a “mostly positive” impact on student research skills. And they said such tools had made students more self-sufficient researchers.

Yet contradictions strike again. Teachers said students had good research skills but then in interviews, they described what might be called a “Wikipedia problem,” in which students have grown so accustomed to getting quick answers with a few keystrokes that they are more likely to give up when an easy answer eludes them. The Pew research found that 76% of teachers believed students had been conditioned by the Internet to find quick answers.

Practical advice

In looking at these reports as well as Levine’s new book, it does appear that we are dealing with a generation defined by contradictions. Luckily, the authors offer several recommendations that educational institutions might take to deal with the discordant traits of their students, including:

  • Focusing on developing critical thinking skills, creativity, and continuous learning, which students will need to deal with the fast-changing nature of knowledge and technology in their careers and lives.
  • Changing how they educate the digital natives – “employing calendars, locations, pedagogies, and learning materials consistent with the ways our students learn most effectively…. Brick campuses will emphasise enriching, expediting, expanding and supplementing face-to-face education with enhanced instruction and expanded services and resources that enlarge the scope and reach of the campus. At click campuses, technology is the primary means by which instruction, services and resources are provided. Institutions choosing to be brick will need to be more brick than ever before if they are to attract students given the wealth of cheaper alternatives available.”
  • Introduce “practical minors, internships, and put career counseling on steroids.” Institutions have more than a societal obligation to try to better-prepare students for their later lives, Levine says; self-interest is in play, too. “Colleges that continue to operate in an analog way with digital students are in danger of becoming an anachronism,” he says. “They need to remain relevant in a new kind of world.”

For more insights on youth trends, please see…

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