A Sense of Entitlement

Posted on by Brooke Lester

Is it "a sense of entitlement" if students are actually entitled to it? To what are learners in fact entitled?

A recent Language Log post tracks the meaning of the word "entitlement" over time. I was surprised to see how early it acquired negative connotations. Originally meaning something to which a person is legitimately entitled (think of going to college on the GI bill, for example), it came quickly to be used in contexts where a person believes they are entitled to something on which they actually have no legitimate claim. The string, "…sense of entitlement…" is common.

You hear a lot in higher ed these days about the "sense of entitlement" among students, and this does point to a genuine problem. Grade inflation is real, as is a consumer mentality around education: you hear sentiments like "I pay the teacher's salary, so they have to do x for me," where x = "respect my learning style," "cut me a break because of my full-time job," "avoid offending me." (Side point: an instructor is no more employed by her learners than a waiter is employed by the guy ordering a steak.)

But are learners entitled to nothing? I'll offer today two things to which a learner is, in my view, entitled: Clarity regarding time commitments, and clarity regarding assessments.

Time commitments: A learner is entitled to know how many hours the course work is designed to take. Many of my students work long hours (usually in a church), and frankly, should either be working fewer hours or taking fewer classes ("But my scholarship requires…"). It's a real systemic problem in need of address. At the same time, we all know that being squeezed from both sides is the human condition: it's how you develop muscle, and learning to "push back" against one's employer is a survival skill.

I often say,

Here is the difference between me and your church employer. The church will never tell you it has "enough" of your time. It will always want more. Me, I will design my course in such a way that its time requirements are predictable: about so many hours of reading, about so many hours of activities. If you are spending (say) 6-8 hours each week, outside of class, on this 3-credit course, and not getting the results you want, then come see me. I won't simply say, "spend more time." I'll first work with you to help you make the most of that 6-8 hours.

Some students will, in fact, need to put in more time than others, especially if language is an issue, or they have a poor background in reading. Maybe some can only achieve sub-"A" work in the time that they have. But again, if they put in the time, they are entitled to my help on getting the most out of that time.

(Side note to instructors: do you know how many words are in your assigned readings? Do you know what reading rates are typical for your learners?)

Assessments: A learner who attempts to "meet the bar" of expectations is entitled to know where the bars are set. I am a convert to rubrics, and have all the fanaticism of a convert. No matter how carefully I try to write my expectations into paragraphs of prose, it's not enough. The fact is, I do have, in my head, 1) a list of things that I am assessing in an assignment, and 2) a mental picture of what "not good enough," "good enough," and "more than good enough" looks like for each of those things I am looking for. The learners deserve to have access to that "mental map," taken out of my head and spelled out visibly on paper. Here is an example of my assessment rubrics: the assignment is peer review. (Imagine the learners have written a draft of a paper, and are to review one another's drafts; they are graded on their peer reviews, so this is the rubric for that review.)

What challenges have I overlooked regarding time commitments and assessments? To what else, in your view, are learners "entitled"? How do you view student "entitlements"?

[A Sense of Entitlement was written by G. Brooke Lester for and was originally posted on 2012/10/08. Except as noted, it is © 2012 G. Brooke Lester and licensed for re-use only under CC BY-NC-ND 3.0.]