So students aren’t studying? — Michael K. Potter (University of Windsor)

Recently, an article from the Boston Globe, “What Happened to Studying?”  made the rounds, provoking sighs, laments and self-satisfied claims that the kids just aren’t as dedicated as they used to be.  We all know the drill.  According to the article, two researchers in California found that the number of hours students spend studying has been on the decline for fifty years – from 24 hours a week in 1961 to 14 hours a week now.

Let’s leave aside the fact that we’re relying on self-report, for one.

And let’s ignore the fact that the researchers have an extraordinarily broad and unreliable conception of “studying”, encompassing everything from working on assignments to tackling books with highlighter in hand.

Let’s also forget that their study can’t help but overlook the fact that some teachers, cognizant that class time spent in lectures tends to be wasteful, have started using class time for what was once called “homework,” so that students could ask questions and receive facilitation that might help them engage more deeply.

Finally, let’s agree not to mention that there is no necessary 1:1 correlation between time spent on loosely-defined “studying” and quality or depth of learning.

Let’s focus instead on something very important that’s being overlooked here: the professor’s role.  The researchers seem to suggest that the problem might be explained by the fact that students don’t want to spend a lot of time studying and faculty are increasingly wary of challenging student desires.

Well.  This is a problem I see fairly frequently.  We tend to mistake desires and expectations for needs – as when we mistake the expectation that our courses will feature technological wizardry for a need that we need to satisfy.  Students don’t want to study?  They may need to in order to do well, and that’s something they need to learn.  If, in fact, we want students to succeed, we aren’t doing them any favours by giving in to the utterly natural phenomenon of human laziness.  This is a substitution of “niceness” for “kindness” – niceness is giving people what they want, while kindness is helping people get what they need.  Substituting niceness for kindness is disrespectful; it infantilizes people.

The Globe article indicates that new university students have poor study habits.  This may also be true.  My own son, for instance, has never had to spend much time studying, or doing homework, or even thinking about school while at home.  For the most part, I consider this a blessing.  But he will find as he goes out into the world that life calls, at times, for periods of intense concentration, focus, devotion – analogous to “studying”.  And if he hasn’t developed the habits to push through such periods successfully, he’s likely to fail.  Regardless of whatever purpose studying might serve vis-a-vis the learning at hand, it can provide the means for the development of pragmatically valuable habits.

Who am I to talk?  I had no idea how to study when I entered university, since I had never spent a minute studying; most of the time I didn’t even know what homework we’d been assigned.  In the first year of the first semester of my undergraduate degree, however, I discovered that my program did not permit any coasting.  I flunked a few courses and was forced to learn, through painful and humiliating failure, how to complete assignments on time, read closely, re-organize ideas to make them easier to understand – all included in what these researchers call “studying’.  It was a tough year.

The researchers offer the possibility that students might have trouble studying because the relationship between student and professor is more distant, more alienated, than it once was.  There seems to be an unwritten bargain between these parties, in which each agrees not to expect too much from the other, so all can slouch toward the horizon together – a “non-aggression pact” in which easy grades are exchanged for positive course evaluations.  This certainly is consistent with the claim that professors don’t like to challenge students, but clearly it is not true of all professors and students, some of whom take their roles quite seriously.  It also doesn’t explain frequent findings that students’ perceptions of a course’s level of difficulty are not correlated with the scores they give in course evaluations, despite common assumptions to the contrary.

So be it.  The relationship between student and professor is indeed important, but it must be a relationship built on a secure foundation of high standards and clear expectations.  Tell your students up front what will be expected of them in your course, and how much time you believe is reasonable to spend on it – keeping in mind the fact that they have other courses, other responsibilities, and that as living organisms they need to eat, sleep, and occasionally relax.  And tell them, in all seriousness, that if they believe those expectations are unreasonable, they should probably find a course that suits them better.  That’s showing them the respect they deserve as intelligent, responsible, mature human beings.

Michael K. Potter is Teaching and Learning Specialist at the University of Windsor’s Centre for Teaching and Learning. Visit his blog at


The Centre for Teaching Excellence welcomes contributions to its blog. If you are a faculty member, staff member, or student at the University of Waterloo (or beyond!) and would like contribute a posting about some aspect of teaching or learning, please contact Mark Morton or Trevor Holmes.

Leave a Reply