March 5, 2013

An “A” for Effort?

by M. Ellen Tsay, PharmD, Clinical Toxicology Fellow, University of Maryland, School of Pharmacy

I have been in school for approximately 21 continuous years.  Now that I am on the “other side” I have had a few opportunities to teach pharmacy students. Teaching has many joys but there are challenges too, such as when students question their grades because they believe they deserved something better.

There have been anecdotal reports of a rise in “academic entitlement” among students in the Millennial generation.  These reports describe students who appear to lack a sense of personal responsibility for one’s own education, a rise in rude behavior, a decline in academic performance, and student expectations that grades should based on effort rather than quality.1,2,3

What exactly is this “academic entitlement?” This phenomenon appears to be rooted in certain beliefs:1
1.   Knowledge is a right.
2.   The instructor is the primary source of material/guidance.
3.   The instructor is responsible for the student’s success or failure.
4.   All students should receive equal recognition.
5.   Action should be taken by the instructor and/or administration if expectations are not met.

What is contributing to the rise of these attitudes among students? Some blame consumeristic views, pervasive in our culture, being increasingly applied to education.  If students are paying for their education, they should be viewed as customers who have a right to receive satisfaction and quality service. In pharmacy education, the increased number of pharmacy schools (especially for-profit institutions) may potentially fuel this consumeristic view of education.1 Other factors that may be contributing to academic entitlement include grade inflation and changes in teaching practices.1,4,5  With the increase in communication facilitated by technological advances, instructors are now more “available.” As convenient and useful this type of communication may be, it may foster expectations of rapid response for all communication. Further, anonymous evaluations may indirectly shift the instructor’s teaching behavior in order to receive favorable ratings from students.

Are these anecdotal reports backed by data? Perhaps today’s young people are more entitled due to a greater prevalence of narcissism and self-enhancement (e.g. a discrepancy between self-perceived ability to actual ability). Investigators compared the mean Narcissistic Personality Inventory (NPI) scores of students at the University of California Davis and Berkley from 1979-1985,  1996, and 2002-2007. In addition the investigators looked at how the sentiments of personal intelligence of students at the University of California between 2003-2007 compared with their SAT scores and college GPA’s. This discrepancy was then compared to data from the Monitoring the Future project, where high school students (since 1976) were asked to rate their intelligence compared to their peers, which was then compared to high school grades. There was no observable increase in NPI scores in college students from the 1980s to 2000s or changes in self-enhancement.6  However, when looking at subscales of the NPI, specifically scores related to entitlement, exploitiveness, and self-sufficiency, there have been significant increases over time.

However, the concept of academic entitlement may be more complex than simply narcissistic tendencies. Students enrolled in a public university were asked to complete a series of questions (including a newly developed scale assessing academic entitlement) in order to delineate key contributors to this phenomenon. What investigators found was that exploitive attitudes correlated strongly to students who were considered to be academically entitled.5 Many students have a tendency to expect special treatment without consideration for the circumstances or situation.  Moreover, 66.2% of the participants in this study felt that effort should be taken into consideration when determining the final grade. Academically entitled students tend to have lower self-esteem, display more achievement anxiety, and are driven more by extrinsic rewards.5   This type of student may work to earn a good grade but have little interest in mastering the material.

How should educators of today handle academically entitled students? Stephen Lippmann, an assistant professor in sociology at Miami University, gives educators other suggestions in how to handle academically entitled students in the classroom.4  For starters, clear and explicit objectives should be set before any lesson is given. Instructional design models should also be utilized when planning out a lesson in order to ensure effective (and efficient) teaching.  In addition:
  • Post anonymous examples of quality work to students. The posting of “quality work” will not only help to address the issue of low self esteem, but will make example of what sort of work an instructor is looking for.
  • Require students to submit any complaints/concerns in writing before meeting with an instructor. If a student writes out their complaint or concern prior to a meeting with an instructor, both parties can effectively prepare ways to address the situation before coming to a solution.
  • Any grade negotiation should include a re-evaluation and therefore the possibility of a lower grade. Some students may feel they have “nothing to lose” when negotiating grades with professors. However, if the possibility of losing points is at stake, students will be forced to self-reflect first.
  •  Reframe the classroom dynamic. Lippmann encourages instructors to make clear their teaching (and learning) philosophy to students at the beginning of the course. It should also be made clear to the students they are responsible for their own learning, and therefore the classroom dynamic should be shifted away from a teacher demand-student compliance model.

Academic entitlement likely reflects underlying beliefs about the roles and responsibilities of teachers and students.  Educators should reflect on their personal teaching philosophies and may need to adapt their teaching styles in order to keep up with changing attitudes in education.

1. Cain J, Romanelli F, Smith KM. Academic Entitlement in Pharmacy Education. Am J Pharm Educ 2012 ;76: Article 189.

2. Clift E. From Students, a Misplaced Sense of Entitlement. Washington, D.C.: The Chronicle of Higher Education; 2011 March 11. [Cited 2013 Feb 14].

3. Roosevelt M. Student Expectations Seen as Causing Grade Disputes [Internet]. New York: The New York Times; 2009 Feb 17. [Cited 2013 Feb 14].

4. Lippmann S, Bulanda RE, Wagenaar TC. Student Entitlement. College Teaching 2009;57:197-204. 

5. Greenberger E, Lessard J, Chen C, Farruggia SP. Self-entitled College Students” Contributions of Personality, Parenting, and Motivational Factors. J Youth Adolescence 2008;37:1193-1204.

6. Trzesniewski KH, Donnellan MB, Robins RW. Do Today’s Young People Really Think They Are So Extraordinary?. Psychol Sci 2008;19:181-188.

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