This post could also be called "Earth to Professors", as it is about the different planes (spheres?) of existence of most students as compared to most professors. It is not surprising of course that there are gaps in experiences and expectations between students and professors, yet from what I've seen, students and professors alike are continually amazed at the mystifying behavior of the other. Or maybe it's just me; I don't understand many of my colleagues either.
This disconnect has many varieties, but one that I encounter when teaching an introductory course is a mismatch in perception of what is an Essential Concept that must be understood for the student to understand the world and what is a Random Fact that students have to memorize for no apparent good reason.
A week or so ago a student came to talk to me about her quiz. She pointed to one question that I had put at the very beginning as a confidence booster/at-least-I-will-get-some-points-even-if-I-can't-answer-any-other-questions kind of question. It was a question that 99% of the class got right, just not this student. I was amazed that a living human being in college could miss this question.
She said "That's a random fact that I just didn't happen to memorize. I didn't know you were going to ask us about details like that." Her "random fact" was something I consider a basic concept that most people over the age of 5 know, but I didn't want to make her feel worse than she already did. So I didn't say that. I said "Even if you consider it a 'random fact', it is something I mentioned in several classes as a basic concept and it is covered in Chapter 1 of the textbook." She said "But I didn't go to those classes and I didn't read the textbook." Oh, OK. In that case, let me give you the points back. No, I didn't say that either.
Another student who was unhappy about his quiz came to talk to me. He pointed to a question he got completely wrong and for which he received no points and said "I read the question wrong, but for the wrong way that I read it, I gave the right answer. I think I should get some points for that." I looked at the question, which contained 6 words, and asked him how he had (mis)read it. He said "I didn't see that word" (points to the one noun in the sentence). In fact, he was right that if you substitute a completely different and unrelated noun for the real noun, you could possibly explain his bizarre answer. I didn't think it reasonable to give points for that; he didn't think it reasonable that I didn't even give him partial credit for his completely wrong answer.
A student emailed me: Hi, I missed the class today and I am thinking that I really need to know the things in this class before the exam. Please tell me when you will be giving the lecture again so that I can attend this time. your student, X
This email surprised me at first, but once I thought about it I realized that he must have taken an intro class in another department in which one person teaches multiple sections of the course. Perhaps the email reflects how the student has thus far experienced a big university, but if so, it's too bad that he hasn't encountered more professors and/or smaller classes and gained a clearer idea of how a large part of the university functions. I don't expect students to have a detailed understanding of what my professor job entails, but I'd like to think that most students know a bit more than this student seems to. I looked him up in my class list and saw that he's a senior, so he's probably not going to get a broader view before he leaves here.
These types of interaction will always happen. They remind students that professors are strange, and they remind some of us professors that we are talking to people whose experiences and points of view are very remote from our own.
Fortunately for the student, if he/she doesn't like the exam questions or how they were graded, the student can give the professor a low grade on the end-of-term evaluation. I personally think that all professors should get an A just for the effort of teaching, but I understand that we can't have teaching evaluation inflation and that it is better for the reputation of an academic institution if professors get average evaluations.
5 months ago