Media interpretations of the recent report on The American Freshman: National Norms 2010 are, perhaps not surprisingly, incoherent. Depending on which headline you read, 1st year students are either experiencing A RECORD LEVEL OF STRESS (The New York Times, among others) or are confident and ambitious (The Chronicle of Higher Education: "Economy Changed Freshmen's Plans but Didn't Shake Their Confidence").
Of course, you don't have to choose which one to believe; I believe them both. Anyone can have confidence in their knowledge and abilities and yet be anxious about various things (the future being only one of many possibilities). You could find similar results whether polling 1st year students or nth year doctoral students.
But that's not what interested me about this report and its media interpretations. I was intrigued by this, as reported in the NYT article:
In addition, Professor Sax has explored the role of the faculty in college students’ emotional health, and found that interactions with faculty members were particularly salient for women. Negative interactions had a greater impact on their mental health.
“Women’s sense of emotional well-being was more closely tied to how they felt the faculty treated them,” she said. “It wasn’t so much the level of contact as whether they felt they were being taken seriously by the professor. If not, it was more detrimental to women than to men.”
She added: “And while men who challenged their professor’s ideas in class had a decline in stress, for women it was associated with a decline in well-being.”
The article ends there, leaving me with quite a few questions. Alas, I have only read the official press release and the report summary, and gazed at the 43-slide presentation, but I did not purchase the report to read in full. The summary materials don't enlighten me more about the topic raised by the excerpt above, so I can only blog-muse about it.
My main question is: What is meant by "challenged their professor's ideas in class"? This sounds like it involves more than just asking a critical question or even pointing out an error. Does it involve more than just disagreeing?
Is being "challenged" by a student in class about ideas more likely to be a humanities or social sciences kind of thing than a science thing? I can think of ways in which students could "challenge" a professor's ideas in a science class -- e.g., if a student's religious beliefs about (against) evolution contradicted what was taught in a biology class -- but it's harder to think of examples for many science classes (the ones I teach, anyway). Even in upper level classes where I can expect students to have a pretty good base of knowledge, students are more likely to ask questions out of confusion or curiosity than to disagree with me (and my ideas) about a Science topic.
According to the vague excerpt above, our response to students is the key to having a positive interaction with a student, male or female. It seems obvious to say that we should all try to be respectful, even when our ideas are being challenged in class, but I suspect there are some gray areas in terms of whether a student would perceive that they are being taken seriously or shot down.
As a professor, I have, of course, been challenged by students about their grades, but rarely about "ideas in class", so I'd be interested to hear about the experiences of readers (professors or students).
Writing about this has dislodged an incident from my memory about when a (non-science) professor forced me to challenge him, causing a temporary decline in my well-being. More on that another time..