the Technology Interface / Winter98

Generation X at Technical College


By

Charles R. Thomas
crthomas@tech.purdue.edu
Mechanical Engineering Technology
Purdue University

Abstract

A survey with sixty questions on Assessment and Evaluation Perspectives has been developed and administered to 111 students in Mechanical Engineering Technology. The survey itself derives from a recent interest in the basic perceived changes in recent technology students; as compared to more traditional students of the past. The survey questions were inspired by published works which characterized the current generation of students as Generation X and one work in particular which drew often outrageous and eye-opening observations regarding student attitudes, desires, and expectations. The flavor of Generation X students is characterized by appropriate quotations from source references to set the mood for the actual survey results. Survey questions along with percentages of student responses are carefully and clearly detailed. The nature of these responses may often clarify difficult or puzzling instructor-student interactions. Closure poses several, consequent thought provoking questions for college and university faculty.

 

I. Introduction

A survey with 60 questions on Assessment and Evaluation Perspectives has been developed and administered to 111 students in Mechanical Engineering Technology. The survey itself derives from a recent interest in the basic perceived changes in recent technology students; as compared to more traditional students of the past. Many of the observations made by Peter Sacks [1] in his "Generation X Goes to College" rang true with personal observations or invoked feelings of curiosity. The designation Generation X has its origins with Douglas Couplandís [2] "Generation X"; Karen Ritchie [3] in "Marketing to Generation X" stated that "I read Douglas Couplandís book Generation X. I didnít get it, but I liked the name". Couplandís characterization of Generation X may well best be expressed through his numerous page margin definitions [2] like "MCJOB: A low-pay, low dignity, low-benefit, no-future job in the service sector. Frequently considered a satisfying career choice by people who have never held one."; "BOOMER ENVY: Envy of material wealth and long-range material security accrued by older members of the baby boom generation by virtue of fortunate births"; "RECURVING: leaving one job to take another that pays less but places one back on the learning curve"; "SUCCESSOPHOBIA: The fear that if one is successful, then oneís personal needs will be forgotten and one will no longer have oneís childish needs catered to."; "STOP HISTORY"; "YOU MUST CHOOSE BETWEEN PAIN OR DRUDGERY"; " I try to imagine myself in this same job ONE YEAR from now... ...but Iím just not seeing any pictures.": and "SAFETY NET-ISM: The belief that there will always be a financial and emotional safety net to buffer lifeís hurts. Usually parents." Such characterizations clearly distinguish and set Generation X apart from past generations. The distinctions are equally startling in the educational framework.

Popular investigations into the sociology of Generation X have been made by individuals such as Geoffrey T. Holtz [4] in "Welcome to the Jungle: The Why Behind "Generation X" " where Generation X is called the Free Generation or the Freeís and Neil Howe & Bill Strauss [5] in 13 TH GEN: ABORT, RETRY, IGNORE, FAIL?" where Generation X is call the thirteenth generation or the 13ers. Exploring sociological details can be quite interesting and enlightening, but such an endeavor is realistically beyond the scope of the current study. On the other hand, carefully defining the span of Generation X and other living generations is germane. Howe and Strauss [5] split and amply discuss and define the generations as follows:

Generation

Birth years

Age on Dec. 31,1997

   

G. I.

1901-1924

73 to 96

Silent

1925-1942

55 to 72

Boom

1943-1960

37 to 54

13th(Gen. X)

1961-1981

16 to 36

Millennial

1982-?

0 to 15

The boundary years on the generations are subject to some debate, Holtz [4] places the end of Generation X at 1980 rather than 1981. The Boom generation is often called the Baby Boom or Boomer generation. Clearly, most college students are currently Generation X or 13ers while the faculty who teach them are primarily a mix of Silent Generation, Boomers, and of course their own from Generation X. One should notice that in just a few years college faculty will begin to see students from the Millennial generation.

II. Generation X at College

Peter Sacks [1] "Generation X Goes to College" should be required reading for all college and university professors. Peter Sacks [1] is the nom de plume of a journalism professor at an unnamed college in America, this anonymous pen name identity allowed him to report the truths and realities he experienced in returning from a journalism career to higher education and teaching Generation X college students without fear of administrative retribution. He quickly discovered that his aspirations, idealizations, and student expectations were totally out of synchronization with the students he actually taught. As an untenured assistant professor, his resultant student evaluations were disastrous in a system riddled with unspoken fears of job security and driven by the requirement of good student evaluation of teaching. In quoting the advice of a colleague, Sacks [1] says "He knew the secret to success - and he kept telling me how to play the game: ĎTeach to the evaluations, teach to the evaluations,í he would say, like a mantra." Sacks has a writing style that captures the essence of Generation X college students and of many colleges and universities. With the origins of being a joke, Sacks [1] delves into a pandering to students "sandbox experiment" which caters to the low expectations of his students and his role as a master of hand-holding and spoon-feeding; this experiment resulted in unbelievable success in the form of outstanding student evaluations and eventual achievement of tenure.

Just how outrageous are some of the observations in Sacks [1]? A small sampling of his statements seems appropriate. Regarding a discussion with an acquaintance, Sacks [1] said " 'Kids? These aren't kids I'm talking about.''ÖI later realized that this acquaintance had adopted the same attitude towards students as had many teachers and administrators. To the extent that many twenty-year-olds were behaving like immature children, we overly nurturing adults have let them get away with it. We were at fault as much as the students - a fact that became all too clear to me as time went on." Looking at reading, Sacks [1] noted "But the complaints I routinely received from students on the supposed difficulty of the readings really threw me off balance. One young woman who sat at the front of the class said "These books are too hard.' ". In discussing the generation change with a friend, Sacks' [1] friend said "Over the past four or five years some of our students are less prepared, have more of a sense of entitlement, and they're not very deferential. Some are outright hustlers and try to brow-beat professors into giving good grades." Sacks [1] has some words worth considering regarding instructor evaluation, "Öit's that state of nirvana called tenure for which people at small teaching-oriented institutions such as mine were also willing to jump through hoop after hoop. Not the least of these hoops was allowing students to anonymously evaluate instructors, irrespective of whether students were in a position to know good teaching from bad." One of Sacks' student's [1] made the evaluation comment on grading "This may be just my opinion, but to me, the instructor expected far too much." Of Amanda, one of Sacks" students, he [1] states "Amanda was hooked on hand-holding. If the system and its success model of education wanted to hold students' hands, spoon-feed them information, and bend over backwards to ensure their success, neither Amanda nor scores like her were going to argue. In Amanda's world, there was little learning and a lot of game-playing going on."

As a comment on the sandbox experiment, Sacks [1] said "To be sure, I probably cultivated their group identity because it was my intention to promote Sanboxdom, and I had the students work in groups as much as possible ( I would later discover that while I cynically called this method the Sandbox, other college instructors were using such group work extensively and enthusiastically, and calling it 'critical thinking,' one of the educational establishment's newest fads and buzz words.)". In response to a Big Committee (University Promotions committee) member's question regarding compromising of his standards, Sacks [1] recounts his reply as "Basically, I told them that whether one compromises standards all depends on where your students are coming from. I said that I had 'adjusted' the level of my course to meet the students 'abilities and needs.' ". and reflect on his response "Having been at The College for several terms, talking to other instructors and also many students, I knew that compromising standards in order to accommodate students had become a way of life at the institution. Everyone knew it, but nobody would ever publicly admit it. I could almost see the subtle winks and nods from the committee members as I was talking." One of Sacks' students, Marsha [1], comments "If society doesn't look up to teachers, why should the students? That's why students might question teachers' opinions and the grading system. 'You're just a teacher.'" Regarding entertainment, Sacks [1] notes "For obvious reasons, elementary, junior high, and high schools have been far quicker to adapt the amusement culture to the educational setting than has higher education. ÖBut primary education, having pandered to children's desires for amusement has created a generation of twentysomethings who now expect the same treatment at colleges and universities." When challenging students to think and explore alternatives, Sacks [1] noted that "'Who cares?' seemed to be the collective response. But what was most disturbing for me was that they seemed proud of their ignorance."

If these few of Peter Sacks' observations and comments have captured your attention, read the book "Generation X Goes to College" for the full story! Sacks [1] observations and conclusions are eye-openers and held true at his home liberal arts college and with the select students that he so characteristically cites, but are they more globally true at other universities and in more technical disciplines? The current survey answers this question with specific technical student responses at Purdue University.

III. Survey Specifics

The survey was administered to 111 students enrolled in the Mechanical Engineering Technology Program at the West Lafayette Campus of Purdue University. Students were specifically enrolled in the courses Applied Statics, Machine Elements, and Applications of Machine Elements. Student composition by classification included: 4% Freshman (1 & 2 Classification), 38% Sophomore ( 3 & 4 Classification), 34% Junior (5 & 6 Classification), and 24% Senior (7 & 8 Classification). Most of the 60 survey questions were quite frankly inspired by statements found in Sacks [1]; these statements include his own words, statements attributed to his colleagues, student statements, and comments related to works that he cited. The current survey results frequently re-assert the importance, validity and significance of select aspects of the overall account rendered in Sacks [1].

Raw survey data was coded into an Excel Spreadsheet and currently reported percentages were consequently spreadsheet generated. Some students omitted one or more response items in answering the survey questions. Percentages cited herein for each question are based on the actual responses to that question. Each survey question had the five response choices Strongly Agree, Agree, Undecided, Disagree, and Strongly Disagree. To allow for a clearer understanding of the reported results, Strongly Agree along with Agree and Disagree along with Strongly Disagree were grouped into respective Agree and Disagree categories with the more detailed results reported in brackets. Thus a question with a 20% response in each of the five categories would be reported as 40% Agree (20% Strongly Agree and 20% Agree), 20% Undecided, and 40% Disagree (20% Disagree and20% Strongly Disagree).

IV. Student Survey Responses

Question 1: Most of the good teachers I have had taught in grades 1 through 12 rather than at college; 33% Agree (6% Strongly Agree and 27% Agree), 33% Undecided, and 34% Disagree (28% Disagree and 6% Strongly Disagree). Question 2: An exam review session focusing on probable exam questions is an important course feature; 95% Agree (64% Strongly Agree and 31% Agree), 4% Undecided, and 1% Disagree (1% Disagree and 0% Strongly Disagree). Question 3: Class attendance should count for a substantial part of course grades; 60% Agree (27% Strongly Agree and 33% Agree), 16% Undecided, and 24% Disagree (16% Disagree and 8% Strongly Disagree). Question 4: Frequent quizzes covering the text reading and counting for a reasonable final grade percentage are necessary in most courses; 44% Agree (8% Strongly Agree and 36% Agree), 22% Undecided, and 34% Disagree (31% Disagree and 3% Strongly Disagree). Question 5: Instructors should generally ignore student rudeness in college courses; 10% Agree (4% Strongly Agree and 6% Agree), 18% Undecided, and 72% Disagree (43% Disagree and 29% Strongly Disagree).

Question 6: Bonuses and penalties are the best way to get college students to work in a course; 38% Agree (7% Strongly Agree and 31% Agree), 28% Undecided, and 34% disagree (24% Disagree and 10% Strongly Disagree). Question 7: Faculty need to make many accommodations to assure happy students; 42% Agree (4% Strongly Agree and 38% Agree), 34% Undecided, and 24% Disagree (22% Disagree and 2% Strongly Disagree). Question 8: A good faculty member is very nurturing; 54% Agree (12% Strongly Agree and 42% Agree), 29% Undecided, and 17% Disagree (16% Disagree and 1% Strongly Disagree). Question 9: Learning at college is far less important than getting good grades; 25% Agree (11% Strongly Agree and 14% Agree), 13% Undecided, and 62% Disagree (39% Disagree, and 23% Strongly Disagree). Question 10: Many college textbooks are simply too hard for students; 30% Agree (4% Strongly Agree and 26% Agree), 31% Undecided, and 39% Disagree (36% Disagree and 3% Strongly Disagree).

Question 11: Class participation should form an important percentage of course grades; 39% Agree (8% Strongly Agree and 31% Agree), 25% Undecided, and 36% Disagree (31% Disagree and 5% Strongly Disagree). Question 12: Once admitted to college, students are entitled to good grades and a college degree; 19% Agree (6% Strongly Agree and 13% Agree), 9% Undecided, and 72 % Disagree (43% Disagree, and 29% Strongly Disagree). Question 13: A good college teacher is demanding; 70% Agree (8% Strongly Agree and 62% Agree), 15% Undecided, and 15% Disagree (13% Disagree, and 2% Strongly Disagree) Question 14: College grades should be negotiable and/or easily changed; 25 % Agree (3% Strongly Agree and 22% Agree), 37% Undecided, and 38% Disagree (35% Disagree and 3% Strongly Disagree). Question 15: Being at work is often more important than attending classes; 16 % Agree (8% Strongly Agree and 8% Agree), 24% Undecided, and 60 % Disagree (41% Disagree, and 19% Strongly Disagree).

Question 16: A good college teacher is highly entertaining; 56% Agree (8% Strongly Agree and 48% Agree), 27% Undecided, and 17% Disagree (16% Disagree and 1% Strongly Disagree). Question 17: Verbal excuses should be sufficient to receive legitimate excused absences from class; 38% Agree (8% Strongly Agree and 30% Agree), 33% Undecided, and 29% Disagree (24% Disagree, and 5% Strongly Disagree). Question 18: The "B" grade should be the average for most college work; 36% Agree (5% Strongly Agree and 31% Agree), 17% Undecided, and 47% Disagree (42% Disagree and 5% Strongly Disagree). Question 19: Avenues for obtaining extra credit should be made available to students who desire it; 81% Agree (30% Strongly Agree and 51% Agree), 11% Undecided, and 8% (7% Disagree and 1% Strongly Disagree). Question 20: A good college teacher is warm and friendly; 75% Agree (16% Strongly Agree and 59% Agree), 18% Undecided, and 7% Disagree (7% Disagree and 0% Strongly Disagree).

Question 21: Assignments should not be made over the weekend; 31% Agree (13% Strongly Agree and 18% Agree), 25% Undecided, and 44% Disagree (40% Disagree and 4% Strongly Disagree). Question 22: Most college courses are totally boring; 21% Agree (6% Strongly Agree and 15% Agree), 20% Undecided, 59% Disagree (51% Disagree and 8% Strongly Disagree). Question 23: Students are consumers and customers so instructors are responsible to assure that they learn; 60% Agree (14% Strongly Agree and 46% Agree), 13% Undecided, and 27% Disagree (23% Disagree and 4% Strongly Disagree). Question 24: I feel that my high school education properly prepared me for the challenges I now face in college; 50% Agree (13% Strongly Agree and 37% Agree), 9% Undecided, and 41% Disagree (22% Disagree and 19% Strongly Disagree). Question 25: A good college teacher is challenging to students; 83 % Agree (12% Strongly Agree and 71% Agree), 14% Undecided, and 3% Disagree (3% Disagree and 0% Strongly Disagree).

Question 26: Courtesy towards college professors is simply not necessary; 3% Agree (1% Strongly Agree and 2% Agree), 7% Undecided, and 90% Disagree (51% Disagree and 39% Strongly Disagree). Question 27: Since grade assignment is not anonymous, student evaluations should not be anonymous; 21% Agree (6% Strongly Agree 15% Agree), 31% Undecided, and 48% Disagree (25% Disagree and 23% Strongly Disagree). Question 28: Regardless of level of student preparation, faculty should maximize the learning of all students; 61% Agree (10% Strongly Agree and 51% Agree), 21% Undecided, and 18% Disagree (17% Disagree and 1% Strongly Disagree). Question 29: A good college teacher accommodates individual student abilities and learning styles; 67% Agree (13% Strongly Agree and 54% Agree), 21% Undecided, and 12% Disagree (12% Disagree and 0% Strongly Disagree). Question 30: Trust no one; 34% Agree (16% Strongly Agree and 18% Agree), 15% Undecided, and 51% Disagree (32% Disagree and 19% Strongly Disagree).

Question 31: Grades should be based primarily on how much a student improves relative to where he started rather than course performance and knowledge; 22% Agree (5% Strongly Agree and 17% Agree), 37% Undecided, and 41% Disagree (33% Disagree and 8% Strongly Disagree). Question 32: The average college student should study for classes at least five hours per day; 24% Agree (3% Strongly Agree and 21% Agree), 33% Undecided, and 43% Disagree (28% Disagree and 15% Strongly Disagree). Question 33: College achievement should be assured because of student basic rights and entitlement to success; 17% Agree (2% Strongly Agree and 15% Agree), 26% Undecided, and 57% Disagree (41% Disagree and 16% Strongly Disagree). Question 34: Students at college distrust anything that claims to be a source of authority or knowledge; 6% Agree (1% Strongly Agree and 5% Agree), 20% Undecided, and 74% Disagree (57% Disagree and 17% Strongly Disagree). Question 35: Oh; 36% Agree (31% Strongly Agree and 5% Agree), 59% Undecided, and 5% Disagree (2% Disagree and 3% Strongly Disagree).

Question 36: Students are clients of teachers who should have undisputed classroom authority; 28% Agree (5% Strongly Agree and 23% Agree), 21% Undecided, and 51% Disagree (38% Disagree and 13% Strongly Disagree). Question 37: College follows outmoded game rules, but it's still the only worthwhile game in town; 32% Agree (5% Strongly Agree and 27% Agree), 50% Undecided, and 18% Disagree (14% Disagree and 4% Strongly Disagree). Question 38: A good college teacher is an easy grader; 16% Agree (4% Strongly Agree and 12% Agree), 30% Undecided, and 54% Disagree (49% Disagree and 5% Strongly Disagree). Question 39: Student evaluations are one way of getting back at highly demanding instructors; 23% Agree (8% Strongly Agree and 15% Agree), 10% Undecided, and 67% Disagree (51% Disagree and 16% Strongly Disagree). Question 40: Most courses should have study guides which contain course material summaries in easily digested bite-sized chunks; 82% Agree (29% Strongly Agree and 53% Agree), 13% Undecided, and 5% Disagree (4% Disagree and 1% Strongly Disagree).

Question 41: Most technical courses should have students working in groups to promote critical thinking; 75% Agree (23% Strongly Agree and 52% Agree), 16% Undecided, and 9% Disagree (5% Disagree and 4% Strongly Disagree). Question 42: Students at college distrust anything that claims to be a source of authority or knowledge; 3% Agree (0% Strongly Agree and 3% Agree), 25% Undecided, and 72% Disagree (56% Disagree and 16% Strongly Disagree). Question 43: Students are customers, faculty should accommodate most student wishes; 28% Agree (2% Strongly Agree and 26% Agree), 30% Undecided, and 42% Disagree (39% Disagree and 3% Strongly Disagree). Question 44: The course content in many courses should be adjusted to meet the abilities and needs of students; 41% Agree (1% Strongly Agree and 40% Agree), 31% Undecided, and 28% Disagree (21% Disagree and 7% Strongly Disagree). Question 45: We have made it to college, so entertain us; 18% Agree (4% Strongly Agree and 14% Agree), 14% Undecided, and 68% Disagree (44% Disagree and 24% Strongly Disagree).

Question 46: The reality and truth espoused by the college institution are a fiction; 9% Agree (3% Strongly Agree and 6% Agree), 45% Undecided, and 46% Disagree (39% Disagree and 7% Strongly Disagree). Question 47: Why do teachers sometimes get so upset, after all, they are just teachers; 11% Agree (0% Strongly Agree and 11% Agree), 39% Undecided, and 50% Disagree (39% Disagree and 11% Strongly Disagree). Question 48: Why canít college classes be more like TV?; 19% Agree (8% Strongly Agree and 11% Agree), 26% Undecided, and 55% Disagree (34% Disagree and 21% Strongly Disagree). Question 49: Effort expended should count more than achievement; 46% Agree (5% Strongly Agree and 41% Agree), 29% Undecided, and 25% Disagree (21% Disagree and 4% Strongly Disagree). Question 50: Students at college are questioning authority and what is supposed to be going on; 51% Agree (6% Strongly Agree and 45% Agree), 25% Undecided, and 24% Disagree (19% Disagree and 5% Strongly Disagree).

Question 51: So many college faculty are just so totally arrogant; 39% Agree (14% Strongly Agree and 25% Agree), 25% Undecided, and 36% Disagree (33% Disagree and 3% Strongly Disagree). Question 52: Reality and truth are a fiction; 16% Agree (6% Strongly Agree and 10% Agree), 27% Undecided, and 57% Disagree (32% Disagree and 25% Strongly Disagree). Question 53: The truth is out there; 83% Agree (38% Strongly Agree and 45% Agree), 11% Undecided, and 6% Disagree (3% Disagree and 3% Strongly Disagree). Question 54: Traditional values and rebellion are all bunk, everything is up for grabs; 29% Agree (8% Strongly Agree and 21% Agree), 33% Undecided, and 38% Disagree (30% Disagree and 8% Strongly Disagree). Question 55: Why bother, sit back, turn off, and enjoy the spectacle; 21% Agree (8% Strongly Agree and 13% Agree), 19% Undecided, and 60% Disagree (37% Disagree and 23% Strongly Disagree).

Question 56: Forget emotions, machines are easier; 21% Agree (9% Strongly Agree and 12% Agree), 19% Undecided, and 60% Disagree (38% Disagree and 22% Strongly Disagree). Question 57: Who cares?; 27% Agree (18% Strongly Agree and 9% Agree), 25% Undecided, and 48% Disagree (25% Disagree and 23% Strongly Disagree). Question 58: Education should not extend beyond the routine and predictable; 6% Agree (1% Strongly Agree and 5% Agree), 16% Undecided, and 78% Disagree (46% Disagree and 32% Strongly Disagree). Question 59: College grade transcripts should publish course averages next to grades to clarify grade values; 59% Agree (15% Strongly Agree and 44% Agree), 28% Undecided, and 13% Disagree (9% Disagree and 4% Strongly Disagree). Question 60: At college, to beat the system, study; 82% Agree (38% Strongly Agree and 44% Agree), 8% Undecided, and 10% Disagree (7% Disagree and 3% Strongly Disagree).

V. Discussion and Conclusions

In many ways, the survey questions and corresponding percentage responses speak for themselves. Many of the current survey responses verify the outrageous and eye-opening dialogs in Sacks [1]. While the percentage responses to select questions may seem reasonably large and thus quite conclusive, even smaller percentages attached to undesirable attributes may represent the position of a moderate number of students in a typical class. Such groups, while smaller in number, may consist of the more vocal minority that faculty frequently have to interact with in the situations posed by the questions. The nature of the responses may well explain and clarify recent reader interactions or lack of clear interaction with students. Some of the question-response items may crystallize past experiences in the minds of some readers or prepare these individuals for future student interactions and decisions.

While the survey questions themselves may not solve any faculty-student problems, some understanding developed through a study of the survey responses may well aid faculty in at least understanding the problem in light of the student position; understanding is certainly a first step in both the decision making process and the student interaction process.

The primary thrust of the current discourse has been the presentation of results of the student survey, it is clear from Sacks [1] that there is a definite interaction of student attitudes, desires, and expectations with faculty and administrative outlook. If a faculty member examines every choice and action from the viewpoint of how it will affect his teacher ratings, what are the long-term consequences? Are faculty members assessing things that need to be done in terms of whether the students will like or accept them? Is the bottom line for faculty decisions an avoidance of actions that may be too risky to their teacher ratings? Are pressures from students, colleagues, and administration whittling away faculty resolve, determination, and ability to deliver a quality education? At what point does the occupation of college teaching just become another entry on the list of MCJOBS?

VI. References

1. Sacks, Peter, "Generation X Goes to College", Open Court, Chicago and LaSalle, Illinois, 1996.

2. Coupland, Douglas, "Generation X", St. Martinís Press, New York, 1991.

3. Ritchie, Karen, "Marketing to Generation X", Lexington Books, New York, 1995.

4. Holtz, Geoffrey T., "Welcome to the Jungle: The Why Behind "Generation X", St. Martinís Press, New York, 1995.

5. Howe, Neil and Strauss, Bill, "13 TH GEN: ABORT, RETRY, IGNORE, FAIL?", Vintage Books, New York, 1993.