'Trophy Generation' Students on Collision Course With Reality
October 13, 2014 6:15 AM
by Patty Kleban
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In 1954, writer, educator and family counselor Dorothy Law Nolte published a poem called "Children Learn What they Live" that became an inspiration for generations of parents.

With the use of simple but effective prose, Nolte's poem reminded us that children learn from their environments.

Children who are criticized will be critical of others. Children who are encouraged will be confident and encouraging of others. The list goes on. The premise of the poem and of Nolte's work with families is that what and how we teach our children will define how they respond as adults.

Having spent the last two decades observing the evolution of college students, I would like to add a few more lines to Nolte's poem. Children who learn accountability will be responsible, productive adults.

Children who are given trophies for just showing up may learn to become entitled college students.

A recent incident with a student who has had some bumps along the way brought this to the forefront for me. After missing the deadline to complete an on-line assignment, he realized that he was not going to pass the course – again. In a series of emails with this student, I pointed out that he was clearly made aware of the deadline as it is spelled out in the course calendar that I passed out on the first day and that is available on-line.

I reminded the students about the due date in class. I sent an email reminder the day before it was due. I gently pointed out that this was not his first time taking the course. He responded that he felt that bringing up his past stumbles was "insulting" and that if he didn't pass the course I would be the cause of his having to either pay more tuition or to leave school. He also indicated that my refusal earlier in the semester to agree to provide him with a professional reference based on his performance in class "made me feel bad about myself."

This past week, several students in another class totally goofed on a proposal process for an assignment which has them interfacing with community agencies to help with agency events and programs. One rather earnest young man approached me in person and said "I just don't get what you wanted us to do." He was aghast that I would deduct points from his grade for not doing what the majority of other students in the class were able to complete successfully.

Let's see. I posted the assignment description on ANGEL for the students to be able to access the instructions. That assignment description actually lists step #1, step #2, etc. I covered the assignment extensively in class and asked if anyone had questions. I had reminder slides in several subsequent classes about the process and the due date. I have office hours so that students with questions can meet with me for clarification. I sent reminder emails.

Perhaps the title of the course should be changed to Handholding 101.

If we apply the 80-20 rule, we know that most students are hard-working, diligent kids who are enthusiastic about their education and the experiences that go along with it. Unfortunately, the 20 percent seems to be growing exponentially. It seems that more and more students are seemingly shocked that they are being asked to actually earn their degrees.

Demands on faculty to address the "new" student are changing as well. Course syllabi are literally now pages long because we have to spell out every possible situation that might occur and what the consequences will be. This is what happens if you don't show up for an exam. This is what happens if you cheat. This will be the result if your paper is late. Instructors sometimes even ask students to sign off on an "agreement" that they have read and acknowledge the course expectations and grading system.

More and more instructors are experiencing the pleasure of parents who call or actually come to campus to demand to know why their kid earned a grade on a paper or is having to repeat a course. When the student or the parent goes to the department head or to the dean's office (or occasionally, the office of the President), instructors have to be prepared to show that we outlined our course policies, followed them, applied them to all students fairly and have the documentation to prove it.

In response to the evolving presence of the parent in the university interaction, Penn State administrators implemented a new program entitled The Penn State Parents Program. It's mission is to "partner with you in order to ensure student success, provide opportunities for your engagement with the University, and educate you about resources and services available within the University community."

Back in the day, the "parents" program at Penn State meant grades being mailed to the student's home at the end of the term and students having to face the music when those grades didn't meet family expectations. I can tell you from personal experience that when I stumbled in college, my parents did not assign blame to the instructor.

Much has been written about what has been called the "trophy generation" of current college students for whom a fragile self-esteem was the focus of busy, stressed parents who want to rewrite their own personal histories through their offspring.

We photograph and videotape their every move, insist they were the best on the team and tell them "you are special" while shielding them from any possible bump or bruise lest it damage their inflated sense of self. We are certain that they are smarter, more athletic, have more character and just better than everyone else. We hover over them in school, sports and play.

It's no wonder that they are so confused when they realize that, in the real world that not everyone gets a trophy or that someone might actually say "no."

In the end, it will likely fall to me to defend my decisions and explain why I'm not passing these kids through with a stern warning and a sticker for trying. When and if the parents call, I will probably hear about the cost of another semester, that his son or her daughter has worked really hard and that his or her needs are just a little different than the other students in the class.

After all, children live what they learn.

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