How to Be a Student

The current crop of teens and early 20-somethings in Ontario (and perhaps elsewhere, but i can only comment on Ontario) is being derided for its poor work ethic and its sense of entitlement. In my notorious articles What’s Wrong with Ontario Colleges? (Part 1 and Part 2), i boiled it all down to certain decisions made by the Ontario Ministry of Education that persisted for about 13 years:

  1. No deadlines. Students are free to submit assignments whenever they feel like it. So an assignment that was due in September can be submitted in June with no penalty.
  2. No failing. As of the 1996 intake, students could not fail the ninth grade.
  3. Social promotion. While students could still fail individual courses throughout high school, every effort was made to “socially promote” them in order to keep them with their peer group. So a student in his fourth year of high school, who was working at a grade nine level or below in various subjects, was still considered a grade twelve student.

Note: The Ministry of Ed has recently reversed its experiment on late penalties. Teachers can once again dock marks for late assignments. A teacher friend of mine thinks it will take another 5-10 years to see the benefits of an improved work ethic in our graduating students, as current grade nine students are brought up under this regime.

Lost Boys

That leaves us with a group of kids who are book-ended by more effectively-educated generations.

The result of these decisions, in conjunction with permissive parenting, is that the current crop of high school grads (which i’ve dubbed “the Most Useless Generation“) has turned out foolish, lazy, and entitled. Not to mince words.

We Don’t Need No Education

When i was teaching a Flash course earlier last year, this exchange took place between a student and me:

Me: You need to understand this concept in order to program a game.
Student: Well that’s your job.
Me: What is?
Student: Making us understand.

“Students” today expect some sort of Matrix-like solution where their responsibility ends with showing up to class. It’s there that the instructor somehow jacks a cable into their necks to inject knowledge into their brains. If the student leaves that 3- or 4-hour class without new knowledge, it’s a failing of the instructor.

Kung Fu

Whoa. I know small business management.

That’s the fantasy. Here’s how it actually works:

The responsibility of the instructor is to disseminate information. The very worst instructors do this by standing at the front of the room and talking. The very best instructors do this by combining a variety of stimuli – they speak, they gesture, they sing, dance and play music, they use call-and-response to engage the class, they have the class members participate by doing (typing the code, touching the fabric, operating the drill press, tabulating the survey results). They try to gauge the students’ UNDERSTANDING of the material as they teach. (Although, despite what Dead Poets Society taught you, it’s not the responsibility of a teacher to be entertaining.)

Dead Poets Society

Robin Williams: ruining education for decades.

As a student, you have a number of responsibilities. The first is ABSORPTION. You need to come to class on time, fill a seat, and soak up the instruction. It’s all about using your senses: hear the instructor’s voice, look at the visuals, repeat the terminology, touch the equipment (type on the keyboard, operate the drill press, hold the notepad). Your learning increases exponentially when you use two or more of your senses at the same time: touch one of your fingers while repeating a key term, write a note while listening to the lecturer’s voice, or ask a question while looking at a visual aid.


You, in class.

Through your ABSORPTION of the material, you need to reach UNDERSTANDING. If you don’t understand the concepts, you can ask questions of the instructor, your classmates, or the Internet (which knows pretty much everything, so i’m not sure why you’re acting like your Google Fingers are broken).

Let me Google that For You

The Old College Try

Once you have (or think you have) UNDERSTANDING, you need to convert that into KNOWLEDGE by way of PRACTICE. This is especially important in a technical or a vocational pursuit like learning to program games, learning to play the piano, or learning to make a hope chest out of pine wood. The reason you need to gain KNOWLEDGE is because the instructor is going to test you on your knowledge through tests, quizzes, exams and assignments. This is how you get marks in a class: by demonstrating your KNOWLEDGE in these situations.

So PRACTICE is the way you convert UNDERSTANDING into KNOWLEDGE. Okay – i get how to use a tablesaw to cut a piece of wood … now i actually need to use a tablesaw to cut a piece of wood. Because if the instructor gives me a test, and one of the steps is cutting a piece of wood with a tablesaw, and i’ve never actually practiced that, i may be on thin ice during the test.


i’m pretty sure i start it up by putting my face on the spinny thing … Man, i wish this test was open-book.

Likewise, if the lecture was about writing a custom class to program a game, i ABSORBED the material, and gained UNDERSTANDING of how to write a custom class. On the test, the instructor will require me to demonstrate my KNOWLEDGE of how to write a custom class. In order to convert my UNDERSTANDING into KNOWLEDGE, i need to PRACTICE … that means i actually have to write a few custom classes. If you just listen to the theory behind writing a custom class, but never bother to actually write a few on your own, you won’t fare well. (But that’s exactly what most of my students have done. And then their mommies call me up to ask why they’re failing tests. Seriously.)

PRACTICE may require some back-and-forth. You may think you understand the material, and then fall flat on your face when you go to practice it. That’s when you return to the instructor and say “i tried this and it didn’t work – could you help me improve my understanding?”, or “could you clarify what you meant by X?”

You’ll know you’ve gained KNOWLEDGE when you can demonstrate the material without having to ask questions or refer to your notes. Someone with a KNOWLEDGE of how to saw a board does not need to check the tablesaw manual or refer to a list of steps on sawing a board. Someone with a KNOWLEDGE of how to write a custom class does not need to call up past assignments, or Google a tutorial on it.


I’m going to begin your skydiving session today by checking a book out of the library.

Prove It.

Finally, back in class on test or assignment day, you DEMONSTRATE the KNOWLEDGE you have gained through PRACTICE. That is what is required of you as a student.

The approach that the no-fail generation takes to education is lazy and firmly rooted in fantasy. They think “If i take a course in X, then at the end of the four months, i will be able to get a job doing X”. (Of course, only people with KNOWLEDGE of X will be in any kind of position to get a job doing X … and it’s only the people with KNOWLEDGE who compete for that job. If you have no KNOWLEDGE of X, you’re automatically out of the running, unless you have a well-connected uncle. )

A better attitude is “If i take a course in X, they will provide me with the information i need to learn X. If i take the responsibility to learn X well enough, i may be able to compete for a job doing X.”

13 thoughts on “How to Be a Student

  1. Evan Miller

    Yes, yes and yes.

    I grew up in this useless generation and it’s frustrated me since I was in elementary school. In 17 years of education I can count the amount of students I saw actually care about anything on one hand. People always called me a ‘genius’ because I a) paid attention, b) followed instructions, and c) bothered to put a minimal amount of effort into most things.

    That’s what makes a ‘genius’ these days. This is how low our standards are.

    But you know what, it’s not their fault. We didn’t ‘grow up’ this way, we were RAISED this way. Raised by an older generation who decided that nothing mattered but corporate profits and manufactured consumerist culture. We were bred to be stupid, brainless dairy cows and it worked spectacularly.

    Welcome to capitalism, folks. Turns out its just as screwed up and destructive as all the other broken systems. Sadly, we’d all probably be better off today if the Cold War had heated up, rather than fizzling out leaving us with decades of brainwashed propaganda parents to create The Most Useless Generation.

    1. Ryan Henson Creighton

      It fascinates me that you attribute the problem to capitalism – i’ve never considered that angle. Looking at it from an educational perspective, i wonder if the perception was that school was too strict and was unfairly advantageous to a certain type of kid, so we swung the pendulum very far the opposite way … now everyone’s a winner, and if you criticize someone or red-ink a student’s test, you’re “mean”. We’re only just starting to let the pendulum swing back closer towards what we hope is center.

      i CAN see capitalism coming into play if we consider individualism. i think a lot of the entitlement is due to individualism, and being told you’re a rare and precious snowflake all the time.

        1. Ryan Henson Creighton

          Very interesting! i’d like to hear more of his solutions, after laying out those challenges. i think i’ll watch his TED talks.

  2. Rasmus Wriedt Larsen

    Agreed (on most of it… comming to that) I can definitly indentify with you Evan.

    I’ve been in class with lots of students who would maybe read their homework, but not spend enough time to get a real understanding of it. In class they would spend a lot of their time on other things (FB and… ehm… flash games), only following the lectures partly. After they got a bad grade at the exam, they said the teacher did a bad job.

    BUT! Having a good teacher really makes a hell lot of a difference. I’m not saying it’s ONLY the teachers responsibility, but I don’t think it’s ONLY the students responsibility!

    The thing I can’t agree on is a single line. I’m sure you didn’t mean it they way I read it, but it illustrates a BIG mistake in the school system:

    “The reason you need to gain KNOWLEDGE is because the instructor is going to test you on your knowledge through tests, quizzes, exams and assignments.”

    NO! NO! NO! We don’t teach students because an instructor is going to test them! We teach them because what they’ll learn is valuable. And if they only get a superficial understanding of it, it’s not worth anything! That’s (also) why we give them assignments! To complete them they NEED to get experience with the subject, they have to practice using it.

    We (should) give test, quizzes and assignments because we want to make sure what we taught them got stuck in there, that’s it’s not just something they can say because it’s in their notes, but because they gained the knowledge and know how to use it.

    We (should) have exams because we need a way to tell how much knowledge they gained, and how well they can use it.

    They way I see it today in the school system (most in USA I’ve heard), is that students ONLY get taught how to pass specific tests (like the No-Child-Left-Behind plan). Now if we’re basing our education (and it’s funding) on students passings tests, instead of gaining true knowledge (and how to use it), we’re shooting ourselves in both feet!

    1. Mushyrulez

      My sentiments exactly! In fact, you literally stole the words right out of my mouth so that now I have nothing to say.

      However, another argument is why we even need this knowledge, especially for things that we’ll never use, like knowing about what’s inside a cell or how to operate a drill press.

      Also, no, we don’t give tests, quizzes, and assignments so that /we/ know that the knowledge is in there. We give them out so that the STUDENT understands that he knows what he’s talking about, or that he doesn’t, and should study more. Tests are tests – our society really needs to realize that, and make tests for testing’s sake tests (none of that no-fail nonsense), and make tests for grading’s sake random and un-study-able – that’s the only way to truly test somebody’s knowledge of a subject.

      tl;dr I don’t know what I’m saying.

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