Stats, fun thyself! #students_are_human_beings

It’s easy to forget that our students are human beings.

Not in any deliberate or uncaring way, but because as lecturers we are provided with so many metrics about their backgrounds, engagement, academic attainment and so on. We are, in turn, judged by metrics which are linked to their metrics: average grade; first time pass rate; attendance, retention rates to name a few. They are under pressure to meet the institution’s expectations. We are under pressure to meet the institution’s expectations. It’s all so depressingly cold. Clinical. Management (and judgement) by spreadsheet. Deliverology (1) gone wrong.

In the process, it seems easy to lose sight of the challenging lives that many of our students live. Easy to lose sight of the fragile human beings behind the student records. Maybe it’s more prevalent at a widening participation University, or maybe its just a feature of life in the 2010s. Whatever the reasons, a lot of the students I teach seem to have complex personal lives. Borrowing a term from Ackoff (2), they have messy lives.

This was brought home to me when a student called in to see me this afternoon. He is what the University’s stats would classify as a good student. On a personal level he is motivated and likeable. I’m glad to have him in my classes. But this morning he experienced a personal trauma. Sat in the chair next to my desk, he had the distant expression of the person whose world isn’t quite making sense at the moment. He certainly wasn’t his usual, talkative self. He needed to go home but was worried about the consequences of missing some classes next week. The institutional pressures and expectations strike again. What impact is the institution having when a student worries about going home during a family crisis because of the potential impact it could have on his student record?

We talked things through. I think I managed to convince him that he wasn’t going to get into any trouble for going home and spending some time with his family at a very difficult time. The notion that it might be seen as a problem seems ridiculous, but it was clearly a very real fear in his mind. In situations like this, as far as I’m concerned, the stats can go fun themselves…

(1) https://www.mckinsey.com/industries/public-sector/our-insights/deliverology-from-idea-to-implementation

(2) http://intel.harriman-house.com/business/messes-problems-and-puzzles/

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