Instructors, Fill the Skills Gap—Toughen Up

Do you tolerate students coming to class late? Do you meet with students who have been absent to go over the work they missed? Can your students turn in late assignments? Are your courses known as an easy A?

If you answer yes to any of the above, you may be doing your students a great disservice—and adding to the skills gap documented by ubiquitous studies and surveys.

It has become common knowledge that today’s employers are dismayed by new hires’ lack of communication skills and ability to think critically. Could low expectations in the college classroom be partly to blame?

shutterstock_201655472In a recent essay appearing in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Prof. Charlotte Kent of Mercy College in New York advocates upping expectations in our classrooms as a means to prepare students for the workplace. She cites research illustrating that the soft skills lacking in new graduates go beyond the headline-grabbing complaints about poor communication and critical thinking.

Instead, she points to a 2009 Business Roundtable survey of employers that named poor personal accountability, work ethic, punctuality, time management, and adaptability as the real culprits in the skills gap. And these are the types of skills we college instructors are in a position to teach, Kent says.

Prof. Kent has adopted strict rules designed to help her students bridge the gap between college and the workplace. She counts late students as absent;, offers only three absences no matter the cause, and doesn’t accept late work. Her rationale is that although tardiness, unpredictable work product, and poor motivation may result in a second chance in the workplace—these poor habits will not result in a third or fourth chance.

Kent believes we instructors do not help our students when we offer extensions, lax policies, and opportunities for extra credit because we are not preparing our students for workplace expectations. She notes that our millennial and Gen Z students have been raised in a culture that rewards “endless second chances,” so although many don’t like her policies—or her—students learn that their actions have consequences. Some even end up thanking Prof. Kent for forcing them to be more responsible.

Still, for those of us at the mercy of student evaluations, harsh policies such as Kent’s may not only jeopardize our jobs—they may turn students off. Research into how students feel about the difficulty of college courses has shown that although students prefer courses that create some level of challenge, they give up when they consider a class too difficult. Might Kent be asking too much of today’s students, many of whom juggle work, internships, and school?

How do you approach the line between high expectations and policies that are too harsh? Start a conversation!

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