Social Question

nikipedia's avatar

Why are college students so apathetic?

Asked by nikipedia (27454points) June 29th, 2012

I just taught a lecture to 20 kids who wouldn’t even answer yes/no questions with a hand raise. What makes these kids so indifferent and reluctant to participate in their own education? College students, please enlighten me…

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38 Answers

LittleLemon's avatar

How early is your class? ;)

ratboy's avatar

Who cares?

tups's avatar

Maybe they’re shy.

Michael_Huntington's avatar

I guess it’s the hot weather and the time of day.

tom_g's avatar

While I love the concept of education, I am not sure that the way we currently think of education works for everyone. We sit around and hear lectures. We have a certain period of our lives in which we are supposed to do all of our learning, and it just happens to be a time that corresponds with other developmental and lifestyle changes.

Anyway, I have known a few really motivated people who have thrived in this environment, but they were all of a certain personality type, had known exactly what they wanted to be since high school, etc. For the rest of us (ok, maybe just me and some of my slacker friends), college was just another game.

So, I am not sure if I am actually answering your question. I guess I am just suggesting that there could be a number of reasons – from shyness to existential confusion or just being hungover.

nikipedia's avatar

@LittleLemon, 9am.

@tom_g, I agree, I hate lecturing, so I had built in all of this interactive stuff, and it totally fell flat and the students just stared at me blankly.

I told them several times to please take good notes because there would definitely be exam questions on the material and I would not be posting the lecture anywhere; one of them emailed me while still in the lecture asking for the notes.

thorninmud's avatar

It has always fascinated me how each classroom-ful of people has its own dynamic. The default mode seems to be reticence. Throw one or two less inhibited people in there, though, and that can completely free up the whole class. Failing that, I’ve resorted to going all Bill Nye on them: exaggeratedly animated and enthusiastic. Usually works, but it feels kind of like giving CPR.

syz's avatar

You could try props. (I’m being semi-facetious.) I’ve been talking to my staff about attitudes, happiness, and work environments, so I’ve required them to say something nice about a coworker in an effort to start training their minds to think positively rather than negatively. I had someone give me three large trash bags full of brand new beanie babies, so at staff meetings, I throw them at people. If they’re not paying attention or participating, they get smacked by a beanie baby. As much as everyone groaned and moaned initially, now they actually joke and laugh and participate.

LittleLemon's avatar

9 am for some is a hellish ordeal. Is it a graduate course or are we talking HIST 100? When I had to go through all my core classes, I certainly wasn’t very animated in the classroom. Add to that a gaggle of fresh-faced 18 year olds and no one wanted to be the “I care about this,” guy/gal.

nikipedia's avatar

@LittleLemon, junior/senior level biology class.

bkcunningham's avatar

@nikipedia, how lazy is someone to email you during the lecture and ask for notes? Unreal. Short attention spans maybe?

MissAnthrope's avatar

I would say that it’s a mixture of apathy and fear of having to speak in front of a room full of strangers, possibly getting it wrong, which just adds to the embarrassment. In some classes, if everyone is silent and refuses to participate, everyone else goes along with it as the class culture; speaking up might seem geeky, ass-kissy, or whatever. Yeah, who cares, I know, but large groups of your peers can be very intimidating, particularly the younger you are. College kids are just out of high school, just figuring out who they are. They are only just starting to break out of the whole K-12 structure, which means everything—how to behave in class, what is expected, social mores, etc.

You might try a bit of bribery to loosen them up. Past professors have given chocolates for right/good answers, or even bonus points each time you speak up to participate.

JLeslie's avatar

Early morning would have affected me as a student. 9am isn’t crazy early, but 10am and later is much better.

A friend of mine who teaches high school said the difference between the students where she taught at first (where she grew up) in MS were apathetic, unknowledgeable and uninterested. Then she moved to MO and she said the students are vastly different. She said the school system is much better, and it seemed very obvious the families must foster conversation, questioning and learning.

However, I would think biology at that level students would be a little more with it.

wundayatta's avatar

Dance. Sing. Be crazy. Get in their faces. Literally. Be a personality they can’t ignore. Pick on someone. Pick on another. Ask them questions. It’s best done with good humor rather than annoyance, but shit. If they won’t play along, then let them be annoyed.

Ask to see their notes. Read them aloud. Make fun of them. Tell you them you will make fun of them until they shape up and do a good job.

No, don’t do that. You should encourage first. Making fun won’t help, but it might make you feel better.

Or give in. Lecture in a monotone. Do what you have to do and get out of there. Have them sign a contract that they understand the rules, such as there will be no class notes unless they take them themselves.

The temptation is to embarrass them. Like the person who emailed you about class notes while you were saying there wouldn’t be any. I would so want to point this out to everyone in the class, but it would just make them resentful. I suppose you could make a funny story about it, and tell that story without mentioning any names.

Isn’t teaching fun? I love my job. I don’t have to teach. I only help people who come to me asking for help. In other words, they actually want it. They are motivated. They have real work to do.

janbb's avatar


nikipedia's avatar

Well, I was just doing a guest lecture and won’t be back, so I don’t need to worry about it for next time. I was just so surprised, in all my years of teaching I’ve dealt with a lot of sleepiness and laziness but this was a whole new level.

bkcunningham's avatar

I don’t want to waste my time reading the posts or participating in this discussion. Would you just PM me a synopsis?

wundayatta's avatar

Maybe it was because you were a guest lecturer and they felt you didn’t count.

athenasgriffin's avatar

I’m willing to bet that there were at least three people in the class who had detailed answers in their heads to every single question you asked. If they are like me, then either they know that their answer is not the answer you are looking for and have tons of experience with offering the “incorrect” answer, which is not incorrect technically, but isn’t what you wanted to hear. Plus, the other mes that are running around somewhere are shy creatures.

Or, they know the answer that you are looking for, but assume someone more extroverted will offer it, because it is so obvious. Kind of like the Bystander Effect, except without the emergency.

Linda_Owl's avatar

I don’t think that most college students are apathetic. I think a lot of them are worried about making the right decisions in their choices of classes to take, based on their personal interests vs the very weak job market. A lot of the freshmen are away from home for the first time, so they are both trying to take classes & make friends at the same time. I think that there is a lot of worry & fear just underneath the surface of the minds of college students.

Blackberry's avatar

It’s that “YOLO” crap.

Aethelflaed's avatar

I’m guessing it’s a combo of early morning class, and you being the guest lecturer, which means any comfort they previously had opening up is now gone. Gawd I hate early morning classes. They should outlaw them. Or make them all be pottery.

@athenasgriffin I actually go the opposite way – I’m really good at speaking up in class, so then I shut up to really obvious answers to give someone else a chance and not be a dominating voice.

Bellatrix's avatar

@thorninmud makes an excellent point. My experience is you can use the same material and interaction on one group and they are on fire – the next, nothing. It really can come down to who is in the group. Just a couple of people who are animated, asking questions, sharing ideas and they provide the impetus for the more reticent or shy students to join in.

You being a guest lecturer would also have dampened things down too. They haven’t built a connection with you. All you can do is be as vibrant and interesting as you can be and as you did, include lots of opportunities for interaction.

If there were other teaching team members there, you could ask for a peer review? Or ask them if the response from the group was pretty standard? If they are used to being ‘talked at’ rather than ‘engaged with’ that would affect how they respond. I used to have to go in and lecture groups, large and small, across all disciplines and while most groups were fabulous every now and then you would get a group that was just awful. I used to wonder if their usual lecturer allowed them to behave that way and so they thought it was okay. Perhaps this is a similar situation.

nikipedia's avatar

@Bellatrix, good points—their usual professor is my adviser, who prefers for everyone to be silent and revere him…maybe that explains why they were so quiet…

Bellatrix's avatar

Most likely. I am with you. I love it when students talk to me, ask questions and get involved.

bolwerk's avatar

College is the new high school. People go because they have to, knowing they won’t get looked at by hiring companies if they don’t get a BA. But there is little remuneration for going, not even a guarantee of employment, so why would you be excited about it?

iphigeneia's avatar

9am lectures are never popular. Depending on the subject, a lot of students won’t show up and just listen to it online (I understand this was not an option for this class), and those who do are not quite awake yet. Even in later lectures, there’s a shyness about being noticed by the lecturer, just in case they call on you to answer a question or explain your answer, and if you get it wrong you’re embarrassed in front of your peers, and if you get it right you’re “the smart one”.

I think @bolwerk hit the nail on the head: college is the new high school. Very few students I know are unreservedly enthusiastic about what they’re studying. The ones who are, are my friends who got into specialised dance/theatre/music schools, and maybe one or two people in law, because they have to be. For the rest of us, it’s a roller coaster of interest, apathy, and loathing.

cookieman's avatar

I feel your pain. I’ve been teaching a Monday, 9AM-12PM class for three semesters now. Whoa!

But @wundayatta (despite the snark) is on to something. I go into complete stand-up comedy routine for these kids to perk them. Total goober, no shame.

That, combined with a packed but varied lesson plan works pretty well.

Aethelflaed's avatar

I also think @bolwerk is on to something, but I also think it depends on the age and experience of the people in the classroom. Teaching a bunch of 18, 19 year olds who haven’t really been out in the “real world” (a phrase I hate), and who know they need it to get a job, but don’t feel the burning need deep down inside to secure their future, and college is more just that thing you have to do after high school… it’s so, so different from a classroom full of students who have spent at least half a decade working or trying to get work, who know on a visceral level how hard it is to get an interview without a bachelor’s, who want so badly to have their life be something different, and who can make the connection between taking notes today and doing well on that test in two weeks and still knowing the material in 6 months and then being able to get hired for the career they want in 3 years. Those are the students who won’t be able to shut up because they have so many questions.

ZEPHYRA's avatar

Yes….I’ve faced many a “Bueller, Bueller, Bueller” classes! I think it’s a case of taking education for granted, having it all and not being willing to try for much!

mattbrowne's avatar

The wealth of their parents.

Keep_on_running's avatar

Because learning is boring and people will only give a shit if they are very passionate about the subject.

flutherother's avatar

The apathy extends beyond the classroom. Where are the anti war demonstrations, the political marches the passion for a better world that students had in my day. Where is the music?

Aethelflaed's avatar

@flutherother Excuse me, did Occupy not just happen? Slutwalk? When was the last time you marched? Why is it always up to us kids to live up to some golden age that totally whitewashes all the kids in that time who didn’t care, who didn’t march, who didn’t write music, or who were totally in favor of the war?

I know that political marches aren’t as popular as they were before. But maybe that’s a good thing – political marches aren’t exactly guaranteed to accomplish anything more than a petition will, but marches are only accessible to those who already live in NYC, DC, or LA, and the privileged few who can afford to take the time and money to go there. Stop equating a lack of marches with apathy.

flutherother's avatar

The last time I marched was in protest at the Vietnam War and the bombing of Cambodia and Laos and it worked. The war ended and the bombing stopped. I am on the side of the Occupy Movement and if you believe in democracy you must believe that the 99% can influence events. We have seen what peaceful demonstrations can accomplish in the Middle East.

bkcunningham's avatar

rHave you heard, Tim Minchin, talking about thinking like that is superstition, @flutherother, and is believing that your words carry that much importance?

WillWorkForChocolate's avatar

TL;DR Is there a Cliff Notes version of this?

yankeetooter's avatar

I’m a college student, and I am anything but apathetic. I’ve sat and answered questions from a professor when nobody else in the room would. (It was weird though, like we were having a one-on-one conversation…)

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