Becoming More Accountable for the Accountable

Kyle Harley, Kaplan University Writing Center Tutor



Accountability is a wonderful word that is used quite a bit in higher education. In recent weeks, I wrestled with the idea of accountability within our construct of education. On one end of the spectrum we have the student: frustrated and confused by the assignment instructions.  On the other end, we find ourselves as educators wondering why our students fail to grasp these core concepts required of them.

To better understand this issue, it may  be best  to discuss that most students seek to expand their knowledge and obtain their degree of choice.  How, then, do we define our goals as educators to best assist our students? In short, educators should provide any and all materials necessary for a student to progress with hard work through the system of higher education. The basics, right? Well, invite our old friend accountability into the mix and watch the pressure unevenly rise. As instructors, we expect our students to conform to the norms of higher education: how to speak, how to write, how best to study, when to study, and even how to e-mail properly, just to name a few. Essentially, we are holding them accountable for a system of seemingly arbitrary academic writing rules that will, in every respect, help them successfully navigate through the channels of higher education.  Then, we somehow hit a brick wall at full speed.

To navigate this brick wall, the necessity to understand our students’ perspective remains key. As a student, the simplest of goals in any collegiate setting involves traveling through the coursework until the completion of the program. However, students enter a pre-existing academic discourse with a stringent set of rules that may not apply to their daily communication in other aspects of their lives.  Therefore, students must work hard to not only translate their own thoughts into a suitable format, but they must also translate our foreign-language-like discourse to better understand what we are trying to teach them. Add on top of that having to adhere to a prescribed format to produce the work in such as APA.  It is enough to make some people want to quit before even starting.

While most of our students come to our academic support centers well prepared and ready for a sound tutorial session, a few come to us, at times in tears, wondering how and why they ever got themselves into this mess. The questions range from simply understanding what the three letters “APA” stand for when placed together to what about their assignment is “abstract” and what they should do about it.    Usually, all these students need is a friendly voice and encouragement to help them calm down and look objectively at their work.  When we expose  students to the material at a rapid pace, it sends some of them into panic mode. We have seen an increase in courses requiring citation from entry-level students who, prior to this non-writing-intensive course, have never known APA and the stress that it inevitably induces upon first greeting. Just the same, when do we begin to hold ourselves (as educators) accountable for what our students do not “already know?” What is the best response? It may not be everyone’s favorite lesson to teach, but if a course requires  students to complete a given task for a particular assignment and more than one student had never been exposed to said material, should the student be blamed?

Our students want to succeed in their coursework and enjoy doing so. Now, by no means am I suggesting we offer all the answers for our students, taking away the difficulty of the work, or even providing too much for them to possibly be disingenuous—not at all. Instead, I think we can begin by re-evaluating what we ask of our students, and at what levels. For instance, if you are asking students to format their papers according to APA guidelines, show them how to do this quickly during a lecture to at least provide basic exposure. Then, given the vast resources already present at the university and the tutoring services, the student will be offered the best possible experience and chance to succeed.  Why not address the simpler situations head on by reviewing basics, helping to avoid further frustration on both sides.

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