Reclaiming the Responsibility of Learning: A Student’s Code of Conduct


While the world of education is fascinated with learning styles, an adjacent problem has emerged. Our sensitivity to various learning styles is not necessarily the cause of this problem. But despite the effort to increase the accessibility of learning, students somehow seem to be less studious than ever before. Many students now approach education as though it must be tailored to them if they are to learn, just as their iPod playlists fit their musical taste. I first observed this immaturity as an undergraduate. The idea for a student code of conduct came to me as a graduate student where—surprisingly—this phenomenon persisted. Now I have been a philosophy professor for a few years, and have observed the problem as a student and as a teacher. I will offer a few of my irritated observations culled from my time in higher education before proposing a code to correct intellectual misconduct.

Students routinely stroll in late and leave early without warning or apologizing to the professor. They often play on their phones and have conversations with each other during lecture. I have spied desperate students trying to complete the reading five minutes before class. And then there is the glaring neglect of the syllabus. Most students either do not read their syllabi or else briefly scan them, just as they would a web page or an uninteresting Facebook post. Some students have always assiduously ignored the obvious, but this inattentiveness is getting worse—probably because students are increasingly distracted by multiple technologies. Students often turn in hastily-written papers, turn them in extremely late, or do not write papers at all. Worse yet, some seem oblivious that this omission will spell their doom.

But being an active learner is not just about paying tuition and showing up to class; it requires an emphasis on the students’ responsibility to learn. The rigors of learning often grate against the student’s less-than-intellectually-virtuous mental habits. I want engaged participants, not just warm bodies nodding off or twitching in response to the latest technological blandishments. Sadly, the principles of my student’s code of conduct are no longer taken for granted. Therefore, teachers may need to remind their students of all or some of them.

My concern here is with trends. Some students may not need the following educational Decalogue, but their numbers are dwindling. I offer these rules so that their kind may increase, that learning be restored through student responsibility, and that teachers may be greeted with more educationally savvy students. This is not merely a pedagogical dream. I have experienced focused, dynamic classrooms which inspire both students and teacher. Obviously, this is only possible when students as well as teachers take their responsibilities seriously. When the obvious is restated and reinstated, it can be allowed to become taken-for-granted once again.

The Student’s Code of Conduct

Article I: Learning is Active

Profitable learning is not something that just happens to us. In order to grow in knowledge, we not only have to pay attention, but we must critically evaluate ideas. We have to think, for instance, about the logical and social consequences of a given idea before accepting it. Then we must think of relevant objections to any truth-claim to see if it holds up to scrutiny. Moreover, while studying and sitting in a lecture, it is beneficial to write down ideas that excite you or anger you. Then, after class, reflect on them. This will help you enjoy your studies more. More importantly, it will help you become a more inquisitive and self-directed learner.

Article II: Professors Are Resources, Not Entertainers

While some professors are naturally more entertaining than others, it is not the professor’s job to entertain you. It is your job to listen carefully, to participate in discussion where you can, and to take detailed notes, all of which will help you stay alert. You will find that this enlivens the classroom for you (and perhaps for others).

Article III: Address Your Own Confusion

If you are confused, ask good questions, which will benefit you, other students, and the professor. (I am often nearly desperate for any thoughtful questions from my students.) The professor needs to know if she is making sense, and should be held intellectually accountable by the students.

Article IV: Avoid Distractions

Turn off your cell phones and other hand-held devices for (at least) three reasons: (1) A noisy cell phone is simply rude, (2) if the professor is distracted, the quality of the lecture (and thus your learning) will plummet, and (3) a quiet cell phone is less likely to compete for your attention.

Article V: Silence!

If you must talk to your neighbor in class, make it brief, and very quiet. Loud whispering, apparently unbeknownst to many, is not quiet. This rude behavior may unnerve (or even enrage) the professor as well as distract students. This ultimately harms the overall classroom experience because of the awkwardness that sucks life out of the room.

Article VI: Learning Styles Are Not Exemptions

Your individual learning style does not exempt you from applying yourself in a class that does not cater to that style. Someone who is “a visual learner” cannot claim this as an excuse for not listening to a lecture. Despite our educational preferences, we are responsible for seeking improvement in all areas as learners.

Article VII: Grades are Earned, Not Deserved

Students should realize that good grades are earned by hard work—at least when the system is working. Merely completing an assignment is rarely grounds for an A, and certainly no one is entitled to an A. Unless the grader is a veritable nincompoop, it takes excellent work to earn the best possible grades. There are two basic ways to handle assignments: Either finish the assignment early and allow time to polish it; or hand it in at the last minute. If the latter, prepare yourself for a justifiably low grade.

Article VIII: Discipline Yields Results

To read well, you must read often. This requires discipline and may be painful to the chronically overstimulated cybernaut. Commit time every day to doing your assigned reading. Strive to complete it at least one day ahead of schedule. If you wait until final exams to do your reading, you will not have the ability nor the time required to complete this task. Cramming is antithetical to learning.

Article IX: Course Materials Are All Important

If it is assigned, assume it is important. Do not rely only on an outline or handout from your professor. These are meant as supplements, and are not intended to be outright replacements for lectures or reading. Refrain from quoting or referring to the professor’s lecture notes if they are taken from assigned reading. This only advertises that you have not read. Take your own notes, too, because this fleshes out new ideas and makes them your own.

Article X: Lateness and Absences Do Not Excuse you from Coursework

Missing a class is your problem and not your professor’s. It is your responsibility to acquire what you have missed. If you must miss a class, contact your professor as soon as possible, or ask a classmate to fill you in. Check the syllabus before asking what you missed, so you can be prepared to understand what the classmate or professor tells you. Do not ask whether you missed anything important! This is an insult both to the professor and the class.

This is the sum of the matter: Read, write, and own your own education. You are a human, not a hard drive.

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