Carnegie Mellon University

Eberly Center

Teaching Excellence & Educational Innovation

Why don’t students do extra work to learn the material?

International faculty member, CMU-Pittsburgh

When I first began teaching in the U.S., I assumed that if students didn’t understand the material, they would do whatever they needed to do to teach themselves: seek out reference books, look for answers on-line. That’s what students in my country do. But students here only look for answers in the assigned text, and won’t do outside research unless it’s part of an assigned project. I came to this realization one day when one of my most diligent students came to talk to me after class. She was confused by a concept from the previous lecture and said, “I went back to the textbook, but I still couldn’t find the answer.” I waited for her to continue, but she just stood there expectantly. It dawned on me that we had completely different expectations of one another: I was thinking: If you’re confused, go figure it out. She was thinking: I’m confused, so explain it to me.

It seems to me that students in the U.S. see their own role and the instructor’s role very differently than students in my country do. In my country, it’s the student’s responsibility to learn: if the instructor fails to communicate an idea clearly, it’s the student’s job to teach himself. In the U.S., though, it’s the instructor’s responsibility to present the material clearly and coherently. Students don’t consider it reasonable to have to teach themselves material that the instructor failed to get across. I like the fact that students in my country will do unassigned work to learn the material, but I also appreciate the fact that students here hold their instructors to a high standard. I’ve also noticed that U.S. instructors assign considerably more work than instructors in my country. Since there are merits to both systems, I’ve taken it as a challenge while I’m in the U.S. to make my lectures and readings as clear and complete as I possibly can.

Other strategies

  • If you want students to do outside research to explore questions or problems raised in class, make it an explicit part of an assignment. Don’t assume students will do extra work on their own.
  • Talk with faculty colleagues to determine how much assigned reading your students will find reasonable. It may be more than you expect!
  • Ask a campus librarian to hold an information session for students about finding outside resources, and give students an assignment that requires them to use these information literacy skills.
  • Encourage students to form study groups. Discussing course material with classmates can help students pinpoint gaps in their learning, pool information, search for answers, and teach one another.

For help brainstorming or adapting strategies to your own teaching context, contact the Eberly Center in Pittsburgh, the Eberly Center in Qatar, or the Intercultural Communication Center in Pittsburgh.