We professors hear quite a bit about students who feel “entitled.” Although most of us have a few war stories to tell, it seems like this is a small minority of students to me. However, the minority that engages in entitled behavior give us more than their fair share of gray hairs. These students can really take the fun out of teaching, so setting boundaries and clearly communicating expectations become super important parts of the process.

In 2008, Ellen Greenberger and her colleagues attempted to construct an Academic Entitlement scale. Their results seemed to confirm my anecdotal experience that a small but significant minority of students share attitudes consistent with academic entitlement. You can see the percentages that responded to these items with slightly agree, agree, or strongly agree scores in the graphic accompanying this post.

Some of these are not surprising, but others are truly remarkable. I imagine the look I would get if I expressed ANY  of these attitudes to my professors at UCLA. Times change.

The item that really caught my attention was the one about reading most of the book or attending most of the classes as grounds for expecting a B. In my own academic experience, if you did what the professor expected, that was a C or average performance. To get a B, you had to shine relative to your classmates, and an A meant you could probably do a decent job of teaching the course.  I do believe that times have changed in this regard, and many of my students believe that much more modest performance is needed for an A or B. Regardless, I can certainly assure my behavioral neuroscience students that reading “most” of the book is unlikely to result in a passing grade. A grade of B is more likely to need repeated readings of the book.

What this does tell us is that  we need to communicate our standards to our students very clearly at the outset. When I first started teaching, my syllabus was a single page. Today’s version is nine pages. I try to anticipate mistaken assumptions, like being able to do extra credit at the end of a course to salvage a grade, so that we head off any problems. Reading the list compiled by Greenberger et al. (2008), though, suggests to me that I need to expand my syllabus further.

The sources of these entitled attitudes remain unclear. Some people suggest that the habit of administrators to sell the “consumer” model of education is a root cause. If parents are paying a lot of money, this line of thinking goes, the least you can do is give their kids a good grade. According to the consumer model, professors are no longer authority figures in the classroom, but more like servants or concierges who are there to ensure a good educational experience.

College professors are also on the receiving end of common practices in the K-12 end of the educational system. One first year student came to an office hour to express her concerns about her grade. She was annoyed at her high school for not preparing her better for college. She said she had a reputation at her high school for being a “good” student, so she received A’s even when she didn’t turn in any work. If the K-12 does not require excellence for an A, no wonder our standards come as a rude shock.

Another writer emphasizes the need to shift the locus of control off the professor and back onto the student. Students whose grades have not been tightly linked to performance in the past might have a type of learned helplessness. They view grades as arbitrary and therefore subject to negotiation. To counter this, I take the position that grades are not a gift I bestow but rather something the student must earn according to the guidelines in the syllabus.

Recently, I’ve tried the following strategy. Although I never make grades harder to achieve than a standard distribution (90% or more for an A-, 92.5% or more for an A, etc.), I usually end up with a curve. I compare this with Hunger Games. If students want a good grade, they have to outperform their peers. While some people might view this as overly competitive, I think of it as a reality check that prepares students for what they’ll face after school. Usually, we get hired because we’re better than the other candidates for a job.

Greenberger et al. (2008) was published eight years ago, which in cohort terms, is quite a bit of time. It would be interesting to see a follow-up of their Academic Entitlement study.