The Three Worst Questions: The Value of Transformative Teaching in the Commoditized Classroom


December 12, 2018

by Seneca Vaught
Associate Professor of History, Kennesaw State University

Professors often complain about certain types of questions that students raise.  Some of my personal favorites are: 

  1. Is this going to be on the test?
  2. Do I have to buy the books?
  3. Will there be a study guide?

If you are anything like me, these questions may irk you a bit. Do you long for the halcyon days when intellectual curiosity reigned over this petty obsessiveness with grades? These questions seem to smack of a certain kind of laziness and articulate an attempt to exert the least amount of intellectual effort possible. They imply a view of the professor as a kind of transactional obstacle rather than an intellectual ally.   Yet, could it be that these questions tell another story? Might these inquiries also reveal important shifts in the culture of higher education and student perceptions of its value?

Several years ago, I read an article by Louis Menand entitled, "Live and Learn."  The essay elaborates on a story of a student asking him, "Why did I have to buy this book?" Menand uses the question to delve into a thought experiment about the often contradictory meritocratic and democratic designs of higher education. He concludes that as college became more accessible its value became central to the experience of "making it—not only financially but socially and personally... a token of its transformational powers." These "transformational powers" are still attractive to our students although they have been co-opted by other concerns. Through seemingly banal questions, students are communicating very legitimate concerns about value and how to assume the emotional, intellectual, and financial costs of learning.

For the last several years, I have been interested in the language and rationale Americans use to describe the transformative value of college. In a book published earlier this year, my co-author and I argue against the rigid financial jargon so often employed to describe the college experience as an investment. Such imprecise language undermines public expectations of education and actually hurts the ability of students to attain financial goals in the long-term. Since the $32 billion higher education industry has become more focused on treating students as consumers, new problems have arisen and new questions emerged.

One by-product of treating a college education as a commodity has been the escalating cost of a college education amidst an increasing anti-intellectual sentiment. Ironically, the high sticker price of a college education and its ancillary expenses have made many students increasingly skeptical about the worth of intellectual inquiry. The questions that annoy professors are often ones that reveal legitimate concerns about the value of education as an intellectual enterprise. More than ever before students see minimizing their time in college as a much safer financial decision than meandering in non-major courses, mulling over open-ended questions, and risking extracurricular educational experiences.  Time is money and each credit hour potentially adds to the total cost of a degree.

Though students may be justified in holding anti-intellectual views to save money in the short-term, decades later this approach can prove costly. By attempting to minimize open-ended intellectual encounters, students are accruing missed opportunity costs that they will only be able to truly appraise the value of much later in life. When students pose questions like those above, how should we respond? How can we help them balance concerns about the immediate worth of a college education with less tangible but equally valuable habits of the mind? I would argue that we can help students better assess the worth of college by focusing on the implicitly stated concerns at the core of these three common questions.

Is This Going to Be on the Test?
When students ask, "Is this going to be on the test?" they are communicating a reluctance to engage mental resources. Therein lies a concern about committing the precious commodity of attention to unknown subject material. Students want professors to explicitly clarify the value of knowledge before they decide whether it is worth their time. The underlying view of a college education as a consumer commodity has made this question increasingly common.  Asking "Is this going to be on the test?" annoys most educators but is an important signal phrase for what students are really thinking: "Can I afford to commit?"

One way to help students understand what they can afford to commit to is through the use of authentic assessment. The authentic assessment movement that gained popularity in the 1990s, focused on favoring learning outcomes that were intellectually rewarding over those chosen merely for efficiency's sake (i.e., standardized tests). One example of this would be creating assignments that speak to how what the students are learning in the class might be applied in a real-world scenario. The crux is how we assign value to these activities is also important so that they became more than an intellectual footnote but the mainstay of the course.

When students perceive the true value of education in their ability to navigate open-ended scenarios at the course level, they can also begin to appreciate that exams and credentials are important but are not the ultimate validation of the worth of knowledge. In the knowledge economy, knowledge itself is the commodity where the significance resides. Using authentic assessments helps students navigate the deluge of knowledge by learning to make better decisions on what they can afford to focus on and how they choose to intellectually commit. Learning how and where to assign limited intellectual resources is both a necessary and valuable skill that all students in the information age need our help to develop.

Do I Have to Buy the Books?
When students ask, "Do I have to buy the books?" they are communicating a real concern about wasting resources. Yes, this may seem contradictory, more of a question of spending priorities, but I assure you that they are conscientious shoppers. Students view books and the acquisition of knowledge differently in the era of the college consumer mentality. As Bauerlein laments, in the early 2000s many students began to feel that most questions could be more cheaply and efficiently answered by Google. Additionally, years of standardized testing have underscored an overreliance on simple close-ended questions. The insistence that a personal library of good books is an essential tool to developing a first-rate intellect and that books provide resources for developing better and more complex questions is a novel concept for students raised awash in information. 

As information became more readily accessible during the Information Age, colleges have insisted that students and not the production of knowledge should be at the core of higher educational experiences.  This student-centered approach characterized the culture of higher education administrative incentives until it was replaced by a learner focused approach. The learner-based model emphasizes focusing on the most effective approaches from the scholarship of teaching and learning to create maximum impact. For learner-center approaches to be effective, students and institutions must share the belief that the educational process is a valuable exercise in itself—apart from grades or degrees. 

Ironically, “Do I have to buy the book?” is an important question that urges to us more carefully articulate learner-based strategies.  Not wanting to buy the book is a signifier for certain kinds of students who do not believe that education is valuable as a transformational process but more useful a commodity.  So why would they buy books in an age of free knowledge?  In short, books are costly to collect but more expensive to ignore. This is a difficult concept to convey in an educational landscape preoccupied with a linear model of education and the classroom-to-career pipeline. The collection of books, both read and unread, the "anti-library" as Umberto Eco calls it, are important since the possibilities that curiosity yields is often more valuable than the knowledge we currently possess. Buying the book is an investment in the possibility of future questions rather than the immediate answer. Teaching students that mastery of knowledge means investing in curiosity about the unknown possibilities of the future has always been an essential part of higher education.  The internet may be the platform for intellectual exchanges but books, regardless of format, will remain the core tools of intellectual, creative, political, and economic innovation.

From Standardized to Personalized
When students ask will there be a study guide, they are signaling that they know what you expect for them to learn is important but that their experiences teach them otherwise. By the time most students arrive to college, they have run a gauntlet of standardized tests and a battery of exams that have been poorly aligned with learning outcomes. These cruel instruments have taught them that the ultimate arbiter of value is an exam and not the process of learning. No matter how great a teacher or fulfilling a course may seem, what is ultimately important are the exams, everything else is a distraction.  Students asking for a study guide is a not so subtle reminder that they don't trust you--they need a contract.  Similarly, they view professors as subject to the exam regime itself and not as independent creators of knowledge. Since the content of so many exams are capriciously divorced from the context of courses, students learn to downplay the experience of learning and their intellectual instincts. Because exams have been so standardized in their earlier years, students have also practiced not extracting meaning from the spontaneity of their own guided interactions in the classroom.

For all the talk of the student as a valued customer, I am shocked by the decreasing opportunities offered for individualization and personal exploration. To the contrary, the trajectory of consumer-oriented models of higher education have espoused a standardization of course experiences. We see examples in the increasing regimentation of degree programs and the decreasing space in the curriculum for students to take classes outside of core requirements. Except for general education courses, some students may never have the opportunity to take another course outside of their major. They demand study guides out of the anxiety, knowing that our educational measures of assessment seldom value each student's intellectual journey.

With this rampant curricular walling and lack of individualization, it is very important for instructors to provide opportunities for students to feel that they are in control of their own learning experiences.  Students need to feel responsible for learning outcomes that are important to them. The study guide has long been abused as an exam cheat sheet that standardizes learning outcomes. Rather than wasting intellectual capital on preparing to memorize materials for a test, I think that study guide creation is much more useful as an exercise to show students the value of exploring and organizing knowledge on their own terms. A student-generated study guide can teach them to catalog course content in personally meaningful ways. From there, getting students to form questions that resonate with their own curiosities and interests becomes effortless.  In this way, the value of the study guide displaces the arbitrariness of the test.

In an era, where the college experiences are increasingly characterized by the language of consumption, we must be mindful that beneath the veneer of conspicuous credentialization, students do have legitimate concerns. They bring different experiences and economic realities that are unlike from any generation prior. On the surface, the anti-intellectual questions they pose are certainly frustrating.  However, if we respond to them earnestly and honestly, these questions can be used reaffirm the priceless value of higher education.


Bauerlein, Mark. The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future (or, Don’t Trust Anyone under 30). New York, NY: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Penguin, 2008.

Bunce, Louise, Amy Baird, and Siân E. Jones. “The Student-as-Consumer Approach in Higher Education and Its Effects on Academic Performance.” Studies in Higher Education 42, no. 11 (November 2, 2017): 1958–78.

Delbanco, Andrew. College: What It Was, Is, and Should Be. 1st edition. Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press, 2012.

Goldrick-Rab, Sara. Paying the Price: College Costs, Financial Aid, and the Betrayal of the American Dream. University of Chicago Press, 2016.

Jabbaar-Gyambrah, Tara, and Seneca Vaught. Is College a Lousy Investment?: Negotiating the Hidden Costs of Higher Education. Rowman & Littlefield, 2018.

Menand, Louis. “Live and Learn,” May 30, 2011. 

Newfield, Christopher. The Great Mistake: How We Wrecked Public Universities and How We Can Fix Them. JHU Press, 2016.

Wiggins, Grant. The Case for Authentic Assessment. ERIC Digest, 1990.          


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