Faculty Club / Wellness / Op-Ed: Why College Professors Need to Show More Compassion

Op-Ed: Why College Professors Need to Show More Compassion

Biology professor Richard Foreman, PhD, says studies show students may need third, fourth, and fifth chances. (Why? Hint: Not all of them are like you!)

Biology professor Richard Foreman, PhD, says studies show students may need third, fourth, and fifth chances. (Why? Hint: Not all of them are like you!)

Richard Foreman, PhD


Professor of Biology,
Albany State University, in Albany, Georgia

PhD in Zoology, MSc in Biology, BA in Biology

I was a bit of a late bloomer. Though I’m a professor now, I was never a diligent student. Even well into my college years, I didn’t expend much effort when it came to my education. Yet I could take and pass tests with relative ease.

Today, as a professor at Albany State University in Albany, Georgia, I realize that I was one of the lucky ones. Last year at the college where I teach, 50% of the freshman class were unable to continue with their education at our institution.

Where they’re not failing out, they’re still losing federal student aid due to plummeting grade point averages. Because almost all of our students rely on Pell Grants due to economic need, losing financial aid is a ticket straight out of college. And that means the loss of life-changing opportunity.

As a human anatomy and physiology professor, I’m exposed to the latest research on brain development. After 22 years of teaching, the data confirms my gut feelings about why our students are failing—and what we as educators can do to turn the tide.

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“I know my students can do the work. But widely variable rates of brain development suggest that many need the extra chances to prove it. They need the adults in their life to demonstrate patience, provide guidance and nurturing, focus more on rewards than punishments, and not take their behavior personally.”
-Richard Foreman, PhD

Course: BIOL 2411K Human Anatomy and Physiology I

Course description: BIOL 2411K is designed as an introductory course in human anatomy and physiology. Discussions include fundamental concepts related to the gross and microscopic structure and functional relationships of the integument, bones, muscles, nerves and endocrine organs. Laboratory exercises supplement the lecture material.

“Brain adolescence” lasts longer than experts once thought

The research indicates that the age band for adolescence has expanded into the mid 20s. As people are starting puberty earlier and reaching adult milestones later, the American Psychiatric Association and other organizations have changed the thresholds for adolescence.

This brain development research provides a biological argument for later adolescence. In the simplest terms, the human brain develops from the bottom back portion (the medulla oblongata), where it connects to the spinal cord, toward the front/top (the frontal lobe). That frontal lobe is where decision-making, impulse control, and empathy (among other things) are situated.

Adults watch young people this age and often cringe at the choices they make. I’ve watched my students demonstrate that they comprehend college-level expectations for things such as attendance and course requirements—yet fail to meet them. Brain research suggests that this may be because their brain development is still in that “gray area” of gray matter in between childhood and adulthood.

“Fairness” is a challenge when brains develop at different rates

Many professors mistakenly assume that if some students can match a particular framework, then everyone else should be able to reach it, too. This can be particularly true of professors who (unlike me) as students were diligent, focused, and following the letter of the law when it came to their own professors’ requirements. These “good students” can be unforgiving professors if they are not aware of the science of brain development.

There’s a difference between equality and equity. The equal approach is far from equitable, because every student comes to our classrooms with a different set of life experiences, resources, and academic preparedness. And because of this, these students are all at different places in terms of brain development.

Some students will be able to easily meet a professor’s deadlines, while others will need to be shown some empathy to be able to eventually get where a professor wants them to go. It’s not a difference in intelligence or ability. Their frontal lobes aren’t finished being wired yet.

We all too often impose inflexible and unrealistic expectations (particularly on those students from underserved and underrepresented populations) by taking an extreme stance—absolutely no (or at least very little) opportunity for late work, make-up exams, and second chances. When we do this, we run contrary to what developmental science suggests about how to best support student success.

Why I teach: “Frontal lobe assists” help all students succeed

That’s why I believe I’m here: to offer students the opportunity to get where they could potentially go. Today’s students need the adults in their lives to provide what I call “frontal lobe assists.” They need educators to demonstrate patience, provide guidance and nurturing, not take their behavior personally, and deliver positive reinforcement for good behavior rather than harsh punishment for less-desirable behavior. In my classroom, “frontal lobe assists” manifest as compassionate policies, such as these:

  • I do a midpoint check-in. Besides continual encouragement and guidance from the beginning of the course, I offer students ways to turn things around if they find they’re underperforming. During our midpoint check-in, they have the opportunity to realize that if they stay on that path, their college careers may come to a screeching halt. Many of them take advantage of the additional chance. I don’t give them extra-credit opportunities. What I want from them moving forward is to show me that they can do the required work that they either didn’t turn in, or on which they initially did a poor job. I do a calculation with them as to what their potential grade in the course can be if, moving forward, they are willing to change what they have been doing thus far and fill in the gaps in the early performances.
  • I accept late work. This is unlike so many of the educators I know! I explain to students why it benefits them to submit assignments by the due date. But I don’t levy heavy penalties for late work. Although I make it abundantly clear to them that the assessments they are asked to complete are to help them prepare for the upcoming exam, even completing them after the fact is beneficial. Since their final exam is comprehensive, and the final exam grade can also replace their lowest regular course exam grade, learning things prior to the end of the semester can be very important with regard to their overall result. That final exam itself can potentially be worth 26% of their final grade in the course if they also need to use it as a replacement grade.
  • I offer the opportunity to redo assignments. If something is not up to par the first go-round, I give students feedback and let them try again (not exams, but anything else is fair game), because I think it’s the right thing to do and because there are learning benefits for doing so. Students regularly demonstrate greatly improved comprehension on a resubmission. Often the first submission was a rushed version of the work in an attempt to meet an artificial deadline. Given another chance to show what they know, most come through with much improved work.

Why I believe in second, third, fourth, and fifth chances

Gaining an understanding of developmental milestones has afforded me a great deal of empathy for students. I can no longer see students’ failures—or their lack of doing what I encourage them to do on my timeline—as an affront to me or as an individualized failure. Many students genuinely do not and cannot understand the implications of these kinds of decisions.

My class is a hard class. I could fail over half the class every semester because students are not meeting my expectations. But for most students, this is their one shot. They’re dependent on financial aid that’s tied to their academic performance, but they’re just not skilled yet.

For this reason, I believe not just in second chances but in third, fourth, and fifth chances. Sometimes it’s hard on me, but I’m willing to put their needs over my own convenience. If increased flexibility can help save even one student’s academic career, then my extra time and effort is worth it. If everyone could do just a little bit more, it would make a big difference in overall success rates, particularly at academic institutions where entrance requirements do not automatically determine that the vast majority of your students have completed frontal lobe development early. They’ll eventually get there as they get older. It’s why older students returning to college are so amazing. The problem is that for most students, coming back probably isn’t an option and this is their one and only shot.

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