Student Well-Being

Are You Enabling ‘Academic Entitlement’ in Students?

By Sarah D. Sparks — May 27, 2012 2 min read
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Does this scenario sound familiar? After test results come out, a student approaches the teacher after class, arguing, “I come to class every day; I deserve at least a B!”

Students’ sense of academic entitlement can reduce their effort in class and lead to irritating (or even aggressive) confrontations with teachers, according to research by Tracey E. Zinn, a psychology associate professor at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Va. Moreover, teachers may be unintentionally feeding that sense of entitlement, she said at the Association for Psychological Science conference here this weekend.

Zinn and James Madison colleagues Jason P. Kopp, Sara J. Finney and Daniel P. Jurich are researching ways to measure academic entitlement and how it develops. Perhaps not surprisingly, the researchers found the college students they studied were most likely to show “serious instances of incivility” right after academic assessments, be they test results or mid-term grades.

There were a few clear symptoms of a student developing a sense of entitlement, including the beliefs that:

• Knowledge is a “right” that should be delivered with little effort or discomfort on the student’s part;
• A high grade should come, not from mastery of material, but in return for non-academic aspects of education, such as the student showing up to class, or the student or her family paying tuition or taxes which go to the teacher’s salary; and
• If a student didn’t perform well on a test, it is a sign that the test was too difficult, not that the student did not understand the material.

Zinn and her colleagues found that students that scored high on an assessment of academic entitlement were less able to regulate their own learning and had less sense of control. Moreover, students with a high sense of entitlement were found to have a history of “executive” help-seeking—for example, asking, “Can you tell me the right answer?"—while students with a low sense of entitlement were more likely to have sought “instrumental” help, i.e., asking “Can you help me understand this concept?”

While Zinn has not found direct cause and effect between specific teacher behaviors and student entitlement, she said the research suggests there are some potential ways teachers can cut down on the whine, such as providing clear expectations for students and assignments, in which the effort put in is clearly related to the grade a student will receive.

“We often think students walk into class agreeing with you or knowing what is the right thing to do,” Zinn said, “but it’s important to explain why you have particular policies ... and explain the value of the task you ask them to do” as opposed to letting students get in the habit of thinking assignments are “busywork.”

Moreover, she urged teachers not to respond to student requests for “the right answer,” but rather help students to understand the concepts and to think through their own problem-solving.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Inside School Research blog.