To Wash. U. instructors: a survey concerning extra class costs

Fangzhou Xiao

On Feb. 3, I initiated a survey on Facebook about third-party, for-profit services Wash. U. instructors use that cost students extra beyond tuition and books. As of last Monday, I had received 157 undergraduate student responses spanning each of the undergraduate schools. About 92 percent of respondents said they had taken courses at Wash. U. that required extra cost, and 62.4 percent of them had spent more than $50. About 30 undergraduate courses require additional course fees.

Generally, students find it upsetting that some instructors try to improve their classes by making expensive, extra purchases mandatory for their course without discussing them with the students.

Nearly 96 percent of respondents found such costs unreasonable or said that a less expensive solution could be found. Some of the purchases“[did] not help course at all.” An engineering sophomore said, “Mastering engineering is not only exorbitantly expensive but also a huge pain to use and not at all more convenient.” Another engineering sophomore who took Ceramics commented that “the clay quality sucked and caused a lot of my works to have unnecessary flaws. Having store-bought clays and tools would benefit the class.”

Second, some students expressed that the extra cost came as a surprise, and they found it a worrisome that students’ grades are significantly influenced by whether they pay extra, which, in other words, “appears to be a way for students to ‘buy’ extra credit in the course,” as commented by an engineering freshman. Andy Salerno, a freshman planning on majoring in computer science, said, “Physics 118 required us to buy online tutorial videos for $25…when you think you are done paying for textbooks, they make you pay more for the videos.” Another freshman in engineering said, “It wouldn’t be fair to establish a penalty for not paying additional costs as some people can’t afford it.”

Students also suggested several feasible solutions to the problem. For simple functions such as real-time feedback in class, students suggested that a free phone application could be developed. An immediate solution: the school could recycle used iClickers from current students and freely distribute them to future students in classes that need them. For online homework systems, the instructors could try to use free substitutes, as several free websites with similar programs are available. For example, an engineering freshman suggested that the cost of WebAssign in Calculus III “is not at all justified. WebWork worked just fine for [Calculus II] and was not an extra expense.” A junior in the College of Arts & Sciences, regarding art students’ expensive supplies, said, “I think covering things bought and used in bulk—paper, for example—should probably be covered.”

On the other hand, professors have a different perspective. Professor Tuan-hua Ho, when speaking in the first lectures in Principles of Biology I, expressed that the purpose of using iClicker system is to have real-time feedback. Associate professor Daniel Moran, instructor of Biomechanics, said that the MasteringEngineering system helped him know which concepts to stress by keeping track of students’ performance. The MasterEngineering data are used in a report to the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology for the biomedical engineering program’s accreditation. When talking about students’ possible reactions, Moran said, “They won’t like it” but added that the cost shouldn’t be a concern because every student ought to buy the textbook in the first place and in these courses, iClickers were equivalent to textbooks.

Most importantly, these extra charges strain the professor-student relationship as students are in a weak position both in authority and power compared to the instructors. While an unreasonable academic demand can be worked around by talking to professors and achieving a consensus, a demand that students spend extra for grades cannot be negotiated. As one freshman in Arts & Sciences said, “They terrified us into buying iClickers by giving statistics on the number of students whose grade would have increased by a letter had they participated in the extra credit questions.”

Not all such charges are unpopular with students. However, there are many examples of uncalled-for charges that result in irritation and animosity, and student feedback is the only true standard differentiating improvement from mistakes.