Note: I’ve put up a second response to the Greenberger article, addressing the skewed demographics of the sample it relied upon, here.

A journal article by Ellen Greenberger et al, “Self-Entitled College Students: Contributions of Personality, Parenting, and Motivational Factors,” got a big writeup in the New York Times this morning, and it’s been making a pretty serious splash online as a result.

In a nutshell, the article explores what it refers to as the “sense of entitlement” that many professors believe students today exhibit. It reports the findings of a study in which students at one California university were asked whether they agreed or disagreed with fifteen statements regarding their “expectations of special consideration and accommodation by teachers,” and examines some of the factors that may underly such expectations.

I read the study this afternoon, and I’ll have more to say about it tomorrow, but for tonight I just want to highlight one aspect of how it’s been reported. Here’s a passage from the Times article that summed up what many journalists took away from the study:

A third of students surveyed said that they expected B’s just for attending lectures, and 40 percent said they deserved a B for completing the required reading.

Pretty startling, I’ll admit. But it’s a serious misrepresentation of the original article’s findings. Here’s why.

As I noted above, the folks who conducted the study asked students to respond to fifteen statements designed to determine their level of “Academic Entitlement.” Two of those fifteen statements were these:

If I have attended most classes for a course, I deserve at least a grade of B.

If I have completed most of the reading for a course, I deserve a B in that course.

For each statement, students were asked whether they strongly agreed, agreed, slightly agreed, slightly disagreed, disagreed, or strongly disagreed. The study’s authors aggregated all of the “strongly agree, agree, and slightly agree” responses into a percentage, and that’s the percentage the Times used as the basis for the passage quoted above.

Let’s set aside for the moment whether the phrase “If I have attended most classes for a course, I deserve at least a grade of B” means the same thing as “I expect B’s just for attending lectures.” I’m not certain that it does, but let that go for right now. The more important point is that the Times reporter, following the lead of the study’s authors, interpreted even slight agreement with the first statement as identical to the second.

There are other problems with the study, but this is a big one.