A Dose of Reality for First-Year Students and How We Can Help

By the third or fourth week of most courses, students have had a reality check. They have taken the first exam, received feedback on their first paper, or otherwise discovered that the course isn’t quite what they had expected or hoped it would be. Here are a few reminders as to what many beginning students and some others might be thinking at this point in the semester.

Teaching Professor Blog Those who begin college right after high school have been told by everybody that college is going to be harder than high school and they’ll have to study more. Most of these students accept what they’ve been told. The trouble is that’s where their thinking basically stops. They don’t consider what’s going to be harder or how much more studying will be required.

One thing students experience in college is having a lot more freedom than they had in high school, and this freedom extends to their courses. Large classes that make it easy to be anonymous. No exams for the first few weeks. Reading assignments other students say you don’t need to do until just before the exam. Early on, many courses don’t look or feel harder than high school. And when personal lives fill with work, sports, new friends, and sometimes different living arrangements, the distractions are many.

And then there’s how well many students did in high school with limited studying or studying that was wholly teacher guided. By the time an exam rolled around, the student was prepared, knew what to expect, and did well. So even though students expect things to be harder in college, it’s easy for them to persuade themselves they can handle it. What they did in high school worked, so they’ll just do a bit more of the same in college, and everything will be okay.

Another characteristic of many students is their inability to recognize when they do and don’t understand something. When they read their textbooks, they settle in by first selecting the music and snacks that will accompany their studying. Then, with loud music filling their ears, their eyes scan the words and their highlighters move across the pages until they reach the end of the assignment. Students go over their notes by rereading them or, if they’re really conscientious, recopying or typing them. As they review their notes, what they see on the page starts to look familiar, and they equate this familiarity with knowledge. Frequently, students come to exams thinking themselves prepared and believing they’ve studied enough only to discover that they can’t do the problems or answer the questions.

Additionally, there’s the reluctance of students to change their approaches. When asked what they plan to do differently for the next exam, students often respond that they’ll do what they did for the previous one, only they’ll do it more. Dembo and Seli’s research shows that even after successfully completing developmental courses that teach learning strategies, students didn’t change their approaches. Finally, and even more fundamentally, strategies may be known and understood, but unless they’re applied, they’re worthless.

Those are the experiences and thoughts of many of our students at this moment. The question is, what can we do about it? I’m guessing that readers of this blog identify with student struggles and want to respond constructively. Here are some options; you’re welcome to expand the list:

  • Be sure that the first graded activity occurs early in the course, and design the assignment sequence so there’s a way for students to recover from dismal results on the first test or assignment.
  • Consider authentic assignments like the one described in the October issue of the Teaching Professor newsletter where students engage in a number of activities that require them to use effective test preparation strategies. I’ve listed the reference in case you want to take a look now. Less elaborate options are also available: discuss exam review strategies with the class, give students a few minutes to write down their study plans, and then have them revisit and revise those during the exam debriefing.
  • Let students deliver the “how to succeed in this course” messages. On the course website, post comments from former students who can provide effective strategies and approaches. Ask current students to identify study strategies that they do and don’t recommend. List these and share them with the class.
  • Talk about learning strategies in contexts larger than the course. This isn’t just about what’s needed to do well in this course. It’s about learning strategies for life.
  • Let students know that you believe they can do what needs to be done.

References: Dembo, M. H. and Seli, H. P., (2004). Students’ resistance to change in learning strategies courses. Journal of Developmental Education, 27 (3), 2-10.

Steiner, H. H., (2016). The strategy project: Promoting self-regulated learning through an authentic assignment. International Journal of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education, 28 (2), 271-282.

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