August 27th, 2012

This Isn’t High School: Advice for Faculty Teaching First-Year Students


Stop me if you’ve heard this one. It’s week 12 of a 15-week-semester and a student shows up during office hours asking, begging, for some way that he can raise his grade. He needs a B, he says, or he could lose his scholarship.

For most college professors, it’s an all-too-familiar scenario. Whether it’s the student who is in real danger of failing the course or the student who is unaccustomed to any grade lower than an A, many students make these pleas for the very simple reason that many high schools allow students to retake tests or do extra-credit assignments to raise their grades. When these students get to college, they expect similar options and often struggle without them, said Mary Clement, EdD, director of the Center for Teaching Excellence at Berry College, where she also is a professor of teacher education.

During the recent online seminar A Good Start: Helping First-Year Students Acclimate to College, Clement shared ideas for recalibrating student expectations of how things work in college so they can be successful during that first critical year and beyond.

“How do we change this mindset going from high school into college?” Clement asked. “The number one way is to put your policy in writing in the syllabus. If the paper is due Monday, and the student is not in class that day, will the paper be accepted after Monday? Will it be accepted after Monday at all? If the answer is yes, until when and with what penalty?”

Further, because there’s so much variation across different high schools in terms of homework, attendance requirements and making up for missed work, and grading practices, Clement recommends creating an interest inventory to give students during the first week of class. If it is anonymous, students may feel more comfortable answering the questions. Here are some questions you may wish to ask, and use as a springboard for discussing your expectations for the course:

  • Describe your high school academic program. For example, did you take any Advanced Placement courses?
  • About how many days were you absent during your senior year of high school? Was it easy to have “excused” absences in your school? Could you make up the work missed, including tests?
  • Were you ever allowed to re-take a quiz or test? If so, please describe the policy.
  • About how many hours did you study per week? Which subjects required the most homework?
  • Were you able to check your grades throughout the semester in high school? If so, how (electronically through the school’s website, by keeping track yourself, by checking with the teacher)?
  • If your grade in a high school class was not as high as you wanted, could you complete extra credit or re-do assignments and tests to improve the grade? Please describe.

“Why should we know about high school [policies]?” Clement asked. “I think that knowing helps us to meet students where they are and then change their mindsets for college success. This is not about making college like high school. College is very different, and, yes, college should be different.”

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  • Feryal

    I found out that I also need to motivate students to read through the syllabus to be aware of all my expectations. So I give my students a "syllabus quiz" in which they are expected to answer questions such as
    * In which cases can you make up exams? What about in-class work?
    * What do you do if you miss class?
    * Find the course grade of a student who has the following grades in each assignment: …
    * You are terribly sick on the exam day. What should you do?
    I also give students their course grade total after each midterm exam and right before the final. In the last three years, I don't recall any student asking me at the end of the semester how to improve their grade.

  • Amy Simoneau

    Interesting comment, Feryal – I do the same thing. How has it worked for you?

    My quiz is multiple-choice, though, and the students work in groups. They all sign their names at the bottom of the quiz, then we take it up together in class. This allows us to review the policies and make sure that everyone understands. I then keep the quizzes as evidence that policies were made clear in the first week. I learnt this technique from an early mentor, and it has worked very well.

    • Lilis

      I do not follow your steps but I will try all suggestions here as I will be teaching students from other faculty..who may not be accustomed to our school's practices. Tx

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  • Sioux

    I, too, create a syllabus quiz (glad to see I'm not the only one doing this) to raise student awareness right off. However, I will take some of the suggestions I see here and incorporate them. I also ask students to fill out a brief profile so that I have some sense of where they are coming from acdemically and from a motivational standpoint. What do they want out of college, what do they expect to be doing in the next 5 years–questions of those sort. I have to admit that this is not entirely my own idea; I reshaped it from one of my own mentors in college, a philosophy professor from Yale, and continue to reshape it for each individual course as needed. Contrary to today's standards, I really had respect for my professors and kept negative emotions to myself, looking inward first. This last one is a hard one to teach especially with the wide spectrum of blogging and interfacing on line that seems to put a veil between reality and perception. Nevertheless, this was very much worth my time. Thank you for the presentation and to the other bloggers for their input. Subversively conservative

  • Jan

    I haven't tried a syllabus quiz, but I use the last 5-7 minutes of the first class to talk about the syllabus. I make sure to tell my first-years about how a syllabus is like a contract, and that I keep my end of things. And I tell them that if they ask me a question that is answered in the syllabus, I will gently respond with a kind, "oh, that's in the syllabus… I'm happy to answer questions if the syllabus isn't clear." I tell them I'm teaching them good college habits when I do this, not that I'm trying to be annoying. THEN I highlight two things in my syllabus for them.

    Also, the late paper/assignment issue isn't just a difference from high school culture to college culture; it varies widely within (my) college. Some profs take things late with no penalties, some never accept late work, and most are in the middle somewhere. This situation is confusing for students (not just the first years!), and I tell them flat out that the landscape "out there" is varied on the late assignment policy. Then I tell them my policy.

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