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.”