Helping First-semester Students Learn from Mistakes

Teaching first-semester students has its own special challenges. The students all start out optimistic, but soon, many start making poor decisions such as skipping class, not doing the reading, not participating or even paying attention, and missing small and not-so-small assignments.

For some, that first poor grade causes them to realize that college requires more effort than high school, but by then they are so behind on points, it will be hard to do well. To help them out, I include some extra-credit assignments near the end of course. I know, many faculty members have philosophical quarrels with extra credit, and so you may not want to use these as extra credit options. I think they would work just as well as short assignments or even as prompts for discussions that might occur as the course nears its end. What pleases me about these prompts is the way they promote reflection and seem to clarify for students important learning lessons.

A friend asks if he/she should take this course. Would you recommend it? Why? Why not? What would you tell students they should do if they want to do well in the course?

Frequently I have students write this as a letter to their friend. They put it in a sealed envelope with their name on the front. I give them 10 points for doing the assignment. I read the letters after grades have been submitted. I am always a bit encouraged that even though many of these students have not done as well as they could have in the course, they know what they should have done and offer their friends really good advice. Hopefully, they will apply what they’ve learned about success in this course to other courses. I usually end up reading a couple of these letters on the first day of a new class.

Reflect on your first semester in college: Identify the three most important lessons you’ve learned. Discuss those lessons, how you learned them, and how they will affect your next semester in college.
I am totally sold on this assignment for first-semester students as it forces them to get after themselves about things like time management, not paying attention to details, thinking they could coast as they did in high school and do fine, skipping, cramming, and not doing the reading.

Reflect on your performance in this class: What have you done that bears repeating in other courses? What mistakes have you made that you might want to avoid making in future classes?
The goal with this prompt is to get students thinking about the process of learning and what they are learning about learning that will help them in subsequent courses and serve them well in life.

Excerpted from Helping Students Take Stock of Learning, The Teaching Professor, February 2007.