If you have ever watched the television show The Big Bang Theory, you know that Dr. Sheldon Cooper sees very little potential in the graduate students at the highly selective California Institute of Technology, as compared to his genius-level intellect. He subscribes to the survival-of-the-fittest philosophy, encouraging students to cut their losses while they can. Thankfully, this parody does not mimic the reality of higher education. In general, the mindset of higher education professionals is largely one of support for student academic success. Given that workloads are ever increasing, however, many exasperated educators ask, “What more can I possibly do?” From my research and experience, I have found four simple strategies that all educators can leverage on the first day of class and beyond to help students get started on the path toward academic success.
- Assume positive intent, especially among first-year students. At our institution, we have noticed that many students have been given false expectations from their high school teachers and counselors regarding the level of effort they will need to expend. Students are often told that college will be easy, giving the impression that effort will not be necessary. Further, our students often have insufficient prior experience from which to guide their behaviors. College courses are more rigorous and conducted at a faster pace with a higher workload than they are used to in high school. Give students the benefit of the doubt because they initially have no idea they are not prepared for college. For example, if students fail to turn in an assignment, don’t assume they are apathetic about their education. If students fail to respond to your emails, don’t assume they are ignoring your information. Use these situations as teachable moments for the whole class, sharing both the rationale behind the assignment/email/etc., as well as your expectations for them. This strategy has been particularly useful with international students who may need additional time to process the language in order to understand course requirements and the content itself.
- Provide clear expectations of what it will take to succeed in your course. This can help students form accurate expectations from the onset. Providing a course calendar or outline within your syllabus, including assessments and due dates, can help students visually see the requirements for the whole term. In the past I have been frustrated when students would tell me they thought the homework was optional or for extra credit. I soon realized that our students lack a basic understanding of what a syllabus is, how to use it, or even when to use it. Now, on the first day of class, we have an intentional discussion about the syllabus as a resource, as a road map to help them navigate through the course. Crossman (2014) provides three additional strategies for utilizing the syllabus as a resource. Giving students access to the rubrics you will use to grade the assessments is another way to provide clear expectations.
- Define the concept of a credit hour. Sharing and explaining this definition can help students understand that they will have to put time and effort into each course to be successful. For example, at our institution, “one credit hour represents approximately an average of three hours of work by a typical student per week.” Our definition further states, “Work includes all activities necessary to achieve the objectives of the learning experience (attending lectures, conducting laboratory experiments, completing assignments, studying for tests, etc.).” A traditional three-credit-hour course, then, would be approximately nine hours of work (six of which would be outside of class). We want students to understand that being a student is their “job,” which means, like any other job, they can expect to work a significant number of hours toward their success. This is particularly important for high-ability populations who have not had to expend much effort in the past in order to be successful.
- Identify the foundational concepts that are necessary for success in the course. This can be a real eye opener for students. This strategy does not presume that you will reteach those concepts. Rather, list the concepts for students, and if possible, provide resources for students to review these concepts (e.g., coordinate with your Learning Center to provide special review sessions or find online courses, such as those from the Khan Academy, that do a good job of explaining the concepts). Encourage students to review this material if it has been a while since they were first exposed to the concepts.
While most educators desire to do what they can to help students succeed, workloads often dictate how much effort can be expended beyond traditional duties. Simple strategies are more likely to be implemented, especially when they can be accomplished early in the course. If educators can assume positive intent, provide clear course expectations, illustrate the definition of a credit hour, and acknowledge foundational concepts, students will be empowered to succeed academically.
CBS. (n.d.). The Big Bang Theory. Retrieved from http://www.cbs.com/shows/big_bang_theory/
Crossman, J. M. (2014, June). Using your syllabus as a learning resource. Faculty Focus. Retrieved from http://www.facultyfocus.com/articles/teaching-and-learning/using-syllabus-learning-resource/
Sarah Forbes is the director of Student Academic Success at Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology where she empowers students to define, develop, and implement plans to achieve their definitions of academic success.