Thursday, May 21, 2015

Freshman Expectations: "You Aren't In High School Anymore!"

Yesterday I posted a bit about good pedagogy, and technology, and navigating change in today's educational environment. My friend Ed replied and his point got me thinking some more about one part of the discussion fodder I shared in that post in particular: the idea that there is a real difference in expectations for learning in high school vs. learning in college. He was responding to a quote I shared in that piece that came from an article entitled "Message to My Freshman Students."

You see, I teach a lot of freshmen, first year college students. As in, they were just in high school in May, and then show up in my college class in August.

So I'm thinking now about how I can better help the freshmen I teach in Intro to Education understand the difference in expectations for their learning from high school to college. Because if I'm going to expect them to be dramatically different learners than they were in high school, they need to understand the difference.
We (college faculty) sometimes say things like, "You aren't in high school anymore!" I think this is meant to inspire/shock/encourage/scare freshmen into understanding that there is a significant difference in expectation for the level of work that is expected for learning in college. Specifically, they need to be more self-directed, and listen closely, and think deeply, and synthesize things without someone necessarily laying out bite-sized pieces in a tidy trail of thinking.

And, really, this is what I want from my college students. They aren't in high school anymore. The work should be substantially more demanding. They will have to learn to approach learning differently--perhaps dramatically differently than they did in high school.

In the "Message to My Freshman Students" I've linked above, the author goes out of his way to make it clear that he believes that college students have to become acculturated to their new environment, very much like integrating into "another country, one with different culture and values." And I agree with that sentiment. But I am also thinking about my role in helping them make this transition.

I mean, really...when they come into my classroom at the end of August, they are expected to suddenly, immediately exhibit this new way of thinking, right? When just three months ago, they had to ask permission to use the bathroom. Talk about a shift in culture!

So, my question to you can I help my first-year students make a good, healthy, mindful transition into the expectations of "college learning?" How do we welcome these immigrants into a new culture?

Image by CharlottesPhotoGallery [CC BY-NC-SA 2.0]


  1. Great questions! I teach a first-semester seminar and this is on my mind all the time. One thing I pay attention to is making sure that I'm not replicating any bad practice in my classroom because "that's the way things are in college." I make expectations very clear, I intentionally design learning activities and structure conversations, and I absolutely don't lecture at students unless that is pedagogically the best idea (hint: it almost never is!). To me, the clarity of expectations is really the biggest thing, because it then allows me to say to students: "You know what's expected of you, now let's figure out how you can get there." I provide students with resources and options for getting support, and then constantly remind them how they can take advantage of them. I invite students to reflect on why they didn't turn in an assignment, rather than just docking them points and moving on. I provide opportunities for conferencing and multiple ways to get in touch with me. It's a lot of work - but the first year of college is so essential to retention and later success. I'd love to talk more about this if you want! I'm @shevtech on Twitter

    1. Thanks for taking the time to comment, Alex. (I just followed you on Twitter too...)

      I love your point about "now let's figure out how you can get there." This seems very wise to me: not leaving the students high-and-dry, but also not doing it *for* them. They are definitely part of the process, and without that personal buy-in, it won't make a difference, right? I will support and advise, but in the end, they have to be the ones who commit.

  2. Yes, absolutely. One way to think about this is a venn diagram of three things: motivation, skill, and capacity. Motivation: do students want to be there/want to learn/want to do whatever it is you're asking them to do? Skill: do they actually have the skills to do it yet? And capacity: are they able to do it - either at this moment in time (are they too hungry/tired/stressed?) or in the bigger picture (impacted by trauma/poverty/developmental delays)? When any one of those three is lacking, we scaffold toward it. Example: if a student has the skills to write a paper, and has the capacity to write a paper, but isn't motivated, I might talk her through how the paper connects to her larger goals to help her build some intrinsic motivation. If she is motivated and has the capacity but doesn't have the skills to write a paper, I need to support her to build those skills, and she'll be engaged with that because has the other two. If she doesn't have the capacity, say, because her grandmother just died, I would support her to find resources in her community (a counselor? a friend? a parent?) to help her manage her emotions so she can use her skill and motivation to succeed.