We know what does or doesn’t make college students successful—we have 30 years’ worth of research to that end. And yet we continue to struggle to get students to embrace the principles of success.
Perhaps it’s because we expect them to come in with an understanding of those principles and apply them to their studies in the first year of college. And trust me, I am all about high expectations—high standards are important to student success. But here’s the problem: no one has taught them what those principles are or how to use them. The high schools certainly don’t. Of course, they also don’t hold students accountable for knowing or using them. And then we do hold them accountable—we expect them to apply those principles for success. But we don’t teach them what they are how to use them either.
What, then, do we expect?
One of the most powerful principles of success is simply active involvement. Students come to us from high school with absolutely no idea about how to be actively involved in their own learning. They’ve never been responsible for their own learning. They’ll readily tell you (or at least they readily tell me) they haven’t done homework in years (maybe ever), never had to take notes during or outside of class, have no idea what “active reading” or “active listening” is, have always studied for a test for about 20 minutes total the night before (and gotten As), and have only had to memorize material—never apply it, analyze it, synthesize it, or evaluate it. They have, essentially, been spoon-fed. High schools tell students explicitly what to do, when to do it, how to do it. We expect them to know what to do, when to do it, and how to do it without us explicitly telling them Now, I’ve said before that I don’t blame the teachers for this—they are trapped in a system that favors memorization and measures it with standardized multiple-choice tests. The system is seriously flawed. And as a result, the students who come to college have a seriously flawed perception of what it takes to be successful.
What does this mean for us?
It’s simple (and yet not): it means we have to find a way to integrate into the students’ first year experience the principles of success—make them understand them, use them—let them see their value. As faculty, we can do this by taking a time-out in our classes to be a little prescriptive. One of the sociology teachers with whom I worked in learning communities, started doing this by creating and delivering a lesson on “How to Write for Sociology.” The students obviously didn’t know—they actually had no idea how to write anything for a college class, falling back on summary regardless of instruction to analyze, evaluate, and synthesize instead. And so she replaced one of her traditional lectures with a class dedicated to some prescriptive instruction.
As faculty, we can also explain to students the importance of out-of-class work to success in our classes. Students do not realize that full time status as a student is called that because it’s the equivalent of working a full-time job: 40 hours a week. They look at their college schedule and see they’ll only be in class for 12-15 hours a week, and given that most of the work for their high school class happened in class (remember: no homework), they fail to see that for every one hour in class, they’ll need to be spending two to three hours outside of class to be successful (12 + (12*3) = 48). At the beginning of my class I tell my students this, but I also recognize that they put little credence in what I say at this point.
So for the first assignment in my English class, for example, students write a diagnostic essay outlining their plan for success in the class. Of course, they have no idea what they’ll need to do to succeed, so I give them a packet of letters from former successful students to read. These letters explain the value of writing, revising, and editing outside of class—by meeting with the instructor during office hours, by visiting a writing tutor in our Tutoring Center, by working with fellow students outside of class. The students who write these letters illustrate that spending significant time outside of class increases success in class. They often explain how they didn’t buy into what I tried to tell them in the beginning either. They share the experiences of their first failures and the steps they took to improve. My new students are tasked with reading these letters and basing their diagnostic essays on them. It is one small way I, as a faculty member, can help set my students up for success by introducing to them some of the most powerful principles of college success.
We expect our students to be college-ready. They’ve spent the last four years being told they’re preparing for college. But what those of us in the field—in the classrooms—know is this: students come into college underprepared, unready for the challenges of the collegiate environment. We know this, and we complain about it. But we also need to do something about it. No, we are not alone responsible for our students’ success or failure. There are oh, so many, factors that contribute to students’ success or failure. But we do play a role, and playing that role to the best of our ability means examining the principles of student success, understanding and accepting the characteristics and experiences of our students as they enter our institution, and responding by trying to get students to see the value of and then embrace the principles of success.