During my first year in college, an orientation speaker told each of us, “Look at the student on your left.” We did. “Now look at the student on your right.” We did. “One of you,” he told us, “will not be here next year.”
Was he trying to discourage us? Was he trying to warn us that our school had an exceptionally low retention of students? No. According to U.S. News, this is the average for good schools. This speaker wanted us to realize the seriousness of college and to motivate us towards diligence in our studies.
In teaching freshman, there are two particular issues which often keep new college students from succeeding. The first, as this speaker went on to tell us, is a misunderstanding about the difference between college and high school. Actually, there are many differences, but one of the biggest can be summed up in these words: College is not 13th grade. Too many freshmen think it is. This misunderstanding particularly hits in two important areas.
First, college is harder than high school. That truth should be obvious, but over and over again, students respond in shock that their college teachers give longer assignments and harder assignments, and the teachers expect more from those assignments. I frequently warn my freshman writing students, “If you usually got A’s on your high school English papers, expect to see C’s on your first one or two papers.” Why? Partly because “exceptional” in high school usually means “average” in college. We’ve raised the stakes. Students have to work, not just harder, but at a higher level.
Some students chose the “college prep” track in high school. They usually come in better prepared for college expectations. But many deliberately avoided those “harder” classes. Such avoidance may have raised their high school grade point average, but they will now have to struggle more in college. And even Advanced Placement classes, although they have higher demands than non-AP classes, because they take place in the high school environment, still do not usually equal college courses completely.
Don’t be surprised or shocked that college is harder. College courses generally ask for a deeper level of thinking and reasoning. The teachers don’t give all the answers now. Students have entered an intellectual arena where they are supposed to ask more questions, although not necessarily outloud.
Take notes on the assigned readings. Underline and highlight. Write down thoughts and “why” questions in the margins of books or in notebooks. Take detailed notes in class. Not just the words the professors put on the board. Write down as much as possible of what they say about those things they put on the board. If the teacher “suggests” or “recommends” a source, find it. Look it over. Figure out how this source connects to the class.
All of this, and more, gets summed up in what college teachers (and college accreditation boards) call “critical thinking.” Many high school teachers do expect a degree of critical thinking from their students. Most college instructors expect a lot of it.
One of the other main differences between college and high school has to do with “free time.” In high school, most students follow rigid schedules set up by the school, which even includes set study periods. Few college students have such external schedules. So freshman make the mistake of thinking that whenever they aren’t in class, they are “free.” They can do as they like. Hey, the way it looks on the schedule, the students have more free time than ever before.
Wrong. Don’t be deceived. Actually, you have less free time.
Yes, you have less time that other people have scheduled. But now you have to budget your time on your own. You have to decide how many hours you will need to accomplish the assignments set by the teachers. Don’t look for much “in class” work time.
In fact, a good rule of thumb to start with is 2:1. Plan to spend at least two hours in study for every one hour you spend in class. Some classes will require less time from you, some will call for more, but this is a good average to start with. What? Does that mean that a schedule of 15 hours of class really means 45 hours a week of class plus homework? Yes. Or more.
This is why work-study programs offered by schools restrict students to 20-hour work schedules. This is why students who try to work full-time and attend school full-time usually collapse with exhaustion (and the latest “bug” going around) before the semester ends. Students with family responsibilities as well will find themselves even more taxed.
They say that “forewarned is fore-armed.” This not to discourage you, but to help you understand the very real challenges of college. Make sure that you’re part of the two thirds who return for the next year of study.