As a tenured full professor, I'm mostly scheduled for upper division and graduate courses. However, last year I taught two classes of traditional aged, first-year students. It was a good learning experience and provided me with new insights about beginning college students.
1. First-year students don't know what to major in, or they want to major in everything, or they're majoring in what Mom and Dad have decided are good majors. One student came to me during the first semester to change majors, and again second semester to change to another field. What she really needed was more help from an advisor, the career center, and probably a mini-course on career development. Beyond those resources, students like these need instructors who talk about their disciplines, what career options are possible, and whether or not there are jobs to be had in the field.
Earning dual degrees, or a major and multiple minors, has become increasingly popular. Students want to make themselves as marketable as possible, and with the high cost of college, that's understandable. However, advisement and counseling are necessary to explain all that's required for dual majors and multiple minors.
2. Their high school experiences vary widely. Some students are well-read and have taken a multitude of Advanced Placement (AP) courses. Others are used to retaking quizzes and tests until they get an acceptable score. The takeaway for college instructors is knowing that a lot of students haven't had a high school preparation at all like ours. We need to give explicit instructions about deadlines, assignments, and tests in order to help students make the transition from high school to college.
3. My students didn't differentiate between homework and studying. In high school, homework often takes less than five hours a week for college-bound students, and it means that something is due the next day. In college, we expect students to study even when nothing is due for the next class. Accurate explanations about the amount of studying needed, and how the assignments and readings in the syllabus should be done during the week, provide these students concrete examples of what it means to study in a college course.
4. Beginning students need to learn how to learn. I found it very useful to ask my first-year students how they studied, especially given the results on their first test. They told me they studied with their earbuds in and the music on, or they re-read chapters, highlighter in hand while watching TV. I had to teach them how to test themselves about the readings, how to make flashcards for vocabulary, and how to be active, not passive, learners when they “studied.” Some college professors still maintain that this is not our job, but it has become part of our job. Moreover the study strategies that work in one discipline don't always work in another field. We need to teach students the strategies that work best given the content of the course they are taking with us.
5. First-year students are tech-savvy. During an orientation session, I reminded students to write down where the next meeting would take place. To my surprise, they didn't take about paper and pens, but went for their smart phones. It was my “aha” moment. Let's accept our students' way of doing some things and learn from them. We can tap into their tech-savvy for online review sessions, outside-of-class discussions, and some research techniques.
6. Today's new college students are bright and have big plans. One of the rewards of teaching first-year students is seeing their enthusiasm and energy. Their dreams and aspirations are lofty ones, as they should be. Our job is to help them build a solid foundation for those dreams. If you haven't taught beginning students for a while, I recommend it. It is a wonderful reminder of how it feels to be 18 with the whole world out there waiting to be conquered.
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