The Post-Secondary Step

As I wrote last time I have been very concerned, obsessed almost, with the idea of college readiness and the role that I play in helping my students in that process (more found here). It has become the leitmotif of my planning, as I return to this question daily, and as part of my quest to better prepare my students for college I contacted an old friend that currently works in Student Support Services at a local university. I wanted to know, do students in post-secondary education find it difficult to adjust from the rigidity of (most) high school classes to the freedoms of college classes? I want to know if my classroom format, my style in some ways, fits the college model. I also asked about the expectations of students regarding their college instructors. Do students have expectations that their instructors in college teach as we do here and does that expectation hinder their learning? Lastly, I asked if there were anything that I could in my classroom to better prepare students for the oncoming college experience. What follows is an edited version of his answers as well as my own commentary.

We spend a lot of time, or should I suppose, worrying about student freedom; allowing them to take the reins in the classroom and taking a backseat thus becoming more of a facilitator. This sentiment was relayed back to me when I asked about freedom and direct instruction. According to “Ed” (I wanted to protect my friend’s identity to an extent) college students, “…are granted a ton of freedom to try and fit their college experience to their goals/interests.” That’s great from my point-of-view; let them dictate the direction of their learning! However, he goes on, “What I see happening more often is that students aren’t sure how to handle this freedom. They expect to be TOLD what to do.” Now, this is a red flag to me because, as we all know, blind compliance is not a 21st Century skill. Of course after reading this I instantly started thinking about the current status of my courses. Am I offering enough choice and student interest to drive the learning and education for my students? So, as I write this, I’ve assigned a self-directed research project to learn more about the Federal Budget in my Econ class. I’ll offer the results of the project with student-reflections and let you all know how it went. However this lack of student-driven learning in high school leads to negative effects in college.

When I asked Ed about students’ expectations regarding their college instructors he stated that the aforementioned inability to direct their own learning has led to a lack of self-motivation to discover on one’s own. This lack of motivation leaves college students awaiting specific instructions that may never come. Without the institutionalized transitions in the classroom college students become apathetic and unable to engage. Ed states, “They have spent their secondary and elementary years being told so often exactly what to do when and where by their teachers that they can’t fathom that they have to make decisions. They don’t read. They don’t understand that they NEED TO READ!” Reading the material, whether it be the textbooks the expository texts, articles, or presentations, is at the foundation of taking over your learning. Without gathering, in some way, shape, or form the building blocks of the information then there’s little chance to finding your passion within it. It is also disconcerting because we spend much time in high school learning and practicing good note-taking skills with the intent that students will transfer these skills to college; how could I let my students down so much? My friend went on to tell me that students simply “tune out” the lectures of their professors. I know, from a personal level, that I have tried to diversify the media of instruction in my course and lectures have been reduced over time. Nonetheless, when lectures do occur, I find that students enjoy this more because I have taken over the content delivery and they don’t “work as hard” to get it. Why then do they ignore this process in college? Perhaps it comes down to the fact that lectures are not the sole vehicle of instruction anymore in high school and students do not understand the extent of their importance in post-secondary. This leads to another issue that students face; their inability to ask for help. Ed says that, “…it is ALARMING how many students won’t go to the Math/Science or Writing Centers until late into their first semester, if at all.” Indeed this is alarming as I try to engender a sense that it’s oaky and normal to have questions and not fully understand the content or directions and therefore questions are welcomed. The fact that students do not feel this empowerment holistically is saddening. I think that Ed’s next sentiment really sums up the entire problem as he goes on, “They don’t realize that the instructor isn’t there to spoon feed the answers anymore, there isn’t a standardized test to prepare for, this is time to LEARN.” The fact that students don’t realize that learning is really different than everything they’ve done to this point is perhaps the scariest of all and leads to what we can do to change this trend.

 “Put more of the student learning on them, and encourage them to LEARN instead of memorize answers.” Unsurprisingly this is Ed’s suggestion to fix many of these issues. This is what college is and where many of our students are falling short. This is the revolution that we need to bring to education. It’s so much more than changing delivery or assessments it’s about changing the focus of the classroom. Many of us have realized that our students have mastered the “game of school.” They have learned what it takes to get from one grade to the next and unfortunately for all of us it isn’t learning material it’s playing a system that has put test scores above knowledge and understanding. It has put graduation rates above learning and that is having a negative effect on their higher education. As Ed puts it, “make them think outside the box and work within a lightly structured assignment frame. It confuses the hell out of them, but after a while, work like this is only going to help prepare them for what’s coming.”