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Helping first-year students academically acclimate to college (opinion)

As students begin their college studies in the next few weeks, those of us who teach them should realize that traditionally-aged first-year college students, in many ways, respond to their initial college experiences just as much as sixth-graders do in their first year of middle school.

Of course, I don’t mean to say that 18-22 year olds behave like 12-13 year olds in every way. Certainly junior college students have a higher degree of development than sixth graders, and their emotional maturity is also more mature.

However, there are some similarities that we must keep in mind as we teach new first year students when they arrive on campus. This perspective can help us keep our mind, enhance our patience with our learners, and help these newcomers adjust to become a successful part of the academic community.

I have taught seventh and eighth grade English for 14 years, four of them at a small rural high school/high school in Illinois and 10 at an inner-city middle school in Houston. At the time, I noticed this transitional stage in life from childhood to adolescence. I also started teaching part-time at a community college. A few years later, I started taking former eighth-graders into first-year writing classes at my college. And I’ve noticed a number of similarities between students who are just starting out in middle school and those who are just starting out in college.

The sixth graders were no longer children, but they were definitely not adults. The adults around them, parents and teachers, expect them to act like adults, but they don’t know how to act yet. Adults want these students to be more independent, but when they try to act independently on their own, they make mistakes and are criticized for doing so. So sixth graders are coming back to child-like responses because that’s what they already know.

Likewise, many college students are no longer teenagers, but are no longer emotionally mature adults or experienced professionals. The adults around them, parents and professors, expect them to behave like adults and scientists, but they don’t know how yet. Adults want these students to be more independent, but when they try to act independently on their own, they make mistakes and are criticized for doing so. So the early years come back to teens’ responses because that’s what they already know.

What this means in practice is that despite their differences in age and maturity, the two groups share similar challenges and issues.

Changing physical environment. For sixth graders, the transition to middle school is both tragic and traumatic. Fifth graders remain in one room with one teacher and the same group of children all day. Each student is assigned a desk for their books and supplies. The class goes to rest, lunch, and gatherings as one unit.

However, sixth graders often have to move between multiple rooms in a three to five minute transition to see a different teacher and attend classes with different students, with change throughout the day. Seats may be allocated, but students do not leave their belongings in the same seat or desk when class is over. Instead, they have a locker in the hallway – another stopping point in their short transition. Students are not expected to stay together during lunch or gatherings. In a similar fashion, the first years of college come from a high school environment usually in one building and you are now expected to roam the college campus on several acres of property with classrooms in a variety of locations.

Different academic expectations. Sixth graders from meeting the expectations of a teacher come into a situation where they now have to deal with many different instructors, each with different requirements related to delay, behavior, homework, exams, teamwork, and other factors. Likewise, the first years of college must adapt to new and different requirements for attendance, assignment delivery, reading and work exercises for information (not class), schoolwork outside of class, use of time between classes, etc.

new social environments. Since they previously spent most of their time with one teacher and the same students each year, the 6th graders’ circle of friends may be rather small when entering middle school. There, however, many elementary schools often unite, creating a much larger student body. Likewise, the former circle of friends of first-year university students may be much smaller than the population at a college or university, with all students attending of different ages, ethnic groups, economic backgrounds, and nationalities. Add to this the new liberties of early college years of being away from home for the first time, and social life offers stiff competition for serious classroom study.

More academic independence. Students in both groups should do more of the work themselves. Making use of the time between and outside the classroom, getting help from teachers, studying with classmates outside of class, working with classmates during class, completing and delivering assignments on time, asking for help when they need it – all of this can be challenging for both Sixth and first year college students.

More difficult classes. School work becomes more difficult in the sixth grade and becomes more difficult each subsequent year. Instead of relatively simple exercises such as matching pictures and numbers and fill in the blanks tests, students are increasingly being asked to demonstrate more complex applications of the knowledge they have mastered. In the same way, the faculty no longer demands only the basic knowledge and levels of understanding for Bloom’s taxonomy, but the levels of application, analysis, synthesis, and evaluation. As adult education and the andragogic teaching strategies of the case method increase, Socratic dialogue and confrontation also engage college students at higher levels of thinking to which they are not accustomed from previous high school studies.

Shift from extrinsic motivation to intrinsic motivation. Sixth graders are motivated more by extrinsic than intrinsic: I clean my room because my mom told me so and not because I want to; I do my laundry because my mom asked me to; I mow the lawn because my father commanded me to do so; I do my school work because my teacher does the tasks and my parents force me to learn, not because I want to learn.

Likewise, early years in college are driven more by due dates in the curriculum than by their desire to get work done on their own. This is the difference between learning the course material for the score/grade versus learning it just for it. It is the difference between a professor reminding and remembering for themselves, between wanting to get a high rate and wanting to learn content and skills.

New study habits. Their experience in elementary school was that sixth graders get their homework done before they leave school so they have no homework, with the possible exception of special projects. So, too, previous experience in K-12 college grades often allowed them to do less work outside of the classroom and take away extra credit without studying as much. Many can improvise or pretend their way during class time, and still “fit in” and do “well” with their grades. But in college, they are increasingly finding that they must devote more study time outside of class to get better grades and learn the material. Procrastination still works on tasks, but the consequences may be more painful than they are used to from past experiences. Underestimating time management for academic work is a big problem.

Teaching Suggestions

Teaching first- and second-year college students can be frustrating, because we professors say the same thing, semester after semester, to student after student, and they just don’t seem to get it. But that fits the job. Each class brings us new students who have never heard of it, and who need to hear it from multiple voices in order to plunge into it. We frequently ask if we expect them to think and act like the most experienced third and fourth year students or graduates who know their way around and are aligned with new expectations.

Another consideration for those of us who teach in college is that it is more about working with non-scientists to turn them into scientists than it is about trying to help immature people grow. We expect the early years to be as interested in the topic as we or our graduate students are rather than recognizing that they are undecided beginners.

So, what should we do? we should:

  • definitely Not Treat first and second year students in our college as if they were sixth graders. But we need to look at this period of their lives, their first two years of college, as a predictable, predictable transition and help them navigate and not stress over it.
  • Be patient with the constant supply of student requests for information already in the syllabus or posted in the Learning Management System, for extra credit, to accept late work, to make 1001 excuses for not completing a task etc. Their previous education imposed on them preconditions for these hypothetical habits. Don’t give in to such requests, but help students deal with their choices and the consequences for them.
  • Be clear about higher expectations and stick to them so that students too can appreciate them as worth pursuing—and eventually realize that they can set higher expectations for themselves. Completing assignments before the due date is a good career world practice and valuable work habits that continue well beyond college assignments and schoolwork.
  • Encourage students in the abilities they demonstrate to build their confidence, and work with them in those areas where they are weak.
  • Encourage them to take on the challenge of the most difficult academic work and show them how to accomplish it in practical ways with visible results.
  • Help them become more aware of the need to be adaptable to changes and how to improvise solutions to new problems.

It encourages that they did not stay in the early years. The early years pick up on how college works and move on from there, succeeding in ways they can’t even imagine — and, in fact, in ways we can’t even imagine.


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