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First Semester Regrets: Unavoidable?

Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning

Message Number: 
508

Knowing that new students will arrive on campus a little bit early, I send them an email the week before classes begin. I welcome them to campus, tell them about our upcoming course, and try to explain why their responsibilities, in a college class meeting three times a week for fifteen weeks, are different from what they were in such a class in high school, where the same content would typically be covered in a class meeting daily for the entire school year.

Folks:

The posting below gives some helpful advice on how to help college freshman get started on the right foot. It is by Linda L. Walsh, Department of Psychology, University of Northern Iowa, and is number 18 in a series of selected excerpts from the National Teaching and Learning Forum newsletter reproduced here as part of our "Shared Mission Partnership." NT&LF has a wealth of information on all aspects of teaching and learning. If you are not already a subscriber, you can check it out at [http://www.ntlf.com/] The on-line edition of the Forum--like the printed version - offers subscribers insight from colleagues eager to share new ways of helping students reach the highest levels of learning. National Teaching and Learning Forum Newsletter, September, 2003, Volume 12, Number 5, ? Copyright 1996-2003. Published by James Rhem & Associates, Inc. (ISSN 1057-2880) All rights reserved worldwide. Reprinted with permission.

Regards,

Rick Reis

reis@stanford.edu

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Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning

 

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FIRST SEMESTER REGRETS: UNAVOIDABLE?

Linda L. Walsh, Department of Psychology University of Northern Iowa

 

Every fall a new crop of recent high school graduates arrives on campus-excited, nervous, and, I'm sure, with every intention to succeed. Most probably receive advice about how to do well in college from multiple sources: guidance counselors, family, older friends or siblings, freshman orientation staff, books, and college materials. Instructors of first year courses may make a point of discussing-in class or in the syllabus-their expectations, the importance of doing course readings, the hours of study that will be required, and student responsibilities in the learning process. But for far too many students these repeated messages just don't seem to have a lasting effect.

Maybe it's because going to classes and studying are the most familiar of the experiences facing new college students living away from home for the first time. They've listened to lectures and taken tests before; college classes may be a little harder but what's the big deal? On the other hand, they haven't yet had to live in close quarters with a stranger, try to meet and make friends with so many new people, manage their finances and their daily lives, and learn how to function in a new environment without their usual social supports.

Although I'd like to think that I have always been concerned about my students' learning and success in higher education, I know my interest and motivation in this area intensified as the first of my daughters began to make plans for college. All of a sudden I saw those in my classes in a very different way. Coincidentally, I came across a great piece called "Transition" in the online academic advising journal The Mentor (http://www.psu.edu/dus/mentor/990401rm.htm), in which the author, Randy Mitchell (James Madison University), asks those of us in front of the classroom to "Pretend she's your daughter, or the daughter of a friend or relative, or, at the very least, someone you care about," and proceeds to give suggestions on how we can all help students negotiate the transition to college. I took many of his suggestions to heart.

Typically my fall semester general psychology class will include at least 160 new freshmen and just a smattering of more advanced students. It's not a "first year seminar" by any stretch of the imagination, but I've tried to be sensitive to the adjustment process that first semester students are going through and have attempted to orient them to the realities of college academics as best as I can in a class of that size. Knowing that new students will arrive on campus a little bit early, I send them an email the week before classes begin. I welcome them to campus, tell them about our upcoming course, and try to explain why their responsibilities, in a college class meeting three times a week for fifteen weeks, are different from what they were in such a class in high school, where the same content would typically be covered in a class meeting daily for the entire school year. I urge them to block out the time needed to do our weekly readings and assignments in a study schedule and direct them to a time-management schedule that is linked to our online syllabus. I remind them to write every due date and commitment in a daily planner and refer them to a link featuring guidelines on making to-do lists. I discuss the importance of active learning and study techniques and alert them to some upcoming assignments that require using those techniques, again including, in our syllabus, links to web resources on such topics as effective note-taking, concept mapping, and predicting test questions. I don't mention every helpful aid in that letter, but as the semester progresses I will call their attention to additional links on evaluating study distractions, test-taking, how multiple choice questions can measure different levels of understanding, dealing with test anxiety, and how to go over a graded test.

Each year I have added a little bit more to my personal "freshman orientation," trying to reach them in a different way. For example, thinking that older peers may hold greater sway over first semester students, I have collected, over a number of semesters, college success tips from the more experienced students in my classes. Their compiled suggestions are linked to the online syllabus and I sometimes present them in a self-running slide show in the minutes before class starts. "These suggestions came from students who are just a little bit older and wiser than you," I tell the class. "They want to help you avoid mistakes that they made when they started college."

But it still seems that many, if not most, students can only learn from their own mistakes and not from the guidance of others. I've been collecting data from students at the end of their first semester, asking them about their successes, regrets, and what they now realize about college that they wished they had known (or believed) when they started in the fall. Sadly, over 92% of the few hundred students I've questioned have first semester regrets or things that they wished they had done differently. Virtually all of the regrets expressed were academic in nature, with "not keeping up with or not doing the reading," "not studying regularly or enough," "procrastinating," "cramming" and "skipping class" being the top responses to my open-ended query. From their candid reports of grades earned first semester, it was clear that many will re-experience regrets as they work to overcome the damage done to their GPA in this single semester. Many did not report any corresponding "successes" or listed bittersweet successes like "did not drop out," "survived," "did not flunk out." When asked to compare how they would rate the importance of various activities now, as compared to when they entered college, the majority selected "Much more important" or "More important" in the following areas: Doing course reading (83%), time management (82%), studying often instead of cramming (82%), procrastinating less (78%), getting help if needed (74%), organization and planning (70%), and finding a good study location (68%). "But we told you about the reading, the regular studying, the importance of time management and organization!" I want to cry out to them. Well, I'll add my data to the materials I share with the new students in my classes this fall and try again to decrease the number who will experience disappointment and regret come December.

Contact:

Linda L. Walsh

Department of Psychology

University of Northern Iowa

Cedar Falls, IA 50614-0505

E-mail: walsh@uni.edu