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Some Thoughts After Teaching College Freshmen

Baby Marcelle Roulin by Vincent van Gogh, 1888

Where did July go? It seemed to disappear as I taught a very fast paced 100-level course to mostly college freshman at a four-year university. I have been teaching this same course in a community college for over five years. It was an interesting and perhaps even an enlightening experience.

I would first like to say that about a third of my class was a joy to teach. They came to class well prepared. They were attentive, inquisitive, diligent, and motivated. They give me hope for the coming years. I am sure they will do great things in the future.

I am really not sure about another third of the class. They never came to lecture. I saw them on testing days but that is about it.

Another third came to class but never really seemed engaged. They were always looking for a shortcut. Their most frequent question was, "Do we have to know all of that?"

Since this was a summer course the students had various motivations for attending. Some, I think, were hoping a summer course would be less intense than a semester-long course. Wrong! We cover the same amount of material but you have less time to absorb it. One day in summer is the equivalent of a week during the regular semester. One week during the summer session is the equivalent of a month during the regular semester. If the regular semester was trying to drink from a fire hose, summer is trying to drink from Niagara Falls!

Some of these students really resent having to take a summer course and cannot believe I expect them to study during their summer vacation. I received questions like, "Do you really think we should read the textbook?"

I am left wondering if the experience of so much standardized testing during their primary and secondary school years has perverted their understanding of what it means to learn. For so many years the focus has been on teaching to the test. Their purpose for learning information was to perform well on the SAT, AP exam, or some other metric. Now they are in college and I am asking them to learn a subject matter. I am not teaching to a test but trying to give them the foundational knowledge they need to apply when they take advanced courses in nursing, physical therapy, or medical school and ultimately engage in their future occupations. Yet for every one time someone asks me to clarify a fact I am asked at least six times, "Is that going to be on the test?" They are very annoyed when I teach them something and then do not include it on the test. How dare I waste their time with non-testable information!

I also have a sense that too many of these students have never faced the consequences of their actions. They have never been allowed to fail. Someone always bailed them out. I received multiple emails from students saying "I need to get at least a B to get in to program XYZ. This is not happening. You need to do something so that my grade improves."  I spent hours outside of class helping students who requested help or needed tips for studying the material. I offered study guides for each chapter. It was clear that some students felt this was insufficient and I should provide test questions ahead of time so they could simply regurgitate the answers on an exam. But this is college. You have to learn a body of knowledge and show you can apply that knowledge.

Which brings me back to my community college students. I teach them the same material and use the same sort of study guides and exam questions. While not everyone excels in my community college classes there is far less wailing and gnashing of teeth and far better performance on the exams. Most of these students have faced hardships of one kind or another and they know their choices have consequences. Performance matters. Failure is a real possibility.

I do not think we are doing our children any favors when we are constantly cushioning their falls. At some point the safety net goes away. Wanting to do well is not enough. There has to be enough drive to make the sacrifices of time and energy to study and learn. And not every student has the aptitude to get an A or B in every class. Grades are not participation trophies. They are earned. The sooner students understand that, the sooner they will be mature enough to realistically evaluate their own strengths and weaknesses and select a path that leads to success.



My daughter had to learn how to deal with challenging college courses in her major (nursing) right off the bat. Chemistry was a huge issue for her and her advisor recommended that she drop the class BUT stay in it and do all the work including tests. She did well, learned the material and retook the course second semester and got a good grade--and was asked to be the "supplemental instructor" for this school year for that course. She worked for that and I'm glad it was recognized. I think she will be a good choice to help other students who are struggling, and her no-nonsense manner will help there too. She won't hear moaning and groaning from people who want it easy!

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