Professors Offer Advice on Making Students "College Ready"
A disconnect often exists between secondary and postsecondary education when it comes to the definition of “college readiness.” This confusion leaves teachers and professors wondering how to improve high school learning while students struggle within the college classroom. CELL spoke with higher education faculty from three local universities to highlight best practices for high school teachers seeking ways to better prepare their students for college-level success.
“Lots of students haven’t had the first opportunity to give a speech and they’re expected to be orally proficient in college.” –Paul Sandin, instructor of communication studies and director of Speaking Across the Curriculum at Butler University
Sandin: Before we can teach communication skills, we need buy-in from students—they must understand why those skills are important. Teachers should explain to students that our economy places a high value on job candidates articulating what they know.
It is important that students understand how to develop and support a thesis. They also need to understand the research process—how to research a topic, what does or does not make a good source, etc.
In order to develop students’ communication skills, teachers should get students up on their feet presenting in front of the class. They need to realize they won’t die when they stand in front of a group of people. Have them get up, introduce themselves, and start asking about something they know—themselves. You can even include some off-the-wall questions to get them laughing. Then, you can incrementally increase the amount of time that they’re up there.
“Math is like swimming—if your goal is to have a pupil swim a mile, you have to make them practice; they can’t just watch the instructor.” –Jeffrey Watt, associate dean for students & outreach and professor of mathematics at IUPUI
Watt: Students lack the motivation to learn for education’s sake; they just want to be the best trained so they’ll get the highest paying job. In math class, they often ask, ‘When will I ever use this in the workforce?’ or ‘Why do I need to know this?’ Teachers should have students look through the want ads—they don’t usually say a company’s looking for a mathematician, historian or English major, but all those people get hired. If teachers open students’ eyes to the types of jobs they can get with a math degree, then they will start to see the subject as core to their education.
Another problem is that many students develop math anxiety or phobia, which is learned from parents or teachers. They hear things like, ‘Don’t worry about the information in the box’ or ‘Don’t worry about the story problems.’ Teachers need to change the belief that it is all right to be bad at math. Today, people are still very ashamed of being illiterate but almost no one is ashamed of being innumerate.
In math, the biggest challenge is to get students to become active learners. To accomplish this, math teachers must become coaches—they must stop spending so much of their class time having students watch them do problems. Rather, students should be at the board or in small groups working problems on their own; the instructor should only walk around helping them. This method is particularly effective because it provides students with customized instruction and prepares students for the reality of assessments, during which they will have to do work on their own.
To help students truly understand mathematical concepts, teachers should teach every concept in multiple representations: verbally, algebraically, numerically/statistically, and graphically/geometrically. It helps students see all aspects of the concept. Also, before students start working, the teacher should have them journal about it. It gets them thinking about the concepts, so they can explain it in their own words.
“This is not a one-semester or even a one-year process, but rather—at least in my own experience—a life-long process.” Jennifer Camden, assistant professor of English at the University of Indianapolis
Camden: The skills most students lack (or that require further development) when they come to college include: reading comprehension skills; the ability to generate an original argument/interpretation; the ability to conduct meaningful research and to situate their own ideas in the context of research; and the ability to read their own writing critically and develop strategies for revision. In addition, most college professors expect that students will not need remediation on fundamental grammar and style skills. However, we’re noticing a decline in basic writing skills, such as the ability to craft a complete and coherent sentence.
There are several concrete things that I do to help my college students, which also could be used in the high school classroom. First, in each course, I build my assignment sequence to help students incrementally develop the skills they will need to succeed on the high-stakes assignment: the final research paper.
I find that students struggle most, in both freshman composition and literature courses, as they try to move from reporting the ideas of others to generating their own original ideas. In freshman composition courses, I build this transition into the assignment sequence by requiring a “reporting information essay,” in which students research a problem or debate and an “argumentative essay,” in which I require students to propose a solution to the problem they identified in the previous essay. In my literature courses, I use the same model of incremental assignments leading to the final paper. Students write short responses to texts which can serve as a springboard for the much longer final paper. In introductory courses, I will often give prompts (in the form of a question) for the first few responses, but then require students to come up with their own topic.
I begin the semester by sharing a three-step approach to literature: 1) figure out the plot; 2) look for symbols, puzzles and meaning; 3) put it together in a thesis.
Finally, I encourage students to write about something they’re interested in: a bored student writes a boring paper. To help students develop strong thesis statements, I use an in-class assignment in which I ask each student to come up with a thesis statement that makes an interpretive claim about the assigned reading. Next, I put them in groups and ask each group to choose the best thesis statement to share with the class, with the option to revise or combine thesis statements. As a class, we workshop these thesis statements and make suggestions to improve them.
Once they have identified their final paper topic, I ask them to complete an annotated bibliography of research on that topic. In preparation for the final paper, I also require multiple drafts of the final paper which receive different kinds of feedback. I often begin with individual conferences, but the primary source of feedback is peer review. Students can improve tremendously when they develop the ability to provide feedback both to themselves and to others.