Saturday, August 20, 2016

Helping New Students Cope with College

I have several times noted (and here) that poor or minority students who drop out of college complain about feelings and experiences that are widely shared by their middle class white peers. The first official university response I have seen that acknowledges and addresses this issue is described by David Kirp in the Times:
Regardless of their credentials, many freshmen doubt that they have the necessary brainpower or social adeptness to succeed in college. This fear of failing hits poor, minority and first-generation college students especially hard. If they flunk an exam, or a professor doesn’t call on them, their fears about whether they belong may well be confirmed. The cycle of doubt becomes self-reinforcing, and students are more likely to drop out.

The good news is that this dismal script can be rewritten. Several recent research projects show that, with the right nudge, students can acquire ways of thinking that helps them thrive.

In a large-scale experiment at an unnamed school I’ll call Flagship State, incoming freshmen read upperclassmen’s accounts of how they navigated the shoals of university life. The accounts explained that, while the upperclassmen initially felt snubbed by their classmates and intimidated by their professors, their lives started turning around when they reached out to their instructors and began to make friends.

“Part of me thought I had been accepted due to a stroke of luck, and that I would not measure up to the other students,” wrote one upperclassman. “Early on, I bombed a test. It was the worst grade I’d ever received, and I felt terrible and isolated. But then I found out that no one did well on that test. The professor was trying to set a high standard.”
Kirp says this has a measurable impact on whether students finish a full freshman course load, which is a good indicator of whether they will graduate. It seems to me that what students who feel out of place really need is to talk to other students, but maybe exercises like this will help to get those conversations started.

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