Deficiencies in Student Preparedness for College Coursework


In my experience, the main deficiencies in student preparedness for college coursework include:

A) inadequate knowledge in core areas

B) little experience in proactive learning (i.e. not just following directions but taking initiative and forging one's own educational path)

C) misguided expectations.

Many colleges and universities do a great deal to help students with the first two of these issues, but what about the third? And what do I mean when I refer to students' "misguided expectations"? Well, take my student Samantha. Sam came to me second semester her freshman year after a dismal fall. Before we met, I looked at her high school transcript and found she had made A’s and B’s all four years. She was a model student, so why had she fallen so far in one semester of college? When we met, I realized that while I was surprised by Sam's poor showing, Sam herself was stunned. "I don't understand?!" she kept saying, "I did everything just like I did in high school!"

Aha! After a little digging, it became apparent that Sam had done very little rigorous work in order to earn above a C in most of the high school classes. "Attendance counted for 30% of my grade," she said proudly, "and I never missed a day." So I started asking Sam more specific questions. How many hours of reading and writing homework did she have in any given week? How much did her teachers grade her on exams, papers, and long-term projects and how much on worksheets, open-note quizzes, and participation? In her academic classes, were A’s and B’s difficult to come by or given out pretty freely to those who at least put some thought into the assignment and turned it in on time?

Sam's answers to my questions were simultaneously depressing and illuminating. It made me want to shake the entire education system by its shoulders, shouting "this is not working!" It also, however, really cracked the nut of why Sam had done so poorly. She had worked moderately hard in high school in order to meet expectations, and so her experience-based conclusion seemed sound at the time she entered college. "I will work moderately hard at a moderately difficult task," she told herself, "and I will get a good grade." Until her seemingly sound expectation was met with a different reality…

I wanted to know more about the rigor (or lack thereof) of coursework for high school students in 2013, so I called my daughter. My daughter lives in one of the largest cities in America and has taught students in public, private, and charter schools, from the most underfunded to the most well-off, and everything in between. I asked her: in her experience, how much do "college prep" tracks really prepare students for college?

The short answer, she told me, is that it varies tremendously but that there are clear ways in which some schools get it right and others get it wrong. The schools in which students seem the least prepared, according to my daughter, are those in which time is heavily structured for them, most assignments are short-term, there is a lack of emphasis on assignments that involve writing, and grading is inconsistent (i.e.- students are either unclear on what is expected of them in order to receive a particular grade, or they find that grading does not always match up with expectations, leading them to believe that this is just another thing outside of their control). The best schools, she said, are structured more like college, or at least become more so in the students' junior and senior years. These schools turn over a lot of the responsibility for scheduling and time management to students, expect them to complete both short and long-term assignments, many of which involve writing five to twenty pages, and grade students in a tough but consistent, fair manner.

Now we, as success coaches, cannot turn all mediocre high schools into excellent ones, but we can talk to our students more right at the beginning of their college careers about expectations. Had Samantha understood right away that she would have to work much harder than ever before to make the same grades, she might have avoided academic warning. Most students want to be pushed and challenged. Most want to be given an opportunity to show that they can achieve. Once we fully understand how high the bar has been raised, almost all of us want to prove to the world as well as ourselves that we can reach it.

Susan Marion is the Coordinator for Success Coaches at Tiffin University, in Tiffin, Ohio. She was instrumental in starting success coaching at the institution in 2007.  The program now has fifteen part-time success coaches and supports almost one hundred students who are at risk academically.