Sunday, December 29, 2013

How Can We Better Prepare Our Students for College

Last week, we invited a panel of ten recent Kettle Run High School graduates for two forum sessions (one for sophomores and juniors and another exclusively for seniors).

My eight take-aways; each followed by suggestions how we can do a better job of aiding our current students—and parents—with the goal of preparing them for college.

1.     College costs are troublesome
Students are worried about the rising costs of college. These, of course, are well documented, but one recent grad put it quite succinctly, “I’m broke. But it’s no big deal; everyone in college is.”

While there’s little we can do about the rising costs of college, we must continue to educate parents and students about the financial burdens of college. Our counseling department offers several great information sessions about paying for college. We can expend on these by partnering up with our feeder elementary schools to provide parents with more information regarding paying and saving for colleges.

2.     Find the right college
All panel members spoke of the importance of finding a college that matches not just your potential major, but also your personality. They mentioned that each campus has its own vibe, energy, and personality. But, they also talked about the hundreds of clubs and activities available on each campus. One sarcastically said, “We could even have a club for people who like playing with bendy-straws.”

None of the above is earth-shattering, but I include it in my take-aways because I’m fortunate work in a school that does a great job of providing numerous activities, clubs, etc. for students, but we can do better.

3.     Choosing a college ain’t easy.
This one piggy-backs on the above two. Selecting the right college takes tremendous time and effort and doing so is a tremendous investment. The panel offered several practical suggestions:
    • be sure to interview at your with the admissions office (the interview should be as much for you as it is for them),
    • spend a night or two at a college that you’re considering
    • visit/attend a couple of classes on your visit
    • rank your priorities
    • don’t choose a college just because of it’s sports teams or something else
    • be sure your college offers—or even better excels at—your potential major

Our current policy only allows seniors to receive “excused” absences (up to 3 days) for college visits. With all that goes into selecting the right college and because college admissions offices often offer potential applicants with valuable insights (“You need to raise your GPA,” “We’d like to see you take a more strenuous course load,” etc.) visiting colleges during your junior year makes sense.  Additionally, we always want students to plan ahead, so why not extend the excused absence policy to juniors?

4.     Get rid of exam exemptions
Our county has an exam exemption policy for all high school students. If a student earns an A and has less than 4 absences, he/she doesn’t have to take his/her final exam in that class. The policy also exempts students with B’s and 3 or fewer absences.

Every single recent graduate stated that this policy is a disservice. “I went through 4 years of high school without taking a final and BAM! you get to college and you have no clue how to prepare for one.”
Another student echoed the feelings of the group, “I understand that the policy might get us to class, but it doesn’t prepare us for college.”
Every single member of the panel recommended getting rid of or greatly modifying our exam exemption policy.

5.     Time management skills
Time and time again, panel members alluded to the importance of time management skills. One talked about making use of a planner and a calendar. Another talked about the challenge of managing her free time. A third mentioned making productive use of downtime. One student talked about giving her friends/roommates her electronic devices so she wasn’t distracted. 

In between the two sessions, I asked panel members how we could improve students time management skills and they honestly stated that it is learned from experiences and not something that can be taught. Pressing further, we determined that more project-based learning and student involvement in a wide-variety of activities (see item 2) are helpful.

6.     AP Classes are extremely valuable
If we ever doubted, the value of our AP and Dual Enrollment curricula, the panel quickly shot down any concerns. When asked, “What class best prepared you for college?” While the panel’s answers varied, each of the classes mentioned was an AP class.

We've greatly expanded our AP offerings and we must not lose sight of their value and we should make it a goal in all of our classes to better prepare students for college. In creating common assessments, we must ensure that some questions go beyond the state standards and are college-level. Additionally, all of our classes must include intense reading, writing and research.

7.     Mimic college classes
The graduates, especially those at the larger colleges, mentioned that one of the hardest transitions for them was adjusting to the large, impersonal, lecture-only classes. While not advocating lectures, why not turn our AP Government class (a senior, dual enrollment class that most of seniors take) into a large lecture-based class? Obviously, the details and semantics would need to be worked out, but it might be worth trying.

8.     Above all else, students want the skills
One of the unique challenges high school teachers face is balancing the instructional needs of their students while instilling discipline, time management, and responsibility. During the break between the two sessions—and after repeatedly hearing about the importance of time management—I asked several members of the panel, “Which is more important: learning or being held to a deadline?”

All the students believed mastering the necessary skills and content outweighs the importance of being firm on deadlines. In particular, they singled out one of our AP English teachers for her efforts. “She doesn’t let you off the hook….If you turn something in that’s not go enough, she’ll make you do it again. I hated her at the time, but it prepared me for college.”
Simply put, this speaks to the importance of mastery learning and redos and retakes. It does at times conflict with the goal of mimicking college classes, but if we truly value learning and high standards, it’s worth it.

Other tips:
1.     Find your passion in high school. The earlier you can declare your major, the better off you’re going to be.
2.     Visit as many colleges as you can.
3.     Don’t limit your college choices to one type of college or one that your friends are applying to.

1 comment:

Wes Weaver said...

Great post. We've done this at our school, too. I'll be passing this along to students and teachers.