Helping your students get off to a good start in college

I frequently teach freshmen in my introductory biology courses. In the fall semester, first semester students often come to college without the kinds of basic skills that we all take for granted.

If you are teaching first semester students, consider some of these basic skills.

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  • How to take good notes: Do your students write down everything you say, or only write down those things that are on the board? How do they take notes from class discussions or group activities? I have noticed that a lot of first year students seem to struggle with note-taking. In particular, they have difficulty figuring out what aspects of a class discussion should be written down in their notes. I typically have an occasional class session where I stress the importance of taking good notes and where I explain what good notes actually are. I suggest that they compare notes with a partner in class and see how their notes differ. I also discuss different uses for notes. In class, note taking provides a record of the specific material discussed in class. However, when studying, it is often a good idea to take notes on your notes. The purpose here is to develop a tactile memory, to engage more deeply with the material, to practice writing, drawing and learning the details.


  • How to read a textbook: In an introductory course like biology or history, there is often a large textbook. In preparation for each class session, a chapter or parts of a chapter are assigned. How do your students read that material in preparation for class? Do they read it? In my experience, by this point in the semester, students are way behind in their reading. Or, they begin to read, highlighter poised, and find that they dose off or get distracted and do not really internalize what they have read. Students tell themselves that they will re-read the material before the next exam, but how effective is that strategy? (We know from our own experience that this is not a good strategy the night before an exam!) Throughout the semester, I remind students about using the index to find terms or concepts, or reading the figures rather than the text. Most students do not view their textbooks as reference sources, but rather try to sit down and read them like novels.


  • How to read an article: This type of reading is very different from reading a book or textbook. Often articles are written in very dense, discipline-specific language, for the audience of their own scholarly peers, not for a freshman college student. Article reading is very slow. I suggest that students stop after each paragraph, look at the figures referred to, and try to summarize that paragraph/figure with a single sentence. I suggest that reading an article that is 10 pages long will take at least an hour, maybe more. It helps to print out articles and to write in the margins the key points.


  • How to study for a test: Students vary greatly in their strategies for studying for tests. I find that many first semester students wait too long before they start to study. They start by re-reading the assigned textbook chapters (mistake!), then start looking at their notes by starting with the first page. Some recopy their notes, starting from the beginning and essentially just transcribe the notes. In class, I stress the importance of asking questions. Frequently, I will have students work in pairs to come up with a question, or I will write a question on the board and have them develop an answer. But, many students do not transfer that experience to their own studying until later in their college careers.


  • How to research a paper: Most students seem to start with Google. I spend time in class introducing the online college library databases and show them how to rapidly develop a body of articles on a topic. Many first year students do not seem to be aware of their college library.  Even the more experienced students have difficulty figuring out which are good sources and which are not, particularly when using the internet to investigate sources.


  • How to organize an essay: Many first semester students are new to the types of essays they will write in college. They will benefit from a little bit of explicit advice on how to develop essays that work for various disciplines.


  • How to deal with lower grades: This is a big area for first semester students. They probably found it fairly easy to earn good grades in high school and might be suffering from the shock of their first below B grades. Helping students be able to grapple with the fear and disappointment of earning some lower grades while they learn how to study and perform at the college level should be a more openly-discussed aspect of our jobs. The best way to approach this is to schedule in a “routine” office visit for every first semester student you have and then talk with them about grades, grading and strategies they might employ to improve their academic performance.