Saturday, September 1, 2012

Welcome to the 16's

Greetings and welcome to Dartmouth's new class of first year students, the class of 2016.

Having been at Dartmouth since 1983, having been a first year adviser for every year since 1983, and having attended college (albeit many years ago), I have a good understanding of the emotions and expectations new students have as they begin their college careers. Everyone will begin it during orientation week, but a number of students are already on campus for first year DOC trips, pre-season athletics, FYSEP, NLI, and international orientation.

It's a busy time on campus already. And it's been quite busy for me and my office (the Academic Skills Center) for some time, finishing up summer term and getting ready for fall term, one of our busiest terms.

For me, orientation includes presentations on how to do well at Dartmouth. They are well attended every year. Students are anxious to learn what it takes to do well at this college. Much of what I say, in an hour's time, can be found on the Academic Skills Center website: downloadable handouts and the Academic Success streaming videos.

This blog entry, though, will touch on what I consider the most important piece of  advice I give during orientation: choose your first three courses thoughtfullly. They are important because they initiate your Dartmouth College academic career, but they can serve to help you start well and gain academic confidence.

In a word, choose three courses that you are interested in. Courses that you would like to know more about. Ones that either continue some area of study that you were introduced to in high school or courses that will introduce you to information you know little or nothing about. Avoid, on the other hand, courese that you think you will major in (unless you are quite confident that you will major in that area) and courses that merely fufill a distributive requirement.

You have plenty of time to choose a major (by the end of your sophomore year) and many students choose to major in areas that are different that what they thought they might major in when they started college.

Choosing three courses will require to think carefully, and you should be asking lots of questions about possible courses, departments, requirements, and professors. There are lots of resources for you to use to ask those questions: your first year faculty adviser, academic open houses, your UGA, your undergraduate dean, Deans Office Student Consultants (DOSC), upperclass students, and so on.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

faculty and reading skills

I recently had the opportunity to speak to 45 or so university faculty. I was invited to speak about how to improve student reading skills. The faculty increasingly feel that their students aren't doing the reading - at all or do it with little comprehension and ability to speak about it in class. Having done this kind of presentation in the past, I am wary of the reception that an "outsider" can have -- tellling faculty about how to do their work.

But I was encouraged by the university hosts that their faculty are friendly and receptive to ideas that will help them with their teaching. They wanted practical skills.

So, I decided to present a mini version of the reading improvement course (aka speed reading) that I teach each term at Dartmouth. I've learned what helps students the most with improving their reading rate and comprehension is to introduce them to and have them practice fewer fixations per line and the SQ3R method. I add information about reading related factors (e.g. not reading in their rooms) and getting the sleep they need to do quality reading.

While most of the faculty were quite receptive (I sensed they worked with the "developmental" students), a few of the faculty were a bit hesistant about having the students learn how to initially skim, scan, or survey. "We want our students to read slowly," a couple of the professors said. They weren't quick to appreciate that pre-reading or surveying skills would allow the students to get the "advance organizer" or big picture, which would then allow the students to look more closely at what the text is saying.

My experience in these situations paid off. I knew that some faculty have discovered (usually on their own) a technique or two that helps them get their students to learn how to read the course material better. I encouraged the faculty to share a success story or two. One faculty member talked about how he has his students read a short primary text. He then spends a good portion of the class discussion on not only what the text is about, but also the ways in which students can/should read the text so that they can know what the text is saying -- reading skills, in other words.

He then has them read and discuss the same text a week later. Even though this approach takes time and "cuts into other course content," the professor has stuck with it because students tell him every term how useful they found it. The students often say, " I got so much more out of it when I read it a second time and because I knew how to read it."

I had the latter part of the presentation be small group discussions where the facutly spoke to each other about improving student reading. When we got back together as a large group and each of the small groups reported out, the most repeated point was the many of the faculty were realizing that they needed to spend class time (and not just once at the beginning of the term) talking about how to read the course material.

My additional point was that if students were being intentionally taught how to read in different ways for different courses and subject matter (reading skills across the curriculum), the faculty would be giving their students a wonderful and powerful learning gift. And a life-long gift, as well.

Thursday, March 8, 2012


Many of my conversations with individual students during the year includes the issue of motivation. In many cases, the students either lack motivation to do their work or do it in a timely way ... or they are struggling to keep motivated.

While some of the students are juniors and seniors, it's usually first year students and sophomores who speak about this issue the most.

Motivation is a complicated issue - one that I will address in several entries. Generally speaking, I find that a key factor is that students are thinking of motivation as an external force or entity. And it was external, for the most part, during their high school years. That is, their motivation in high school was driven or fueled by their parents, peer group, high school teachers and guidance/college counselors, and "society" to do well so they could attend  college, perhaps a selective college or university. And much of that external motivation was immediate: living at home or at a private secondary school.

This is not to say that students didn't have their own internal motivation. Most of them did. They had their own drive to do well and be involved in athletics and/or school and community activities.

The breakdown, if I can put it that way, is when they come to a residential college, one of the biggest changes in their lives is that they are living away from home and having to depend on themselves to go to class, keep up with their academics, do their laundry, and so on.

Some students make that transition quickly; for others, it takes a few weeks, a term/semester, or even a year or so.

This is why so many students don't do well their first term in college when they are certainly capable of doing well.

Again, it's a complicated issue because other factors are involved, as well: homesickness, making new friends, knowing where things are on campus, changing values or personal values being queestioned or challenged, general adjustment, experimenting with new things and activities, getting over-involved in co-curriculars, and so on.

In my conversations with students, I first have them understand what the issue or motivation is - in all its complexity. I then have them see how college is a time and an opportunity for them to move from a "dependency" on external motivators to internal motivators. That is, what should be determining their personal goals and behaviors is what they want their college educational experience to be. To ask and answer two key questions: why are you here and what do you want to accomplish.

In individual conversations and in large group presentations, particularly to first year students, I ask: "what were your goals during your junior and senior years in high school?" Without hesitiation, they respond: "to get into this college." Then I ask: "what did you need to do to get into this college?" And they just as quickly answer with: good grades, school/community involvement, teacher recommendations, good SAT/ACT scores,  and so on.

My next question is: "Now that you are here, what are your goals?" That question is almost always responded to with silence.

More on this topic later.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

student story

When I meet and speak with students, I sometimes share the stories of other students. I've noticed over the years that students value the example or inspiration of other students. Similarly and as a bit of a digression, when asked to do a presentation to a student group, I have the student leader or faculty adviser suggest a student co-presenter. I meet with that student, and we discuss how we can complement each other in terms of what I will present and what she/her will present from the student point-of-view. During the presentation, the students will listen and sometimes take notes on what I say, but I notice that they really pay attention to what my student co-presenter says.

One of my favorite student stories begins with my giving a pre-orientation learning strategies workshop to a large number of first year student-athletes. They were on campus for pre-season training. After the session, as I was walking across campus back to my office, a tall and ruggedly handsome young man approached me and asked politely if he could ask me a question. I looked up at him and said, "sure." He looked (down) at me and said, "I know why I was accepted to Dartmouth." Given his size and build, I was pretty sure it was because of his football skills. "But," he continued, "now that I am here, I really want to take advantage of this opportunity that I have been given. May I meet with you every once in a while to talk about my courses and how to do well academically?"

I, of course, said "yes." And we did meet quite a few times his first year, maybe once or twice his sophomore year, and periodically on campus when our paths crossed during his last two years at Dartmouth.

He wasn't a star athlete, though he did play football all four years and started most games his senior year. He did quite well academically, however, and he was a BMOC (big man on campus) in terms of his involvement and leadership in several campus and volunteer organizations.

I like to share his story because it illustrates how important having a postive attitude and setting clear individual goals can be.

Monday, February 13, 2012

ten steps to academic success

I am often asked by students, in one-on-one meetings or during workshops and presentations, what I consider to be the top ten strategies for doing well in college. Here is the list that I usually share with students. Future posts will explore each one in more detail, along with the stories of students that fit each one.

1) set academic and personal goals
2) learn actively
3) time/task management
4) listening and notetaking skills
5) reading skills
6) exam preparation and taking skills
7) stress management and exercise
8) writing skills
9) getting the sleep you need and staying healthy
10) getting involved in co-curricular activities

Especially motivated/curious students will ask me if there are additional skills or pieces of advice. Of course there are quite a few others, but I am usually quick to add:

11) course choice, especially during your first year in college
12) getting to know your professors

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Introductory Post

The purpose of this post and this blog is to share what I know, based on thirty years of working with college students, about how students can do well academically in college or university. While I currently work at a highly selective college, I have previously worked at a college which was essentially open admissions. In both colleges, students had the potential to do well if they 1) wanted to do well 2) had or created a set of academic and personal goals and 3) knew and used some active learning/study skills.

The research is clear --  successful students (and people in the world of work) share two important characteristics: clear goals and they manage their time.

I intend to use this blog to share what I know, including what I have learned from students, about doing well in college. While I am tempted to post in a logical and sequential way, I may start by making contributions based on what I am currently saying to students.

I invite your comments and suggestions.