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How Professors Can Help Students Transition from High School to College

It’s that time of year again: Many high school graduates are beginning their first college semester. It’s an exciting time, filled with lectures, late-night library sessions and figuring out the quickest way to get from one end of the campus to the other. As a professor, it’s important to remember that many of these students were “big fish in a small pond” in high school, but they’re suddenly “minnows in a lake” in college (or even an ocean, depending on campus size).

In general, research tends to show students in smaller classes perform better than those in larger classes. But knowing some introductory courses will include hundreds of underclassmen at once, here’s how professors like you can help students transition from high school to college. 

Assign Clear Chunks of Reading

High school tends to focus on daily, communal classroom learning; college requires students to complete most of their learning outside the classroom. According to the American Psychological Association, one professor notes a key difference between high school and college his students identified: “You have to read everything in college, whereas in high school you barely had to read anything at all.”

As some college classes meet only once, twice or three times per week, it’s important to set clear expectations for reading so students know what they need to do to arrive fully prepared. Lay out expected reading in your syllabus, and remind your students periodically that reading (though the deadlines are softer than, say, an examination or paper) is far from optional. 

Conduct Exam Review Sessions

You can sense the apprehension leading up to the first exam, and that’s completely normal. After all, college freshmen have little idea of what to expect. One way that you can help them get a feel for an upcoming exam is by conducting targeted, in-class review sessions. Make sure your example questions demonstrate the scope and phrasing of those appearing on the test. This way, your students can compare their note-taking skills and recall against the content.

Of course, college lecture sizes often make it impractical to pass out pencils and paper for pop quizzes. Using a classroom response system like Poll Everywhere is the quickest way to collect instant answers; plus students will have the added benefit of seeing results update overhead in real time, so you can address misconceptions or further explain confusion points before the big day. 

Outline Your Research Expectations

Be aware that incoming college students come from different educational backgrounds. Penalizing them on their first paper because they used the wrong citation style just hinders their learning. Instead, explain up front what you expect in terms of research and citing sources. For example, depending on your subject matter, you may ask them to use Modern Language Association (MLA) or American Psychological Association (APA) in-text citations or Chicago style footnotes. Be sure to provide a formatting example in your syllabus as a guide. 

Hold Accessible Office Hours

Most professors (or at least their teaching assistants) have to hold a minimum number of office hours per week to meet with students. But if you mention it on the first day of class and never again, you probably won’t get the response you’d hoped. As College Magazine writes, “Imagine sitting in an empty office for two hours with no visits, then having an inbox full of questions the night before a midterm. Not cool.” For your sake, and for your students’, you’d like to avoid that scenario.

Remember, freshmen may be intimidated by you and your class. Even if they have questions, they may hold back. That’s why you should remind them again and again that your door is open. Ask students to set up a more convenient meeting time with you if they have another class during your standard office hours, and reiterate that students can come see you for specific questions or just to chat.

For professors, helping students transition from high school to college means outlining expectations clearly, being open to one-on-one meetings and holding effective review sessions.