Higher Education, Innovative Pedagogies, Orientation

(Re) Orientation

It’s orientation season again.  As soon as we finish calculating final grades and  shaking hands with our graduates, we turn around to greet our entering class. It is a happy task, full of optimism and good intentions.  Families are eager, students are nervous, everyone is hoping that they have found the right fit for their education. We do our best to calm the nerves and make folks feel welcome and at home.

Much of orientation is filled with logistical information.  How do I get my ID?  When will I meet/pick my roommate?  Can I qualify for more financial aid?  Will my AP or community college classes count? How do I pick or change my major?  And always of greatest interest… when will I get my fall schedule?

Then there is the social information.  What is it like to live in a dorm? How will I make friends?  What are the activities/clubs available?  What do students do on the weekends? And generally, will I fit in here.

Like every other university, WCSU will do our very best to answer these questions. We have an overnight orientation to give our entering class a taste of the campus experience, advisors to talk about schedules, and lots of opportunities for students to interact with each other in the hopes that they make an initial connection to ease the first month on campus.  All of this is to the good, and there’s lots of good evidence that it is a helpful exercise, but I’m wondering about when we can get to the real conversation.  You know, the one about how college is not the same as high school?

Our students have heard it a million times.  Their high school teachers have been telling them that things will be harder in college, as encouragement and sometimes as a stick.  It’s the background noise to the entire high school experience… it’ll will be harder, you won’t get away with this level of effort, you won’t get into a good college if you don’t study… an on and on it goes. But what does that really mean?

Well, one thing that it means is that decisions truly have consequences. At my school, students will be given a schedule to start with.  It should have the right courses for the intended program of study.  We’ve built in some nice things, like pre-major pathways (meta-majors) for students who haven’t selected a major, and we’ve worked with all departments to craft an ideal first year.  Unfortunately, though, things can go wrong pretty quickly.

Perhaps a student took an AP class in statistics, but it wasn’t sent to us before we enrolled her, so we put statistics on the schedule.  We can’t give credit for the same course twice.  Sorry.  Or, perhaps a student changed his mind about an intended major, but didn’t realize the new major had an important pre-requisite in the first year. Now he either needs a summer course and to stay in college an extra year.  Or, perhaps a student simply dropped a class (because now they can do that sort of thing unsupervised) but they didn’t realize the loss of credits would mean registering last (later than the second year students) for another year, thus reducing the likelihood that they’ll get an appropriate schedule.  Consequences are real.

Another big difference between high school and college is the structured schedule. Students come to us having participated in school, extra-curricular activities, jobs, and community service. Their schedules were full and planned and, though they might have been overwhelmed, they rarely had to think about how to fill their time.  In college, time management is all up to the students. Courses meet two or three days a week, and then the time required to stay on top of one’s studies is up to the student to figure out.  They may be in some co-curricular programs, or not.  They are likely to have some part-time work to juggle, but the time in their control will greatly increase as compared to high school.  This can come as a real shock to students. As faculty and advisors, we often marvel at how students fail to prioritize study time, but really it is a new experience for many of them.  The increased time available is actually a huge shift in responsibility for our incoming students and for some of them it becomes their downfall.

Then there is the thing that should be really different, but frequently is not.  College courses should not feel like high school courses. They are different in the frequency of meetings, and they are definitely different in pacing, but I worry that we are not really changing the learning experience.  In our first year courses, are we moving from learning as knowledge that is delivered to learning as knowledge discovered and created together? Are we inviting our students to take hold of what they want to know, in real and empowering ways, so that they successfully transition to the kinds of learners we say we want?  I fear the answer is, not often enough.

When we fail to address our transitional pedagogies in systematic and thoughtful ways, we contradict all of the other messages that encourage our students to move from adolescence to adulthood.  If we stick with content delivery, the “college is harder” is only about pacing, and not about self-direction and interest. We remove highly structured environments,  add consequences for poor or uniformed decisions, but we neglect the payoff, which is a sense of control over the pursuit of interesting questions and ideas.  No fair.

So, as I reflect on our inviting experiences at orientation, which are appropriately matched to the students’ immediate needs, I am reminded about all of the follow up we need to truly support our beginner adults in their first year of college. We have to re-orient them to learning in ways that are truly different from high school.  I suspect we need to do that for ourselves, too.