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College Preparedness: Recovering from the PandemicSuzanne Shaffer
In my 20 years coaching thousands of Stanford University students, I can think of maybe three for whom college was a perfect fit.
They just happened to have grown up in families where the dinner table conversation was about science, politics and literature, and had by luck attended high schools where they'd learned about selective and strategic reading. And they had been blessed with resources and opportunities that enabled them to develop superior time management and decision-making skills.
When these kids got to campus, the large lecture halls were exciting (not terrifying and anonymous); the weekly essays and problem sets, while intellectually challenging, always felt fresh and interesting; terrific friends fell into their laps.
Three students. Over 20 years. That’s like 0.000075% of all the ~40,000 I coached.
What about those other ~39,997 students? Their experience required a myriad of adjustments. The pace was too fast. The people were baffling. The systems were complicated and frustrating. Relationships with faculty felt treacherous. They felt constrained. There weren’t enough small class discussions.
There were any number of rough edges they encountered trying to fit into the sturdy, time-worn traditions of college.
The modern four-year undergraduate college was born in the 17th century. Let’s recall that in the 17th century, women wore whalebone corsets and Neptune and Uranus hadn’t been discovered yet. Einstein was a twinkle in his ancestor’s eye, as were Marie Curie, Charles Darwin, Margaret Mead, Sigmund Freud and Frederick Douglass.
The humanities and sciences, in the 17th century, fit nicely into four years. Today, not so much.
When college was born, the curriculum included only a handful of subjects: Algebra, Arithmetic & Geometry, Astronomy, Greek, Ethics & Politics, Hebrew, Latin, Metaphysics & Theology, Physics, and Rhetoric & Logic. Although modern curricula now incorporate both broader and more focused areas of study, our 17th-century knowledge was a tiny fraction of what it is today.
According to the knowledge doubling curve, what we know is doubling every 12 or so hours, as compared to every century or so back when the four-year college was born. So, for example, if you were to study physics in 1650, you’d be learning about Kepler and Galileo. Today, an undergraduate physics major covers Newton’s Laws, Mechanics, Thermodynamics, Electromagnetism, Atomic Theory, Kinetic Theory, Radiation, Einstein’s Theories, and probably some Quantum and Particle Physics. It takes five times as long just to read the list.
In pragmatic terms, this means that there is a tacit expectation that everything we know about a subject can be efficiently and neatly condensed into the same four years today even though we know exponentially more about everything, and so there is exponentially more to learn. It means students are expected to read faster, learn faster, consume and comprehend more information, and become streamlined homework-and-life-juggling machines. I’m breathless just thinking about it.
Psychologically, it must feel like our students are trying to climb a pile of sand. They want to get to the top, achieve some sense of mastery and completion, but they are haunted by the awareness that every step they take towards learning and understanding, our knowledge increases and there’s more to learn and understand. Really, I am out of breath.
Don’t get me wrong — college can be a great thing. Indeed, EDUCATION is a phenomenal thing. But why are we so surprised that an institution created in the 17th century can be such an awkward fit for the young people of the 21st century? We don’t squeeze ourselves into whale-bone corsets anymore (God bless you, leggings) and we don’t pretend Neptune and Uranus aren’t actually out there. So why are we trying to squeeze a modern education into the same four years our ancestors did?
I don’t have a good answer for that, but I do have solutions to the challenges it presents.
Tell your kids that the college of today is a far more complex enterprise than it was when it was invented in the 17th century, and because there’s a lot more to learn in four years, they may feel rushed and overwhelmed. But…
Some of the new knowledge of the past century is in Learning Sciences, which have shown us that there are specific strategies that students can learn to help them learn more effectively and more efficiently.
Helpful textbook resources (available to buy or rent) include How to Study in College by Walter Pauk and Ross J.Q. Owens, How Learning Works by Susan Ambrose, and The ABCs of How We Learn by Daniel L. Schwartz et al.
Though being a digital native means feeling at one with a smartphone, it doesn’t automatically mean you know how to think about or meaningfully use technology. Students may be able to easily log in to the learning management systems (LMS) their schools use but they won’t be able to predict how each teacher will idiosyncratically use their LMS. Some post assignments in the “Assignment” tab. Some post them in the “Resources” tab. Others post them in the “Calendar.” Because it's a maze of possibilities, students may find themselves needing to check the LMS for each class every day to see if there are new assignments posted.
Show them how normal it can be to struggle to adapt to new environments. Let them know that their expectations may need to be modified, but that doesn’t necessarily mean jumping ship.
You can let them know that college learning is supposed to be meaningful to THEM, which may mean having to look hard for (and sometimes even concoct) connections between what they're learning and what they care about.
They won’t always get an A+, and sometimes they’ll get Fs, and their ability to bounce back from these setbacks is already in them. Remind them of how they learned to walk or feed themselves – they don’t remember falling down or sending cereal up their nose. We all fail, and we learn from it.
Read more about resilience and how to cultivate it >
Despite all of the efforts your student may make, it still might not be the right time to be in college. But leaving school is not the end of the educational road. Many students return when they’re more mature, when they can really appreciate and make use of college. When they have the confidence and experience to stand tall in a centuries-old institution, and hold their own identity within a system that isn't built for individuality, they can get that college degree. And the time away from school isn’t wasted — they’re working, they’re growing, they’re finding their feet.
Whether your kid is in college now, or heading there next year, they may assume it's going to be a safe and stable landing zone. Instead, you can let them know they might lose their balance at first, and that they'll need to adapt to a new way of being a student.
And let them know that they are in statistically excellent company along with the 99.999925% of students who wonder at some point along the way why college is so weird and hard.
 Geddes, Bryon Chadwick, Hugh M. Cannon, and James N. Cannon. "Addressing the Crisis in Higher Education: An Experiential Analysis." Developments in Business Simulation and Experiential Learning: Proceedings of the Annual ABSEL conference. Vol. 45. 2018.