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Professors: Students need better preparation for college
W 050813 TRANSITION CAWTHORN 01
Georgia Southern University biology professor Michelle Cawthorn teaches a lesson on fossil fuels during an environmental biology course. More than 200 students ranging from freshmen to seniors are enrolled. Cawthorn stresses making connections between the course subject matter and students' own lives and often encounters high school students who "learned" science was boring, irrelevant and hard. She believes that high schools should encourage critical thinking skills. - photo by SCOTT BRYANT/staff

Editor's note
One of the most difficult transitions in a person’s academic life is from high school to college. The Statesboro Herald recently spent time with a high school guidance counselor, a graduating high school senior and some instructors and underclassmen at Georgia Southern University to see how local schools on both sides of the equation help students make the adjustment.
    Sunday: Statesboro High School senior Nia Lewis gets ready for college with help from her guidance counselor and her mother, who is also a teacher.
    Today: Georgia Southern professors explain what areas underclassmen need to work on most.
    Friday: Georgia Southern underclassmen explain how they had to adjust to college life.

Second of three parts
    College is one of the hardest — and most important — transitions a person will ever make in life.
    Yet high school graduates are entering college today overconfident, underprepared, and lacking realistic expectations. The transition from high school to college can make or break a student within the first few weeks.
    In 2008, the U.S. Census and ACT estimated that out of 18 million newly enrolled freshmen, nearly 34 percent would drop out in their first year.
    Once in college, students have to make key decisions without the help of a high school counselor. Making the wrong choices, or simply being unwilling to decide, can often lead to frustration, depression and dropping out.
    Georgia Southern University instructors who teach incoming freshmen and sophomores see this all too often. They shared some of their observations and offered advice for how students can prepare for the steep change that college life represents compared to high school.
    “Some students arrive at college not knowing all the basics of high school mathematics,” said Marshall Ransom, a lecturer in the university’s Department of Mathematical Sciences. “I don’t believe this is caused by a faulty curriculum or poor teaching.”
    Ransom thinks such students do just enough to get by. But that kind of attitude and work ethic do not work in the college setting, where students have to do more of the work outside of class.
    “Many incoming freshmen are not prepared to deal with this reality,” he said.
    Ransom also believes that high school teachers need to find ways to “hold students accountable for their work ethic in trying to learn.”
    As both a secondary teacher and a high school administrator for 30 years, Ransom knows how difficult this is to do when teachers and school systems place so much emphasis on “high-stakes testing and political pressure” to meet certain standards.
    “Learning is sometimes hard work,” he said. “It includes facing setbacks and failures and learning how to recover from them. Anything that encourages this process in high school is good for the preparation of students, whether they go on to college or not.”
    To Ransom, “the work ethic is a more important learning objective than remembering a line from Shakespeare’s ‘Romeo and Juliet’ or how to solve a specific equation. If students try to do the work, both they — and I — have a better chance for success.”
    Nan LoBue, a lecturer in the Department of Writing and Linguistics, believes in helping her students think beyond themselves.
    “I teach the students who are in front of me. I would love to teach students who are already sophisticated readers, thinkers and writers. But as a former high school English teacher, I understand the challenges such teachers face,” said LoBue, who teaches mostly incoming freshmen.
    Like Ransom, LoBue feels that teachers in high school face many constraints and are under “tremendous pressure to prepare students for standardized tests and to graduate their students in a timely manner.”
    With large classes in high school, it becomes very difficult to give individualized attention to students.
    LoBue said college freshmen are less willing to spend time on outside assignments and are more “grade-oriented.”
    “I think that teaching students to read with accuracy is a worthwhile and useful goal,” she said. “Lots of my students haven’t read much, and they have a very difficult time understanding — much less synthesizing — academic prose and the articles in peer-reviewed journals that they are often expected to use as sources in their college courses.”
    LoBue feels that students need more time “learning to analyze and craft the sophisticated written arguments that are going to be required of them in college and beyond.”
    Susan Roach, an instructor in the Department of Business, said both high school students and their parents face “daunting” deadlines.
    “As college freshmen,” Roach said, “students don’t have that awesome college counselor to keep them on the right path or remind them of deadlines. They fall, therefore, into peer pressure, overbook themselves or procrastinate. They get overwhelmed and lonely. That is why we have freshmen seminar courses to help students transition to new standards.
    “I have to emphasize accountability,” she continued. “So many of my students are used to studying the day before a big test and memorizing only what they need for the test. They are unsure when given ethical issues or discussion questions as part of an exam.”
    Michelle Cawthorn, a biology professor, said her philosophy in dealing with freshmen students is to relate concepts being taught to their everyday lives, emphasizing “real world” relevancy.
    “I require students to analyze data presented in tables and figures, to make connections between the class and their own lives, to make connections between this class and other classes they are taking and to be engaged learners,” she said.
    Cawthorn said that, in her view, high school students generally lack time management and critical thinking skills.
    “They have little understanding of how and when to study or the amount of work required to make good grades in college,” she said. “In reference to my specific classes, they have ‘learned’ that science is boring, irrelevant and hard. Partly I feel that this is because, in many classes, they are required to do rote memorization without really thinking about what they are learning and why.”
    Cawthorn added that “the ability to analyze data and then draw conclusions based on the data seems to be lacking in most students. High schools should encourage critical thinking skills.”

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