John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education

The Tipping Point in the Beginning College Experience: For Some It is Soon Too Late for a Second Chance

John N. Gardner

I am a former first-year student who got a lucky break. While I doubted I looked upon this at the time (January 1962) as a “lucky break”, it was.  The “it” was being placed on academic probation by Marietta College based on my first term GPA of a .65 on a three- point scale. An auspicious beginning for the founder of the “first-year experience” movement! I won’t detail in this piece my tale of woes that led to this dismal performance.  This piece is prompted by the fact that fall has arrived in my North Carolina mountain region and my memories often turn at this time of year to same period when I started college—the same period when about two million students are starting college right now.

Truth be told, I think about my own college experience every single day, for some reason or other. It was that important. And I am thinking about it even more this fall because I am formally engaged with my alma mater in an assessment process which my non-profit organization offers known as Foundations of Excellence. I will be headed up from North Carolina to Marietta, Ohio, in several weeks for a visit in conjunction with this work. No matter how many times I “go back”, I am always thrilled by the prospect.

This is the time of the academic life cycle when many of your students need a lucky break. You could be that lucky break.

Many of our students have already been developing a pattern of behavioral choices, which will cumulatively reach a tipping point beyond which they cannot recover academically and remain in good standing.

For decades higher educators have been touting this notion of the critical first six weeks. This sounds very logical intuitively; that what happens during this period can correlate with retention. But we know of only one research project that purported to substantiate this belief and that was in a very limited one institution dissertation study done about thirty years ago. Does that mean we should not be paying attention to the early college experience? No, of course not. But when and why students make a decision not to remain enrolled in college is a very complex matter.

I think that a more appropriate way to look at this is that preventable attrition has many causes and that they are cumulative, build over time, and take their toll at many different points during the undergraduate experience—end of first term, end of first year, end of second year, etc.

But let’s bring this back to you and your students. What could you be doing right now to intervene with some students who must be giving you some signals that they need attention? This is a good time. The first term is not quite at its half way mark. There is plenty of time and opportunities left for redemption! Because my readers have so many diverse roles vis-à-visbeginning college students, it is a challenge to make suggestions as to what all of us could be doing at this point in the calendar. Here goes anyway:

If you are teaching first-year students, it is most important that they have received some feedback by now on their academic performance. It has been my experience during the first six weeks that the majority of new college students don’t have a clue as to how they are performing. And that is our fault, not theirs. We must take steps to get them grounded in reality. Feedback on performance is central to that.

If you are teaching first-year students you must also be teaching them the study skills they need to succeed in your course. You must demystify what it takes to be a good student in your course.

We have long known that students who seek assistance have higher persistence rates. You are a key agent in getting students to seek assistance, especially male students, who are less likely to do so on their own. You should be referring students now. And thinking about ways you could even reward them for acting on your advice.

We know that outside-of-class interaction is really influential for many students. Which of your students should you be inviting for a visit during your office hours?

We know that student-to-student interaction and bonding is critical to early student engagement. How can you link your work and role in some way with getting your students to engage in some kind of institutionally sponsored activities outside of regular class time?

Many of my readers supervise others who have direct contact with first-year students, or direct programs of support for first-year students. This is a great time to encourage those whom you supervise to identify students now who need intervention.

The excitement and uncertainty about being a new college student is beginning to wear off. The honeymoon is soon coming to an end. What are the specific behaviors and indicators you should be vigilant for? Obviously, direct measures of academic performance are your best indicators if you have access to them? Attendance patters are also key indicators? And what about classroom behaviors? Are some students just not participating, staying awake and focused? Are you noticing any developing negative behavioral patterns—students who were preparing for class no longer doing so; students appearing more and more fatigued, unkempt; students who were sitting in the front now moving to the rear; students who appeared engaged in class, no longer giving that impression. There are so many possible clues.

If you are in a position to hire undergraduate student assistants for positions with pay, think about giving priority to first-year students. This is not just to help them financially, but to give them a caring mentor like yourself during this critical period.

Oh, there are so many other things you could be doing. I could write for days on this, but won’t. I just wanted you to be aware of the academic clock in the lives of first-year students and remind you that this is a period when you can intervene and provide a second chance. I mention this in the spirit of repaying the gift that I received when I got my second chance. If I had had this before mid term I would not have needed to be placed on academic probation, from which I might not have recovered. How my life would have turned out differently in that case! How differently it did turn out because I got on and off probation.

One Comment

  1. Jennifer LatinoOctober 7, 2013 at 12:35 pmReply

    You provide a timely reminder of the importance of our work. I shared this posting with the faculty for our first-year seminar. The fy seminar instructors are the boots on the ground folks who will likely recognize need in a student.

    Our students are fortunate to receive midterm grades. This is a critical point in the term and the feedback and evaluation they receive can be encouraging and/or motivating for these new college-level learners.

    Thank you for your reflections.

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