Getting above-average grades with relatively few hours of work is an ideal situation for a college student.According to the 2005 National Survey of Student Engagement, students coming to college are expecting just that.
More than 90 percent of students entering college expect to receive grades of B or better, but less than 20 percent expect to spend more than 25 hours a week studying, the amount of time which most faculty say is needed, according to the survey.
Catherine Wehlburg, director of the Center for Teaching Excellence, said many students who come to TCU received good grades in high school with a minimal amount of effort, and they expect the same in college. She also said students are working longer hours, faculty expect students to study more and students have the pressure to be well-rounded, which all contribute to the high grade expectations with less time invested in academics.
Doug Newsom, professor of advertising/public relations, said experience and age play a role in why seniors are scoring higher than first-year students in all categories of the survey at TCU and on the national level.
“A lot of first-year students are mentally still in high school, and they are expecting the same thing in college,” Newsom said.
In her experience, Newsom said, there are two types of students who do not adjust well in college. The first, she said, are students from small towns, where everything is familiar, and they haven’t had to cope on their own.
The second type is students from private schools, Newsom said. Often, these students have parents who are accustomed to being involved and intervening, she said, and they think a private university is the same.
TCU developed the transitions program to help students adjust to college. In terms of expectations, the program helps students understand what the next level is and how to transition from year to year to graduate in four years, said Angela Taylor, dean of student development.
Is TCU too easy?
One noticeable result in the 2004 survey was that in the category of level of academic challenge, first-year students at TCU scored low, higher than only 16 other schools, placing TCU in the 16th percentile. In comparison, seniors scored in the 43rd percentile.
Mary Volcansek, dean of AddRan College, said one of the biggest problems with first-year classes is that they often are taught by adjunct faculty or graduate students, and analytical thinking is emphasized less in large classes, leading many students to be disappointed.
Volcansek also said that in her experience from teaching at other places, TCU is not as demanding of its students, but it does give students much more one-on-one time.
Some were surprised, however, by the number of students saying they didn’t feel academically challenged, including Newsom.
She said the challenge is there, but students don’t accept it.
“Some people will take the path of least resistance no matter what age,” she said.
Newsom said she offers extra credit where students may read a book or listen to a speaker and write a short reaction for an additional point to their grade at the end of the semester.
The folder containing reaction papers from students who had completed extra credit was virtually empty for the fall semester.
The student attitude
Andrew Fort, professor of religion, said American culture dictates an attitude of entitlement, and there isn’t a sense of reward. With the pressure of working, attending school and having a social life, it’s easy for students to fall into a do-what’s-needed frame of mind, he said.
“We don’t live in a system that has a lot of honor,” Fort said.
Some say grade management also contributes to less effort.
Volcansek said effort is not based on learning as much as possible, but rather students who know they cannot make an A in a class will put forth the minimum amount of effort to keep a B.
The director of freshman admissions, Wes Waggoner, agrees saying students will work for what they think they can achieve.
Academic motivation does not go beyond grades, Waggoner said The love of learning is what pushes those rare students beyond just grades, Waggoner added.
The faculty role
David Cross, associate professor of psychology, said students may not see opportunities and what college is all about, and faculty and the administration have to think about what students need to be successful.
“To what extent are we asking students to do what they will do in real life?” said Cross, who teaches a child psychology class.
When he first began teaching, Cross said, he felt he was responsible for making students knowledgeable; however, now he says his job is to socialize students, which includes building their character.
Taylor said faculty members expect a lot from students. Although faculty members are cognizant that students are enrolled in several classes, that doesn’t always come through because of the passion faculty members have for what they teach, Taylor said.
In other categories of the survey, TCU scored better, but first-year students were still lagging.
In the active and collaborative learning category, TCU first-year students scored in the 29th percentile, where seniors scored in the 67th percentile. Cross said many younger students are taking introductory level courses, which are similar to what they experience in high school, but seniors are taking upper-level, seminar classes.
A contributing factor to high scores in the supportive campus environment among first-years and seniors could be the emphasis put on “fun and games” before students enter college. Activities such as Frog Camp and sorority and fraternity recruitment have some students thinking all of college is going to be as exciting, and the level of expectation can be skewed, Volcansek said.
Orientation could be improved to include more than just a 45-minute session about academics and espectations, Volcansek said.
Now that TCU has the results from the 2001 and 2004 surveys, Taylor said, various areas of the campus, including the Center for Teaching Excellence and Student Affairs, are working toward answering the numerous questions that have arisen from the report, such as why is there such a difference between seniors and freshman, and how TCU can bring up the numbers for first-year students.
“This is a great way for us to pull together as a cohesive unit for students,” Taylor said. “There is no reason why we can’t be among the top universities in all the categories. “
Taylor said TCU students are intelligent and capable enough to make above-average grades but don’t always have the necessary skills to transition from high school to college, Taylor added.
So the question becomes, is TCU expecting too much from its students, especially those just coming in?
Both Taylor and Volcansek say no.
“Most of us like the bar set high but not too high,” Taylor said.
There is a balance between how much TCU expects and how much support it gives students, Taylor said. It’s an art to find the right balance for each student, she added.
Expecting 18-year-olds to be mature enough to seek help is not asking too much, Volcansek said. The reason most first-year students struggle is generally not rooted in academics, but rather in other areas, such as being homesick or partying. Parents need to help advise and transition students, she said.
TCU has been looking at ways to improve and help students adjust. One thought has been to change academic advising, Taylor said. There is a difference between what students want and what the faculty members think advising should be. Students want more of a “career counseling” session, Taylor said, and faculty members are telling them what classes they need to take.
One addition has been the advising toolkit, implemented by the registrar’s office. It helps students know what classes they need to take before advising. Taylor said this was a step toward a more “career counseling” advising system.
Wehlburg said TCU created freshman seminar courses as a way of involving students early on, as well as Frog Camp to help students engage and transition to college.