A surprising percentage of students earn the lowest grades of their college careers in their first terms. Typically, they say the same thing: “I knew classes would be harder and would go faster; I just didn’t know they would be that hard and go that fast.”
One windfall of the use of data analytics at colleges and universities is that we now have a wealth of useful research about the choices and decisions successful college students make. Drawing from this research — and my own experience teaching and advising first-year college students at Western Washington University — I offer the following tips for parents of new students in our state universities.
Your student has chosen a great public education system. According to the federal government’s “College Scorecard,” students who start college in Washington are more likely to graduate than students in nearly any other state system. We also graduate students at lower-than-average overall costs, and those graduates go on to earn higher-than-average starting salaries. Importantly, we also graduate students more equitably as our rates of success for African-American, Latino and American-Indian students are substantially higher than average.
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A surprising percentage of students earn the lowest grades of their college careers in their first terms. Typically, they all say the same thing: “I knew classes would be harder and would go faster; I just didn’t know they would be that hard and go that fast.” I share this fact with my new students and encourage parents to do the same.
Foster resilience and a growth mindset
Successful college students commonly differ from struggling students in key ways. Many adopt what psychologists call a “growth mindset.” Students with this orientation approach studying, test taking and note taking as skills that can be taught, learned and improved with effort. Not surprisingly, they become better students over time, achieving their best work when it matters most — as college seniors. They also handle setbacks better and are more likely to challenge themselves in new subject areas than students who frame their achievements as the consequence of fixed abilities, such as being “good” at math.
Parents shape a student’s mindset by the things they say. A simple rule of thumb is to comment on a student’s effort or approach to a task. It’s better to say, “Sounds like you really studied well for that Econ exam,” than “Sounds like Econ is something you’re good at.”
Parents are key in helping students plan for and deal with difficulties. On this topic I have two suggestions.
First, ask your student to plan what they will do if they get sick, anxious or depressed, or if they start to struggle in a class. Who will they call, what campus resources will they access? Students in my first-year seminar write this information down. They also create a motivation page to look to as a reminder of why they are in college, what they want to achieve, and who is counting on them.
Second, plan what you will say to your student when difficulties inevitably occur. After all, worthy achievements require persistence and tenacity — including a college education. Consequently, setbacks should be expected. When they occur, you can direct your student to the plan he or she created for such moments.
Plan and manage time
Another characteristic of successful students concerns time. Successful students plan and manage their time. They study like it’s their job, keeping a calendar and studying on a daily schedule rather than waiting for something to be assigned or due.
Indeed, the need for time management may be the single biggest difference between high school and college. After all, most high school students have their entire day and evening scheduled for them. In contrast, college students may be done with classes at noon and have nowhere they have to be until 8 a.m. the next day. Consequently, keeping a calendar and managing one’s time are among the most important skills new students need.
The time-management challenge also explains a longstanding conundrum: why students often earn better grades when they have a part-time campus job, volunteer or have other daily responsibilities. It seems students with less time to manage find it easier to manage the time they have. At Western, we see this in our course scheduling data as students with full schedules statistically earn better grades than those who take lighter loads.
Get your money’s worth
At Western, students can check out sailboats, become expert in Photoshop or web design, climb Mount Baker, learn to calm themselves in emergencies, get advice on their résumés, etc. — all at little or no cost. I encourage my students to take advantage of these campus resources. By doing so — and by following these tips — you will help us help your student to successfully make the most of his or her college years.