College vs. High School: “Differently Hard”

I’ve started contributing to Angelo State’s Navigating Higher Ed (a My Future Blog). Click on the link to the left to see the article on that page or read below. I told them when I agreed to write, I was going to repost on my blog site. I would encourage anyone here to slide on over to the Angelo State site and see the other blog posts. If you are looking for a college home, you could do quite a bit worse than ASU.

College vs. High School: “Differently Hard”

When I teach first year composition courses, I’ll often begin the semester by asking my students their perception about the biggest differences between high school and college. Since I like to teach early morning classes, I’m often the first class of their college career so I get responses tinged with excitement, nerves and, understandably, a kind of abject fear at this new endeavor they’ve undertaken.

At Angelo State, mind you, many of our students are first generation, first time college students who lack the wise counsel of an older sibling or parents with experience in higher . Their initial impressions of college life are influenced by popular culture, high school counselors, and their first two nights in the dorm.

Inevitably, students will tell me they expect the work to be more difficult and that they don’t have “mommy and daddy” around to make sure they get to class. There is, for many, a great deal of excitement as they become fully cognizant of their responsibilities as emerging adults, coupled with an underlying fear that they aren’t prepared for the academic rigor or the personal responsibility necessary to succeed at the university level.

I like to revisit this question as we wind down the semester to see if their experiences matched those initial perceptions.

As you can imagine, the responses vary, but when I first started teaching I had a student tell me his first semester taught him that college was “differently hard” than high school.

In essence, he wrote, the subject matter in his classes wasn’t as complex as he feared it might be in college, but the classes were still difficult because “how I had to work” changed dramatically once he got to college.

The rest of the student’s response to the question struggled to explain exactly what he meant, but I think he did a pretty good job of identifying a couple of key differences between high school and college.

New regimen

For my student, the “differently hard” issues revolved around the way time works on a college campus and the nature of the work required.

Professors expect students to work two to three hours a week outside of class for every hour in which they are in class.In high school, students’ days are fairly regimented. They arrive on campus around 7:45 and leave around 2:30 or 3. We ring a bell every 50-75 minutes to herd them to the next assigned task. During those classes, we collect homework and spend time, in the ideal high school, confirming that the students understand the material before we move on to the next subject.

In many ways, the nature of the work is very linear, culminating (for better or for worse, mind you) in a state-mandated exam that measures progress on stated and agreed upon goals. I have no intention of being critical of the high school model. By and large, American high schools do a pretty amazing job of educating our children, especially when you consider the difficulty of the task they often face.

They can’t, though, perfectly prepare students for colleges.

Time shift

My student, in his comments, pointed out how shocking it was that he had an 8 a.m. class, a 9 a.m. class, then nothing until Tuesday morning.

Full-time high school students attend classes seven to eight hours a day. Every day. In college, a full-time student attends classes 12-15 hours a week.

Good thing we have cable and high-speed Internet in the dorms, right?

What my student had to learn, of course, is that the burden of measuring his understanding of the course material shifts in college from the teacher to the student. The reason a full-load is 12 hours, I explain to my students, is that professors expect students to work two to three hours a week outside of class for every hour in which they are in class. Students have to learn how to read on their own, practice problem sets with friends, and seek out help from professors, tutoring centers or academic advisors.

Time on a college campus offers students an amazing amount of freedom, but that free time comes with important responsibilities.

Faster Pace

Likewise, that free time changes the nature of the work required at the college level. Because professors expect students will be spending that “free” time working on their classes and , students often struggle with the pace of college classes. Professors cover more material at a quicker pace with fewer quizzes and homework assignments. Classes often focus on larger issues and critical thinking rather than simply recitation of factual information. In essence, grades become more dependent on how a student might apply material rather than a student’s ability to repeat data.

Most importantly, professors expect that students will seize their responsibilities and take advantage of their time on campus to pursue knowledge or seek help when understanding might be eluding them.

Doing so will help students spend their “free” time wisely and master those “differently hard” assignments as they move toward graduation and successful careers after college.

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About John Wegner
John Wegner is a Professor of English where he also serves as the Dean of the Freshman College. He and Lana, his wife, have been married over 25 years. They are the parents of two great sons who (so far) haven't ever needed bail money.

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