From High School to University: A Learning Shift

The classroom environment for a first-year University student presents a variety of challenges with respect to academic expectations, professor interactions, and personal responsibility. Academic success, especially during the first semester, relies upon individual skills of time management and goal setting. For a first-year student, key differences between high school and college lie in the amount of unsupervised learning time that is available.

In the University classroom, the student is responsible for the contents of the course syllabus. This means that the student bears the responsibility for scheduling the appropriate amount of time necessary to complete the reading dictated by the syllabus. The majority of instructors utilize the course syllabus to dictate readings that correspond to the weekly lectures and assignments. High school instructors may set aside classroom time to review the reading in depth. This does not happen in the majority of university classrooms, where professors lecture under the assumption that students have prepared and are familiar with assigned material.

By extension, a student at the University bears greater responsibility for deciding how to best learn the material in a course. Few University courses base a grade upon the ability to take notes or highlight the text during the lecture. The student must choose and consistently implement the best classroom strategy that suits both personal learning style and self-chosen academic goals. If a student chooses to forgo note-taking in the classroom, then the student assumes responsibility for the academic consequences of that choice. During class in high school, an instructor may dictate a method for the students to take notes and may pause the class to call attention to a lack of note-taking. This rarely happens for University students; the professor presents the material for the student to learn and the student must choose how to approach the learning situation.

Demonstration of learning takes on a new definition in the transition from high school to college. In the University classroom, students show mastery of material by taking the material learned in the course and applying that learning to new problems and situations. Exams may not simply duplicate homework assignments, instead; essays and problem sets present new situations where students can apply what has been learned via lecture, labs, and homework. For students in the high school classroom, reproduction of knowledge is considered sufficient for a top grade, Moving from high school to college requires students to apply critical thinking techniques in the context of a course to demonstrate mastery of subject matter.

Grades at the university level are based upon completed work rather than a percentage of the effort that a student put into an assignment. Demonstrating effort is important with regard to professor interaction as well as grading, but final grades in college reflect work that has been completed. For many high school students, grades took into account effort even if the final result was not realized. This does not hold true for the majority of college courses, where the grade is based upon exam and project grades. For first-year students, this requires discipline and time management skills to make time so that practice leads to desired measurable results. While the grade in high school may have been based upon a student’s ability to make a consistent effort, the grade at the university level is based upon the results that are achieved in major assignments, exams, and projects.

The increased self-responsibility that students assume in the transition from high school to college is reflected in the academic expectations for a first-year student. Awareness of course content and consistent use of effective time management strategies help to structure learning choices and professor interaction. While the first year of the university experience can be intimidating, attention to key skills at the start of the semester will contribute to academic success during the first semester and beyond.

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