Unlearning High School in Five Painful Steps

By Maho mumbles, via Wikimedia Commons

This is addressed to all the college freshman out there.

There are a few habits you may have learned in high school that will have to be adjusted in college. Remember that the chief difference between high school and college is that high school aims to fill your brain with some basic knowledge of the world and introduce you to the main fields of inquiry (mathematics, science, social science, humanities, the arts), while the main goal in college is to train you to think critically about the world: to analyze, to find and sort through new information effectively, and to apply lessons from one sphere to another. Each discipline uses different techniques, which you are meant to familiarize yourself with as you take courses in different departments, but the overall goal of all disciplines is to train you in advanced critical thinking. Later, as you choose a major, you will also be expected to master many of the subtleties of a specific discipline, more narrowly defined than they were in high school.

In the case of history, in high school you are taught the basic facts of history and you are perhaps exposed to some questions any citizen might ask about our past. In college, you are expected to act as an apprentice historian, to try out the more complex methods of professional historians in order to understand them fully, and to ask deeper questions about the nature and uses of history, and how history influences our society.

In other words, in high school you are told a story; in college you are invited to discover how stories are written and what they may mean from different points of view.

1. The 5-Paragraph Essay

Frequently taught in high schools, the 5-paragraph essay model is a solid way of teaching students the basic outline of most scholarly writing: an introduction that sets up a problem and a resolution to it, a series of points of evidence supporting the resolution, and then a conclusion that summarizes the case made and connects it to broader implications. This is a good basic model. Naturally, however, not every argument relies on precisely three points of evidence, and not every introduction or conclusion can best be articulated in precisely one paragraph each.

The rigidity of the five paragraphs can safely be left behind in college, though you should retain the overall structure of introduction-problem-resolution-evidence-conclusion.

In college we expect you to be familiar enough with this model to reproduce it reliably, and we now want you to focus on content: think through real problems and evidence and come to your own reasoned, supported conclusions.

This difference implies something very important about how your writing process in college should be different than it was in high school. When your goal was just to practice the 5-paragraph model over and over, it made sense to start with an outline, fill it in, then you’re done. That is not sufficient in college, because it allows you only to record whatever you already know, not to discover new knowledge.

In college, writing should be a process of sorting through complex information, understanding it better, and then figuring out what you think about it. To do this properly, you must write many drafts. Start by explaining the evidence and arguments from your source texts in detail in your own words — that’s the best way to figure out what the evidence really is. Then start to ask questions about what the evidence means, what it adds up to. As you clarify the questions the evidence can help you answer, you will gradually come to some conclusions about how to answer your questions. Only at this point can you put all this into an outline and revise according to the introduction-problem-resolution-evidence-conclusion model!

2. You must do the reading at home

The number of hours spent in the college classroom is obviously far fewer than in high school. This is not because college is easier, or because it’s meant to be done on the side while you work (or play).

The way college courses are structured, the expectation is that a full load should be at least 40 hours a week, or the equivalent of a full-time job by itself. You should expect to work an average of 2-4 hours at home for each hour you spend in class (however with practice you will find that you’ll spend less time than this some weeks, and much more other weeks).

Because class time is so limited, we cannot waste it sitting and reading in a room together. Class time is for synthesizing the material, asking questions about it, and learning how to identify patterns in it. For that time to be worthwhile, you must come to class fully prepared.

At home you should be mastering the basic facts covered in the course (usually provided in the textbook) and absorbing the content of the other readings, so that in class you can think about the questions, problems, and arguments they raise.

In class, you should be taking notes, but don’t try to write down every word said. If you are sufficiently prepared you should not need to write down every factoid, but should be able to focus on questions, problems, and patterns.

3. You will not be rescued from disaster at the last minute

We can fail you, and we will. I understand that it has become common in American high schools to never fail a student no matter how poor their performance (which, you may have noticed, only serves to bring you to college grossly unprepared, which is really doing you a disservice in the long run), and it is common to allow make-ups, revisions, extra credit, etc, to improve grades. Do not expect this to happen in college. You are personally responsible for your performance, and your own learning.

If we could put the knowledge and skills you need on a flash drive and stick it in your ear, we would, but it doesn’t work that way.

Think of college as being like a gym membership: you pay to have access to the facilities, and to trainers who can help push you along, show you the most efficient way, and keep you from hurting yourself. But you still have to do the work, or you’ll never get in shape.

4. Assessments are far less frequent, so they count more

In college it is typical to have only one or two exams per semester, and perhaps one or two additional papers (this can vary widely–when I was an undergrad, most of my class had just one paper, or one exam!). This means you must master a greater amount of material for each assignment than you may be accustomed to, and the grade of each assignment will count more in your final course grade. Final exams frequently ask you to synthesize material from the entire semester, to enable you to tie together everything covered and to make connections among different places and periods (for a history class).

So studying is not about memorizing details just long enough to pass a test, then forgetting it all. Generally, there is less memorization needed at the college level, but it is vital that you fully understand concepts and that you think through the material being covered. Always ask how each piece of material connects to others, and why it matters — these are the most significant “facts” you need to learn.

And, of course, remember that it’s not okay to “bomb” one exam or paper — because of the smaller number of assignments, this will make a big impact on your final grade, and it won’t be possible to make up a bombed assignment later.

5. Feedback matters

In high school you may have found that you got very small amounts of feedback very regularly, and that it was generally positive. (The theory that constantly bolstering students’ self-esteem will help them succeed — though now convincingly debunked in my opinion — has been dominant in the schools since I was in kindergarten.)

In college it is more likely that you will get feedback relatively rarely, but it will be detailed and focused on what you need to do differently next time. The idea of this kind of feedback is not to be mean. Feedback is never about you as a person, but about the written work you turned in on a given occasion.

The instructor’s goal is to help you, by showing you where you need to improve most, so that you can do better next time. Always pay very close attention to feedback; don’t take it personally, but do consider it a guide to how to approach your next assignment (even if that next assignment is in another course!). If you don’t understand the feedback you’re getting or it isn’t enough, talk to your professor!

You’re an adult now. If they don’t hear from you, they assume you know what you’re doing.



Note: much of my information about what the high schools are up to these days comes from colleagues, as does the gym metaphor, for which I will be forever grateful.

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