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College Knowledge: What Your Students May Not Know

Author: Margie Whalen Subject: All Subjects Created: 2017-08-24
From The Author My colleague and friend Michael tells this story about his first year as a community college student; it illustrates the assumptions we sometimes make as teachers and as institutions. Michael wanted to be a good student, so he committed himself to being responsible. Having sorted out the difference between lecture hours and lab hours, when he saw on his English class’s syllabus a listing of “Office Hours,” he dutifully made that part of his routine. For FIVE to SIX weeks, he went every Wednesday afternoon to his professor’s office. He never knocked on the door. He never entered the office. He just sat at a table outside and did his homework. Eventually, his professor stuck her head out the door and asked, “Can I help you?” “Oh, no thanks,” Michael replied confidently; “I’m just completing my office hours.” To her credit, the professor did not smirk, did not guffaw. She smiled, invited him in, and explained just what “office hours” meant. We miscommunicate with students all the time. We use academic language and terms that they do not know, casually, in lectures, and on our syllabi. We forget that many of them simply do not have “college knowledge.” Many of them are the first in their families to go to college; they have no context for terms as varied as “office hours,” “matriculation,” “deans,” or “cumulative G.P.A.” Finding time—making time—to help orient them to the new world they have entered can be a way of making college seem less alien, less confusing, less unwelcoming. This toolkit offers some ways to help students build their “college knowledge” in low-stakes, quick ways, empowering them to negotiate their way through the unfamiliar landscape of a college campus. - Margie Whalen

Impact on Faculty

This toolkit will provide a low-stakes way to orient students and to begin to build their "college knowledge"--their familiarity with the terms we use that are particular to academia.

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Toolkit Overview

Attached is a list of academic terms that beginning (and long-time) students don’t know—often to their detriment. I know; I’ve tried this list with students in English classes, both at the 67 and 68 level, and the number of the terms that are unfamiliar might startle you.

The unfamiliarity of these terms can interfere with their ability to understand and follow instructions, their ability to make use of campus resources, and their ability to advocate for themselves. Ideas about ways to work on these are included in the "Steps to Implement" section.

Steps To Implement

There is a variety of approaches that you might try for helping students familiarize themselves with these terms. Here are some suggestions:

1. First, consider this list as a starting point. What other terms about college itself do your students need to know to succeed in your class? Are there resources—like the LAC, the MARC, TC’s, SI’s—that they should know about? What might you add to the list? Remember to focus not on content terminology; the emphasis here is on college knowledge.

2. Next, consider how you might integrate these “college knowledge” vocabulary terms in to your class. You might, for instance, simply give students your revised list and have students work in pairs or small groups to see what they already know. (You could even tell them the story about my friend Michael to begin; he has given us permission to use the story as an example.) This might be a good warm-up activity during the first week of class, perhaps on the first day, giving students a chance to talk to each other and feel comfortable before diving in to the subject matter of your course.

3. You might choose instead to do this a little later in the course—after the first quiz or exam or especially taxing activity. Students might feel more motivated to learn the names of resources, for instance, if they have been less than successful on a first test.

4. Faculty who use the “Question of the Day” approach to calling roll might project the list of terms onto the board, and as they call each student’s name, they could ask the students to choose one term that they know (or don’t know) and talk about it.

5. You could simply write one term a day on the board and use it as a teaser as students begin to settle down and transition from commuting, parking, and rushing to class. Students could be asked to keep a list of terms and their own definitions, and they could be offered an extra credit point or two on a quiz. (This seems paltry, but students enjoy even the slightest chance for extra credit, even in instances when it will have no real effect on their grade for the course.)

6. Any creative approach would do—flash cards, bingo games, whatever you can find (make) the time to do. Just remember that students who feel disconnected from the campus are often the first to disappear; if we can make them “own” the institution and its arcane terminology (What’s up with the whole “bursar” thing, anyway?), that will be good for students.

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