Create a free Diverse: Issues In Higher Education account to continue reading

Going Boldly: Purposeful Engagement, Critical Thinking, and Success in College

Dr Kelling Donald

At the end of each academic year, millions of high school seniors across the country are ceremonially launched into their futures. For many, that future commences with an anxious summer followed by the start of college. Well before the first college lecture, however, newly enrolled college students should consider a couple questions and a few simple steps that can lower barriers to college success.

The who and the what?

It is helpful to approach college with certain broad goals and a sense of purpose. The full college experience cannot be pre-planned, but students do well to reflect on their academic journeys so far and consider what they want from college. Two questions that I’ve encouraged advisees to consider are ‘Who am I?’ and ‘What do I want?’

Dr. Kelling DonaldDr. Kelling DonaldThe first question invites students to reflect on their personal qualities and values (e.g. I am … focused, honest, generous, motivated, analytical) and the sources, resources, and forces in their hearts and histories that fuel their aspirations, (e.g. family members and mentors, years of struggle, or generations that never made it to college — until now). Each student’s list of responses will be different, but their lists will be used in similar ways. When college days are long, energies are low, self-doubt intensifies, belonging is questioned, or distractions become increasingly attractive. The ‘Who’ list can remind you that you are stronger, better, less alone, and more resilient that the current situation would want you to feel.

The second question is not an invitation to set academic and professional plans in stone even before starting college. Undergraduates are known to change interests and even majors. ‘What do I want?’ challenges students to identify and write down their broad goals and ideals for college: I will … attend all my classes, graduate with honors, engage with people from different backgrounds, strengthen my combined interests in soccer, violin, and physics, become fluent in French, and so on. I encourage my advisees to write down their primary goals for college — their highest priorities. From one semester to the next, any (in)congruence, between those goals and daily decisions will offer students an objective basis for (re)assessing their trajectories or celebrating progress. The list should be as specific and measurable as possible, but it does not have to be static. If a marvelous course in East African development wins you over, you can select Swahili over French, or study both. At the end of college, this ‘What’ list will be an invaluable reference as students reflect on their personal growth and the evolution of priorities throughout the undergraduate experience.

With the initial versions of their lists in place, there are a few pieces of advice that students do well to consider:

Make textbooks pay

A good textbook is a tool of seduction. It is trying to generate affections in your mind for the subject. It is trying to convince you that behind the apparent complexities of a discipline (exotic equations, weird terms, dates, and definitions) is an exquisite charm that has enraptured other people like you for centuries. Textbooks are allies in self-paced learning; enable systematic preparation for the next few days of class (often with practice problems or discussion questions); and can massively expand your appreciation for the subject, providing an even grander picture of the discipline beyond the boundaries of the immediate course. Some courses may not require textbooks. For those that do, students should check with professors on how to make textbooks repay every cent they paid for it and more.

Find your people

Establishing and participating in a solid study group can help students achieve several of their college goals at once, including academic, communication, leadership, and social goals. According to formal experimental evidence and personal experiences, three or four like-minded peers is a practical size for an effective study group. Good group members need not be perennial A+ students, but the group should set ground rules and follow them. Study group meetings should not be dedicated to socializing — everyone needs to agree to prepare before the group meets and come ready to work. A good small group of like-minded thinkers of different strengths can be much more effective than the isolated genius. Ideally, each member will feel comfortable sharing knowledge and exposing knowledge gaps, teaching and being taught.

Go to office hours

These are divine inventions. The term ‘office hours’ refer to periods of time (not necessarily an hour) that professors set aside for students from a given course to stop by and ask questions about the course material. In office hours, students get a trained professional all to themselves to talk about anything that’s bothering them in the subject. It’s like having a textbook that talks (and cares)! How tremendous is that? Go to office hours prepared with questions or concerns and prepare to participate in a vigorous intellectual discourse.

And rest

Perhaps the other most neglected piece of college advice is the most obvious — eat healthily, sleep well, and exercise. For students, lifestyle choices can directly impact academic performance (and everything else on their lists).

As students venture out into this new frontier, going boldly into spaces where they (and in some cases no other family member) have never gone before, I and college professors everywhere wish them well. We look forward to seeing them – confident, curious, and excited – on the first day of classes.

Dr. Kelling Donald is Professor of Chemistry, Clarence E. Denoon Jr. Chair in the Natural Sciences, and Associate Dean in the School of Arts & Sciences at the University of Richmond. He is the author of  How to Solve A Problem: Insights for Critical Thinking, Problem-Solving, and Success in College.

A New Track: Fostering Diversity and Equity in Athletics
American sport has always served as a platform for resistance and has been measured and critiqued by how it responds in critical moments of racial and social crises.
Read More
A New Track: Fostering Diversity and Equity in Athletics