General education courses are the testing ground for almost every department on a college campus. Populated heavily by incoming freshman or sophomores, these classes are designed to be an introduction and in many cases a requirement for students’ furthering their academic goals. The problem? Most incoming 18-year-olds are inexperienced with college, unaccustomed to the academic rigors, and may not see the “point” in a gen ed course.  

If your university is anything like mine, you might receive a handy “here’s what our incoming students are like” email or handout each year. Much of this startling data can be found by looking up the annual Mindset List, but the short and sweet of it is that our students are different than we were (and are) in the ways they consume information, especially as it relates to technology. This is one of many possible reasons why we struggle to form connections in the classroom.  

So, how can we use our gen-ed classes to transform a room full of possibly uninterested or underprepared 18-year-olds into successful college students?  

Understanding Students’ Prior Studying Behavior 

  • Recognize Their Past Success: Students come into our classes with a set of finely-honed, adaptive strategies that have worked for the demands that have been placed upon them until this point (they’re in college, aren’t they?).
  • Lamenting their lack of study skills or ability to read won’t change the fact that whatever they did up to this point was actually successful for them. Thorndike’s Law of Effect says that behaviors that lead to rewarding consequences will instinctively be repeated. If a student made flashcards and memorized definitions for a test, and they earned a good grade, they will repeat the same behavior again. And again. And again. So, applying this same technique when studying in our class isn’t a sign of their lack of academic prowess; it’s actually a very adaptive strategy.
  • Establish Trust Before Change: They don’t know us, and they don’t have any reason to trust us. Yet, we are asking them to turn away from something that has worked for them for years (ex. memorizing definitions) in order to follow our advice about learning. Their affective responses to this can range from uncomfortable to downright anxiety-provoking. They may very well be tempted to ignore this advice altogether and continue to do things their way – at least until they find out the hard way that college is different.  

Make Small Changes on Familiar Behaviors 

If we start with an understanding of students’ prior academic behavior, we can see that teaching students a new way to learn is really one of the most important ways we can prepare students for success in college. A great way to affect change is to encourage students to start with something familiar (I’ll use flashcards as an example) and just adjust their strategy a little.  

Here are my new instructions to the students: 

  • Get Started: Start exactly the same way you usually do, by writing one keyword on the front of each card. Then, put away your book, notes, laptop, etc.
  • Explain In Your Own Words: On the backside of each card, write the definition of the term completely in your own words. Don’t worry about the technical terms; explain it like you would to your roommate or your mom.
  • Try Application: Next, include one or two examples of the key concept. This will help you apply the terms rather than just memorizing them.
  • Study What You Don’t Know: If you can do this easily, set the card in one pile. If you can’t, set it in another pile. Once you’ve finished all of the major concepts, you can start studying the pile you don’t know.
  • Rinse and Repeat: Repeat until all the cards are moved into the “known” pile. 

Once your students have these flashcards, they can do much more than just use them as a quizzing tool. For example: 

  • Make Concept Maps: Take a handful of cards and lay them out to show the organization between key concepts.
  • Relate Concepts: Pull two cards at random and think of a way the two concepts are similar or different.
  • Have a Study Partner: Trade decks with a friend and review the different definitions and examples on their cards. Is there anything they missed? Anything you hadn’t thought about before?  

Now, as I mentioned before, many students simply won’t believe you when you first tell them they’ll need to study differently in college. This brings me to my final point: give them the freedom to fail.  

Knowing that students tend to perform poorly on the first exam in my class, I have purposefully made the exam worth the fewest amount of points. This way, if students don’t earn the grade that they’re accustomed to receiving, they can use it as an early motivator to change their behavior. Many students will need this failure experience before they’re ready to listen – but it does no good if they’re already so far in the hole that they can’t recover.