What should I cover in a "college/post-secondary readiness" workshop?
August 19, 2015 2:15 PM   Subscribe

I will be delivering a (voluntary) 1-2 hour college readiness workshop for new students at the beginning of the September semester. The purpose is to provide them with skills, resources and info that will help them in their transition to post-secondary education. If you took or wanted to take a workshop like this, what kind of info was/would have been useful?

The students will most likely cover a range of ages (from 18 to 45+) and educational experiences--some will have just graduated from high school, some will be returning to school after a long break. Most will be first generation post-secondary students. From my experience in the classroom, I know many students of all descriptions need study skills and time management strategies, but what else should I cover? I don't just want to approach it from the instructor's point of view (ie what *I* think they need). Is there anything typically included in these workshops that you think I should not bother with? Thank you in advance for your suggestions! I will also look at previous threads that discuss returning to school for some ideas.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl to Education (28 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Please, PLEASE cover financial management. How much to take out from financial aid office. Why you shouldn't take out more than you can afford. How the interest on their loans actually works, and why they should try to pay the loans while in school. Differences between private and public loans. Why that dude at the corner giving you a domino's pizza in exchange for your first credit card sign up isn't your friend.

Also helpful I think would be things like self-advocacy and making use of school resources to help you with problems that come up - counselors, financial aid office, student advocates - and also how to navigate what could be tricky systems.
posted by Karaage at 2:29 PM on August 19, 2015 [12 favorites]

I was a first generation college student and I now work with this particular population of students. I would say stop worrying about time management and study skills, and start thinking about how to introduce these kids to the culture of college. These are the questions most commonly asked by first generation college students at my institution: how do I drop or add a class? What should I do if I am failing? At what point should I e-mail a professor, or go to office hours? how do I find an on campus job? What is a registrar, and what can they do for me? what can the library do for me? How is the college organized and what does each division or office do? How do I adjust my meal plan?
posted by all about eevee at 2:36 PM on August 19, 2015 [19 favorites]

Forgot some: what does career services do? How is the college financed? What does my tuition go to support? Why are people asking me to give a gift to the school when I haven't graduated? Who do I go to if I have an issue with my roommate?
posted by all about eevee at 2:39 PM on August 19, 2015 [4 favorites]

From your question, it's hard to to understand your target audience, also what your stake in this is. Are you working on behalf of a specific school, or is this a program run by a community organization? How are the students finding your workshop and what did they think they were signing up for? Is this a community college where the student body is pretty varied or is it a school where the vast majority of the students are the standard 18-22 years old?

It seems like the most useful thing you could do in a single 1-2 hour session is emphasize the variety of resources most schools have for academic, financial, and tech help, and especially for medical and mental health. You're not going to be able to teach an mixed group of students how to budget for college in an hour, but you can inform them of what's available and make them feel comfortable seeking it out. With some years hindsight, I feel like I could've done so much better in school if I had taken advantage of all the resources that were there but somehow "didn't seem like they were for me".

I've seen more stories recently about the challenges first-generation college students face. I imagine if you're 45 and going back to school after twenty five years, things are going to be a little bewildering too. "There are tutors in the third floor computer lab who will teach you how to use Photoshop if you've never used it and need it for class" is something both could appreciate.
posted by yeahlikethat at 2:45 PM on August 19, 2015 [6 favorites]

Things that I didn't realize were important (whether I did them or not), but I now know are vital
- going to office hours
- making a personal connection with professors
- being friendly to admin and support staff
- taking advantage of ALL resources: tutoring, scholarships, therapy, etc.
- joining a cohort/Umoja/Puente/First Year Experience/any other academic group program
- not telling myself no, but going ahead and applying/asking/etc.
- asking for help
- (politely) asking for exceptions
- asking for help EARLY -- the longer you wait, the bigger a problem it is for everyone
- getting recommendations for professors from classmates (and other professors)
- trying a wide variety of classes (the average American college student changes or adds programs 4 times!)
- joining clubs and making friends, because you probably won't need to remember the order of succession after you graduate, but you WILL need connections
- putting all papers/projects/tests into a calendar ASAP so that you can see when they all bunch up
- remembering that you can't plan for emergencies -- which is why it's your job to do everything early, when there IS no emergency, rather than give up when an emergency happens

These are some of the things that I tell my international students. (Even better: We have former students come back to tell them. They listen to our graduates more!) First-generation college students may also need language for talking to their family members and friends about what they're doing when they study and why. I heard about someone else's student whose wife thought he was having an affair because he was gone so much and she never saw him "working" on school. :/

Another topic is where to get information at that particular college. At my college, and one I work with now, there are tons of great free events, but there's no central source for them. Reading the student newspaper and looking at bulletin boards -- which I normally ignore, tbh -- is the only way to stay informed.

Email: the importance of checking it. How to email professors and in what circumstances. Making sure they receive email their professors or the administration may send. (At a lot of colleges, this means going into the cruft of whatever horrible online system the school uses and setting it to forward to their email.) For example, at a certain local college, you only get 48 hours to sign up for a class if you were on the waitlist and a spot opens up. This message is only sent to a student's school email address (which almost no one checks, because it's ... not good), unless the student has set up forwarding or dug out the new texting option.
posted by wintersweet at 2:47 PM on August 19, 2015 [3 favorites]

Much has been written lately about the first generation student and how the biggest obstacle is just what all about eevee says-- culture. And not just institutional culture (though definitely that), but the specific challenges of being less wealthy or less institutionally savvy than your peers and thus feeling a sense of not belonging.

Research has shown that first generation students have less success than their continuing-generation counterparts, but that discussing social class and challenges can improve performance (and potentially reduce the attrition rate, I think I've read elsewhere). First-gen students have to deal with many unique issues-- specifically guilt-- and getting this on the table is possibly a more successful strategy than dealing in generalities like "study skills" and "pay attention in class." (Study skills are worthless if you feel like you don't deserve to be attending the school you're at, and drop out.)

I was a first-gen student, and I figured out how to add/drop, pay for my education, etc. but I asked a loooooot of questions. Because I had to-- I had nowhere to turn. Definitely help these students to understand that they MUST ask questions, because their questions are valid, and because even their continuing-generation peers will have questions.
posted by easter queen at 2:49 PM on August 19, 2015 [8 favorites]

(I see that you're in Canada, so I guess some of the above details won't make sense, sorry! The cohorts or groups I'm talking about are ones focused on ethnic groups or majors or other unifying factors. Students take some classes together and may have special resources like counselors or study rooms available to them.)
posted by wintersweet at 2:51 PM on August 19, 2015

Also, research about how first-gen students often do not perform as well as continuing-gen students takes into account prior preparation. This is potentially because continuing-gen students report feeling more supported/more belonging and view college as an extension of their high school experience, thus feeling more at ease and taking further advantage of social and academic opportunities. I think a discussion of why taking advantage of extracurriculars, study groups, etc. can improve performance (in a socio-economic context! since that is important to improvement! as in the link I originally posted) would be useful.
posted by easter queen at 3:00 PM on August 19, 2015

1-2 hours isn't a ton of time, so one area I'd emphasize is the availability of other resources as the semester goes on (and the importance of taking advantage of them early, especially if you think you have a problem). Office hours, a campus writing lab, the counseling center, etc...
posted by zachlipton at 3:01 PM on August 19, 2015 [1 favorite]

Huge 2nd to a general introduction to university infrastructure and support, and practical advice on navigating it all, making the most of their time there, developing relationships with lecturers and other students, the benefits of being proactive in classes and extra-curricular organizations... I've met students who made it to their senior year without knowing how/whether it might be possible to get research experience, or why it might matter for their goals. (Some of them sat at the back of lecture halls for most of their degrees, hoping their grades alone would be enough to make them competitive for grad school - true in some cases, often not.)

Can they get detailed advice on time management and study skills from another source/venue? I feel like each of those sort of demands its own time. Would maybe give them a really quick (5 min) overview on those and some handouts with info on further resources.

However: I'm not a first-gen student, technically, but my parents got their degrees one million years ago, in another country, where/when everything was assessed by oral exam. So they had no idea what to suggest when it came to producing the volume of written work required for a full course load (not that I asked, to be fair). One thing I would probably have benefitted from (my first time around) was learning to work smart vs hard. I.e. how to prioritize a) assignments/exams according to their percentage value of the final grade, and b) courses, wrt their place in the degree and their implications for future plans (e.g. considering the impact of GPA for the last 2 years vs for year 1). (Giving a 10% response paper for an elective class the kind of energy you would a 50% exam for a core course is a recipe for overwhelm. So I would definitely mention this, in case it isn't obvious [though it probably is to most].)
posted by cotton dress sock at 3:02 PM on August 19, 2015

Thanks for all the answers so far! Just to answer a couple of questions: I teach at a community college. We are offering this workshop because previous students in our program (upgrading) have expressed interest in taking one. For a variety of reasons, I'm the one who will organize it for this semester. We have a diverse (in age, cultural background, educational background, economic circumstances) student body, so although there are a lot of 18-22 year olds, there are also lots of mature students (older than that, some by many years). We have quite a few single parents. Some are just doing upgrading in order to get into college/university courses; some are taking a mix of upgrading and first-year college/university courses.

Wintersweet, we do actually have a large body of students who identify as Aboriginal/First Nations, and there are many services available for them specifically, so that was a good reminder.

The concrete examples about the first-gen experience are especially useful to me because I think that is the kind of thing our students need most (time management or study skills are best covered by our student learning centre/tutors), and it is good for me to hear personal experiences from people who were first-gen students and the kinds of things they needed to know that wouldn't necessarily occur to me. Thank you!

I know it'll be a short period of time, so I am hoping to introduce them to the resources our school has available to them, but also hope to provide answers to some of the questions they want to ask but are too shy or uncertain to ask. Or ones they don't even know to ask.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 3:25 PM on August 19, 2015

Ooh yes, nthing appropriate ways to contact and build relationships with your professors. I remember seeing studies somewhere that one reason (of many, of course) for differences in educational outcome amongst socioeconomic lines is that wealthier kids are taught to ask questions and that teachers are there to serve help them. They grow up seeing their parents advocate for them with teachers, doctors, administrators, and are better equipped to advocate for themselves later on. Poorer kids' parents don't have the time/energy/education to do that as extensively. That hurts them later on when everyone is jockeying for for lab spots or recommendations and you have to know how to stand out. Likewise, if you've got immigrants and their children, consider addressing cultural attitudes towards teachers and authority too.

I've been an AskAManager binge lately and she had a few posts on blue/white collar differences, the benefits of having professional parents, and mentoring young people from disadvantaged communities that might be interesting for another look at the cultural differences your students might be facing.
posted by yeahlikethat at 3:27 PM on August 19, 2015 [1 favorite]

One of the nice things I remember from first day of college was the dean addressing us all started with: "You deserve to be here. We didn't make a mistake in admitting you. Even if it seems overwhelming at times, you will succeed here."

Something I liked to emphasize to my students on the first day: ask for help. If you don't know who to ask about some particular problem, find anybody nice that you've had contact with and ask them to help you figure it out. You (or your parents or somebody) are paying a ton of money so that you will have people to ask when you run into problems. You're entitled to ask for help, and it's our job to help you. Even the people who look like they have it all together get overwhelmed; don't assume everybody else is having it easy and you're out of place. (I often illustrate this with a brief anecdote, but YMMV.) It's normal to need help, it's normal to get overwhelmed in your first semester, it's not the end of the world, it's a normal thing that somebody can help you work through -- you just have to ask.

Also tell them that they should keep their syllabus somewhere they'll be able to refer back to it. And tell them how to buy their books. And that most places allow a short period of "shopping" for classes at the start of the semester so they may be able to attend a class once before deciding on their final schedule.
posted by LobsterMitten at 3:30 PM on August 19, 2015 [2 favorites]

-When in doubt, to call their professors by Professor Lastname, or Dr. Lastname, unless the person specifies otherwise. (Some students start off with inappropriately informal firstname-only, and some start with the high-schoolish Mrs. Lastname.)

-They should remember their professors' names. Professors are the key to many later goodies, like recommendations for internships or summer programs or grad school. (And worth going over what those are.) So you'll want to have at least one professor who you've impressed enough that they would write a letter saying "This student is conscientious, polite, and reasonably mature about social interactions, and did a good job in my class."
posted by LobsterMitten at 3:37 PM on August 19, 2015 [2 favorites]

Hrm, and maybe talk about the beginning of the year:

Registering and enrolling - these are two separate things! They sound like they should be the same, but they aren't, so remember you need to do both every semester.

Health center, dining hall, residence life, recreation center/gym, etc - they may need to check in with other offices or get access cards for different facilities. Each of these things will have its own policies about the cards, so get a folder where you can keep all that stuff in case you need it later.

Choosing courses. They'll need to look at their school's catalogue, where it will say which courses are when, but also,
- some courses only run once a year, or even every other year,
- some courses have pre-requisites, so you'll need to plan ahead -- if you want to take next fall's ENG 201, you need to take ENG 101 this spring
- there are usually general education requirements, you'll look them up in the catalogue
- each major then has its own additional requirements, you'll look those up in the catalogue
- some classes will have labs attached, so you'll need to put two entries on your schedule for that class and its lab time
- requirements are often phrased in the form of "take any two classes from among the ones coded as FL" or similar.

They'll probably be assigned an academic advisor who will help them with some of this, but they should do a preliminary pass themselves first, and bring a plan to show the advisor -- that will make the best use of their meeting time with the advisor. Some advisors aren't very good, or don't have the time to really engage with your personal needs, so you'll have to do most of the decisionmaking on your own and bring questions to the advisor.

Add/drop - they may be able to shop for courses, especially if one they want is over-enrolled they can sign up for another one but get on a waiting list for the one they really want. The key is to ask. Go to the class the first day and talk to the professor afterwards. Then, there's usually a window of time for add/drop. They should also know about Withdrawing and taking Incompletes.
posted by LobsterMitten at 4:02 PM on August 19, 2015 [1 favorite]

Oo, and maybe a cheat-sheet of college offices and what they're for -- who do you go to with what kind of issue?

Dean of Students (or other deans, student life, academic affairs, whatever)
Campus Safety
Residence Life
posted by LobsterMitten at 4:08 PM on August 19, 2015 [1 favorite]

I was also going to say earlier that I think an AWESOME thing to do for these students would be to compile a reading list about the first-generation experience for your first-generation students-- one that includes online articles, academic research, and possibly even fiction. You could maybe make print outs if that's still a thing these days. Since awareness of these issues is one way to help these students, this could do a lot of good-- show them that they're not alone, they do belong, and that there are ways to succeed (and that support for first-gen students is gaining traction). That might make some of the concrete suggestions-- ask questions, get involved in research, talk to your professors-- sink in. And then you don't have to discuss all these things within the duration of a short class.

Reading about survivor guilt and other issues in this book helped me a great deal as a student. It was galvanizing to read other stories like mine (and I met one or two professors who shared their similar experiences with me as well... super helpful). The weirdest thing about class is that it is invisible, and people who climb the ladder slowly but surely shed the trappings of their own life-- so representation is not as obvious as it is for sexism/racism/etc.

A list of student resources (mental health facilities, etc.) might be useful in the same way. College is about learning to figure these things out on your own, but frankly, other students probably have an advantage in this area (they've grown up watching other people advocate for themselves). No harm in giving the students that need it a boost.
posted by easter queen at 4:17 PM on August 19, 2015 [1 favorite]

And - read the syllabus. Individual professors can set their own policies about attendance, late work, texting in class, what kind of sources you can use, etc. They give you the syllabus and it's your responsibility to read it and follow the rules. (And of course, the syllabus tells you when everything will happen -- so if the exam is going to be on the day before Thanksgiving, you'll know you can't schedule your flight home that day, etc.)
posted by LobsterMitten at 4:18 PM on August 19, 2015 [1 favorite]

I've also done some time as a freelance tutor, so from that side of things: some students come from cultures emphasizing passive learning, and are completely freaked out when it comes to writing and research. Especially if they need ESL support, and aren't confident wrt their language skills in general. So much so, that it does happen (you will be shocked to hear, I'm sure) that some of these students might hope (or even expect) that tutors write their essays for them, out of frustration and fear. I don't think it'd be very welcoming to come down hard on plagiarism or fraud on this occasion, but I think giving special emphasis to the writing centre (and any free ESL support those who need it can get) would be helpful.

Also: at least a mention of any internship/placement programs & instructions to talk to the relevant coordinator in their department would be worthwhile, I think, since I assume the opportunity to get Canadian work experience is important to many of your students.

Also: daycare options for single parents, if any are offered by your college. (Or the details of the person/s at the college who can give them further info on this).

I doubt there would be time for it in this particular workshop, but just wanted to mention this goal-setting exercise [paper here; exercise description is in the supplemental materials], just out of interest. The exercises that involved affirmation of values seem similar to other kinds of interventions that have been found to mitigate stereotype threat.
posted by cotton dress sock at 4:52 PM on August 19, 2015 [1 favorite]

Say This, Not That (to your college professor) has a lot of good information on how students can self-advocate and solve problems.
posted by bq at 5:18 PM on August 19, 2015 [3 favorites]

Remind them that "librarians are your friends" and they should talk with the reference librarians before they start a research project. Librarians can help save so much time and frustration.
posted by Nosey Mrs. Rat at 5:55 PM on August 19, 2015 [4 favorites]

I used to work in student life and in a college library, so I'll say: financial management, health/mental health and crisis resources on campus, and library/research skills
posted by nuclear_soup at 6:20 PM on August 19, 2015 [2 favorites]

Don't just tell them to go to office hours. Back then, I didn't understand what "go to office hours" meant. Was I supposed to have a conversation or something? Tell them, reassure them, that /it's okay/ to go to office hours to ask for help in understanding the course work. The instructor will not think they're dumb if they don't understand all the lectures and the readings. Also, not understanding /is not/ a reflection on the teaching ability of the instructors and they won't be offended if you don't understand. It's okay to tell people you need help.
posted by bentley at 7:01 PM on August 19, 2015 [9 favorites]

Mental health resources on campus, with an emphasis on the idea that it's absolutely fine to access those services, and that you're not a failure for doing so. Especially in immigrant communities, there's a huge stigma regarding mental health that prevents students from getting help they really need.
posted by Tamanna at 8:31 PM on August 19, 2015 [3 favorites]

I'm not sure what your physical set-up will be (where you're giving the class etc) but if possible, it's always effective to actually take them to places. Like, if it's convenient, walk them across to the admin building and show them the office of Student Life or whatever -- "this is Jeannie, the office manager here, and she knows everything -- if you have trouble, you can come down here and Jeannie will help you figure out who to talk to next" or whatever the right thing is. Or show them where your office is, if you're their point person.
posted by LobsterMitten at 9:07 PM on August 19, 2015 [2 favorites]

If you can, avoid a deficits-based approach that focuses on what the students don't have. It's much better to take an assets-based approach that helps students identify their strengths and the advantages of their background. (Stealing a quote from someone in the field: "The skills low-income students have are skills that more privileged students can't buy." ) Encourage students to identify these strengths and brainstorm how to leverage them to solve problems and meet challenges—and here's where you can talk about some challenges faced by first-generation and non-traditional students without labeling them as inadequacies of the students or their backgrounds.

Can you bring in some successful first-gen students to talk about some difficulties they faced, and talk about how they used their strengths to overcome them?
posted by BrashTech at 10:02 AM on August 20, 2015 [3 favorites]

I would remind them that it's normal to feel challenged in college, and that struggling doesn't mean that they don't belong there.

One of the challenges they will face is that their professors will expect them to take on more responsibility than their secondary school teachers did. Most college professors will remind students of major deadlines, such as papers and exams, but they won't end each class session with a reminder of what to do for the next class meeting. That's already on the syllabus.

Similarly, students who do badly on an exam or a paper won't automatically be asked to visit the professor in office hours to talk about how they did and how to improve. Some professors do that, but in my experience on both sides of the classroom, most don't. The onus is usually on the student to make an appointment.

And unless the college has a strict attendance policy, professors won't necessarily enforce class attendance. Those who do will often have a grade penalty on the syllabus, but again, they won't necessarily remind students about their policy.

The upshot of all that is that they should review their syllabi carefully at the beginning of the semester to clarify each professor's rules and expectations, ask questions if they don't understand something, and then either copy the schedule for each course into a master calendar or regularly review each syllabus's schedule.

On the intellectual side, one of the biggest challenges that students face is that as they progress in their major, the specific information that they learn (subject content) needs increasingly to be placed in context of how we know it and why we think it is reliable knowledge (disciplinary method). From a very early time, they should get in the habit of asking, "How do we know this? What's the evidence?" If they make that a habitual turn of mind, they will be well on their way to success—especially if they add a related pair of questions: "How does this relate to what I already know? Do I have to revise anything in light of it?"
posted by brianogilvie at 11:03 AM on August 20, 2015 [1 favorite]

Wow, I'm so glad I asked this question. There is so much in here that I will take into consideration while planning the workshop(s). Every single one of you has given me something I can use--thank you!

Some of the suggestions will be covered by all of us faculty in our program's orientation session. This is mandatory so most students will be there. We will definitely be taking students on walking tours through the school, meeting as many support service staff as we can, introducing them to the library, tutoring centre, counselling services, the health centre, the student union.

I definitely had a traditional post-secondary experience; even though my family did not have much money (I had a scholarship that paid my way), both my parents had post-secondary education, and I was privileged to have a ton of familial and cultural support. So even though I try to be aware of my students' needs, and I have done research etc. on first-gen student experience, I know there are things I'm missing.

I will try to get a returning student to speak to this group about their experiences--I think that's a great suggestion.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 2:44 PM on August 20, 2015

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