Even 'Highly Motivated' Students Aren't Ready For College

Low-performing high school students are often unprepared for college. But some analysts say even gifted students are falling behind. Host Michel Martin discusses why many students, across the board, aren't hitting the mark.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. It's that time of year. Students are hearing back from college admissions offices and competition being what it is these days, we know a lot of people are going to be unhappy, so we've called a psychotherapist to ask how to help students cope with that inevitable - for most of us, anyway - rejection letter.

But, first, we want to talk about what happens when you do get in. According to the administrators of the ACT college readiness test, only one in four high school seniors meets the standards of the benchmark test subjects and, even for those who are academically prepared, the challenges of life in college can derail even gifted students.

We wondered why that is, so we've called Elaine Tuttle Hansen. She recently wrote about this for the Chronicle of Higher Education. She's the executive director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth. She's also the former president of Bates College. Also with us, Melvina Noel. She's the author of the book, "How to Thrive in College," and she's an adjunct professor at Montgomery College in Maryland.

Thank you both so much for joining us.

ELAINE TUTTLE HANSEN: Thank you.

MELVINA NOEL: Thanks.

MARTIN: Elaine, you recently wrote in the Chronicle of Higher Education that, you know, we've been talking a lot more about college success and college completion for kids from disadvantaged backgrounds or kids who were traditionally considered low achieving, but you're saying that this is even a problem for kids who have been described as gifted, high achieving. Why would that be?

HANSEN: That's the great question and my own thinking about what's going on is that there's always changes in how students learn, how students are taught and that we are, right now, in a period of intense change.

On the one hand, students are learning. They're digital natives. They're learning in very different ways than they used to learn in school and it has to catch up with how they learn. At the same time, they're being taught to the test, in many cases, and I think that leads to the kind of disengagement together with a fear of failure that's compounded by all the stress that you talked about around this time of the year, about getting into college.

MARTIN: One of the students you talked to said that he basically coasted through school, that he...

HANSEN: Right.

MARTIN: He was good at taking tests, but he realized that he actually never developed study skills. Now, I do have to ask, Elaine. Is this anecdotal or are you finding - is there some sort of data to support that this is actually a widespread problem?

HANSEN: At this point, I wouldn't say we have enough data. We have some data to suggest that what's happening with students, for instance, in community colleges, 40 percent of them go to remedial courses right away, so that's on the data side.

Anecdotally, talk to any of these students, talk to their professors. You hear story after story about this sense of being disengaged, of not being ready for the kind of thinking and learning that college professors are going to expect of students.

MARTIN: Melvina, what about you? You're working with a different group of students. You're working with students who are, in some cases, working part time, who are, in some cases, older. What are you finding?

NOEL: That they're not ready. They don't anything about the way to study. For instance, I was giving a quiz and I said, OK. I said I was going to have the quiz on Monday, then on Monday, I realized there were some more things I wanted to teach them. I said, we'll have that quiz on Wednesday. There was a panic. Wednesday? I won't know it by Wednesday. They learn to memorize, to let it go. OK. So we've lost the part where you learn. I should ask you 50 years from now and there are some things you should know. And that's what I tell them all the time.

MARTIN: Well, you know, Elaine was suggesting that some of the kids that she's working with - and, obviously, Johns Hopkins is a highly selective school. The issue there is that the kids are distracted or is that they - so, Melvina, I'm asking you. With the kids that you're talking - the young people you're talking about - in some cases, they're not so young people. They're highly motivated to be there, so what's the problem?

NOEL: Nobody taught them how. How do you - when do you learn how to study? OK. I don't know when it happens, but you really have to be taught how to study. This means I have to set a certain time every day if I want to make it a habit. This means I need to have a place and I need to go to that place on a regular basis. I need to have supplies in that place. I need to know that I can't sit there and then I have to go to the bathroom and then I want to go get something to eat. Oh, there's a favorite show coming on or somebody's calling me. And it doesn't mean I'm having a test on Friday. Let me study Thursday night. I say, no. Go home tonight and look over what that test is going to be about. Study 15 minutes the next day. Let's divide it up into time so that, by Friday, you know it. It should be a part of you.

MARTIN: Elaine, can I dig in a little bit more about what you and other faculty members are seeing in the kinds of institutions that you're in? Because we keep hearing that kids today, from the time they're three, you know, have more homework than ever before. They are scheduled within an inch of their lives, so I think it's counter-intuitive for a lot of people to believe that there could be a problem with preparation with this particular population of students.

Is it, you feel, because they're digitally distracted because they're used to - what?

HANSEN: I think the digital distraction is real and important and, again, we don't really understand it, but I think it's a lot more than that and, if you think about it, it may seem counter-intuitive at first, but we only admit the most overscheduled children. They have not had the time to kind of sit back and think about hard questions and big questions. They have been taught to check the right boxes, to do well on standardized tests.

When you get to college, there are some very important things that change. Learning becomes more complicated. The work becomes harder. You need to take more time on it. You need to learn how to fail in college. In fact, the goal is to find out what you don't know. You also have to learn in a community of like-minded students in college. That's the best part about it, but you may have only competed in the past. You never learned to cooperate with other students.

And, you know, I think we've left out of this conversation the joy of learning. To succeed in college, I think you really have to be passionate about learning. You have to care.

MARTIN: Well, Elaine, what is your suggestion? Because it sounds to me - this is obviously a very complicated issue and it sounds to me that some of what you're decrying is the process by which kids get to college these days.

HANSEN: Right.

MARTIN: But maybe that's beyond the scope of what we can address here, but what is your suggestion immediately? And are there things that colleges and universities are doing to address what it is that they are seeing now?

HANSEN: Well, I mean, the first thing, I think, is to open up this conversation. We have a big gap between K through 12 in higher education, as everyone probably knows, and so building bridges between the high schools and the elementary schools, there are some very specific ways to do that. There are several enrichment programs like the Center for Talented Youth that offer acceleration where it's appropriate, supplementary programs, subjects that students are ready for that they don't get in high school. Above all, we need to teach to ability, not to age.

I think, if we could bring some of the values of higher education down, that would be great and if we could get professors talking to high school teachers and students about what they're doing - again, opening the lines of communication would be good. We need more research on this, too, and there's no funding currently, no funding at all for studying advanced learning.

And then, if I could say one more thing, I read something Melvina wrote. Melvina, you said you tell students to be persistent and to be present and I think that's the message we have to give from the beginning.

MARTIN: Melvina, what about you? You've actually obviously written a whole book about this whole question of how to thrive in college. What are some of the things that you feel need to change and what are some of the words of wisdom that you might offer to students who are just beginning that college journey or at least will be this fall?

NOEL: I guess the first thing is to relax.

MARTIN: Well, that's counter-intuitive to what we've been talking about here.

NOEL: Well, because they're stressed. You can't learn when you're stressed. OK? I actually do, like, a five minute meditation with my students to calm down. You can see the change on the face. My students are rushing from one test to the other. This is about learning and I'm always trying to put that in. The love of learning. You know, even when I'm teaching and I'm on the board and I say, oh, isn't this beautiful? I just love this. Do you see this? They think I'm crazy in the beginning, but a little while later, they're crazy, too, so it works out really good.

So we have to relax. We have to - I like that about the joy of learning and we do beat it out. When that child is born and raised, why, why, why? What do we say? Go look at TV. Go on the internet. Go outside. We need to start saying, oh, you want to know why? Let's figure that out. We have to encourage and keep that going all the time.

MARTIN: Well, it's a big subject. We'll have to return to it and take more time. Melvina Noel is an adjunct professor at Montgomery College. That's in the Washington, D.C. suburbs in Maryland. She's the author of "How to Thrive in College." She was kind enough to join us once again in our Washington, D.C. studios. Elaine Tuttle Hansen is the executive director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth. She was kind enough to join us from member station WYPR in Baltimore, Maryland.

Thank you both so much for speaking with us.

HANSEN: Thank you.

NOEL: Thanks for having us.

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