Challenges and Opportunities Within the Classroom: Facilitating Students’ Transition from High School to College

Published in:

A National Symposium

November 20–21, 2009

Clark Atlanta University, Morehouse College, and Spelman College
Atlanta, Georgia

The presentation “Challenges and Opportunities within the Classroom: Facilitating Students’ Transition from High School to College” was based on the findings of a study conducted, in part, by the authors, in 2009. The study focused on student impressions of effective teacher pedagogy, and was prompted by the researchers’ desire to incorporate feedback from the most direct targets of teaching efforts – the students. Teachers, administrators, and policy makers of academic institutions have individual perspectives on how students learn best and the modes of teaching that best facilitate learning. Typically, those perspectives serve as a foundation for established teaching methods. The authors question the extent to which student perspectives are considered in the establishment of teaching methods. If the goal for students is learning and the goal for academic institutions is the facilitation of learning, then student input regarding teacher pedagogy is critical as it will support, undergird, and enhance our understanding of student learning.

A survey consisting of a compilation of surveys designed to measure student perception of teacher effectiveness was administered to undergraduate and graduate students from a predominantly white university and several Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) in Georgia. We sought to determine which aspects of teacher pedagogy participants deemed as most essential to their learning. For the purposes of this study, teacher pedagogy was assessed across three domains: pedagogical behaviors, immediacy behaviors and teacher attributes. Survey items were coded accordingly. Teacher behaviors refer to the things that professors do to facilitate learning. Examples of teacher behaviors include: being well-prepared, using technology, and providing individual assistance. Immediacy behaviors are the more personable qualities that a professor holds. Examples of immediacy behaviors include: showing enthusiasm about the course, challenging students, and teaching with compassion. Teacher attributes are the special skills and knowledge that professors apply as they facilitate the learning process. Examples of teacher attributes include: speaking clearly, grading objectively, and being published in the discipline or field. This study examined each domain by age group: 18-25, 26-35, 36 and up; status of institution (public versus private); and classification of institution (predominantly white university versus HBCUs).

The findings reflected that there were significant statistical relationships between student expectations of professors’ pedagogical behaviors at the .05 level of significance, and among classification of institution at the .01 level of significance. Hence, the results confirmed a significant statistical relationship between pedagogical behaviors and student learning among HBCUs and the predominantly white institution, and public and private institutions. Conversely, no statistically significant relationships were found in the immediacy behavior and teacher attribute domains. The findings suggest that the respondents view teacher pedagogy that involves the more fundamental, descriptive or rudimentary teaching practices as key elements of their learning. In essence, students preferred teachers who demonstrate solid preparation, a willingness to work with students collectively and individually, and a high degree of professionalism.

Of the specific indicators assessed in the domain of teacher behaviors, students rated being well-prepared, being well-organized, and having a willingness to provide individual assistance when needed as most important. On the other hand, within the same domain, they rated being willing to meet with students after hours, using advanced classroom technology, and providing online teaching as least important. In the immediacy behaviors domain, students rated showing enthusiasm about the course, teaching with compassion, and showing concern for students as most important. In the same domain, students rated encouraging advanced learning and professional opportunities, maintaining relationships with students beyond the classroom, and having a friendly outgoing personality as least important. In the teacher attributes domain, students rated speaking clearly, having command of subject matter, and engaging students in the classroom as most important. Whereas, in the same domain, students rated being respected by colleagues, using students to assist in student learning, and being published in the professor’s discipline or a related field as least important.

As the data was interpreted, the authors proposed the possibility that students rated the domains based on the traditional emphasis placed on fundamental learning and mastery of skills. It is possible that the current emphasis on highly technological environments, independent learning, and the achievement of high grade point averages negatively impacts student enthusiasm for learning and retention. Although these approaches may work for some students, it is becoming more evident that these pedagogical approaches do not work for all students, especially in classrooms that are culturally and ethnically diverse.

Upon further review of the findings, we noted that although there was clear distinction among students at the majority institution in their agreement that pedagogical behaviors were most critical to their learning, responses were evenly distributed among HBCU students. In fact, exactly 50% of the HBCU students agreed that pedagogical behaviors were important while 50% disagreed. On the other hand, approximately 76% of the students from the predominantly white institution agreed that pedagogical behaviors were important while 24% disagreed. Students from HBCUs ultimately did not perceive pedagogical behaviors as importantly as students from the majority institution. The impact of culture on student learning is of critical note given that classrooms are becoming increasingly diverse.

Regardless of the stage of education, the prevailing goal of any student should be to learn. Similarly, the ultimate goal of any professor should be to teach. Whether the student is a freshman or freshwoman or in his or her senior year of studies, academic institutions are charged with facilitating higher learning. To be successful with this goal, colleges and universities should incorporate what students feel they need into their teaching methodologies. The results of this study yield such student feedback. As high school students transition into collegiate studies, it is particularly important that professors tap into students’ impressions of effective teaching to ensure they feel supported, capable, and motivated to learn in an environment whose “foreignness” may prove to be quite intimidating.

This study acknowledges and exemplifies the need to create culturally inclusive learning environments to enhance student learning. The major implications of this study suggest that professors need to: (a) engage in pedagogical behaviors that model scholarship and effectively facilitate the learning process; (b) incorporate a large repertoire of effective teaching approaches to meet diverse student learning needs; and (c) integrate interesting and challenging work related to current practices and professional advancement. In addition, the study posits that the behavior, personality and qualifications of teachers do impact students’ impressions of effective teacher pedagogy. As a result, educational institutions should pay particular attention to teacher training and orientation, ensuring that student perspectives are taken into consideration. Although budgets are constrained given current economic pressures, academic institutions require the continued allocation and maintenance of resources for professional development programs. Professors need professional development resources to ensure that they remain on the cutting-edge of knowledge in their disciplines. This is especially true as academic institutions attempt to support the transition of high school students into the collegiate environment.

As our presentation at the FRN Conference came to a close, we posed several questions to session participants for consideration and discussion. Those questions included: How can professors use the research findings to support students in their transition? Is it possible to create a learning environment where all students feel supported, in a culturally diverse environment? Are any of the teacher behaviors identified in this study currently being employed in the classroom with freshmen specifically? Would this research be applied differently to first year students coming to the university from community college versus first-time freshmen? What, if anything, would you change about your current teaching strategies to better facilitate students’ transition to college?

Unexpectedly, our presentation took a turn. The session participants engaged in a fruitful debate in response to a question posed to the presenters. The question was: Why do we need to take what students think into consideration anyway? Upon further discussion, we learned that this question essentially represents the historically held notion that professors should not be concerned with adapting to the learning needs of students; rather, students should be concerned with adapting to their professors’ teaching methods. This ideology carries a couple of potential assumptions: 1) that professors know how students learn best, which implies that the learning process is a one-way street, 2) that professors should not be concerned with assessing the learning needs of the students they teach, which implies that if students are not able to adapt to their professors’ teaching methods and are consequently unsuccessful in a course, they will then be deemed incapable of learning the material being presented to them. The second assumption places the blame for lack of success on the student and excuses the professor from potential shortcomings as they relate to teacher pedagogy. The question then becomes – At what point do we hold professors accountable for their professional deficiencies? Disregarding the assessment of teacher pedagogy results in a deficiency in the assessment of the total learning experience offered by academic institutions. Teacher pedagogy effectiveness is a crucial element of student success in higher learning environments. If students are not learning, they will be less likely to fully benefit from the offerings of higher education.

As demonstrated by the findings of our study, there is no best way to support all transitioning high school students. Academic institutions should be prepared to be innovative in their approaches to support transitioning high school students, given the extent of variation in student learning needs. The authors propose the development of partnerships between high schools and colleges as an example of such innovation. High school students, for example, would benefit from having college students visit their classrooms and share information regarding their own transitioning experiences. High school teachers would also benefit from such an experience, as the information presented by the college students could be used to prepare their students as they transition from high school to college environments. Finally, universities would benefit from the experience as transitioning high school students would be better prepared for the collegiate experience. Having better prepared incoming college students would decrease the amount of time professors spend familiarizing students with the college experience and increase the amount of time professors would have to assess and address the learning needs of their students.

If the aim of higher education is to truly support and effectively facilitate learning, incorporating student input is strongly encouraged. To do that, academicians need to first acknowledge that students, themselves, are instrumental in their own learning process, which is directly related to what should be the primary goal of academicians – to help students learn. Our reference to the term “learning” is not with respect to the kind of learning that is measured by a student’s ability to obtain a certain grade point average; rather, it is the kind of learning that can only be measured over time, through a student’s ability to apply the knowledge and various skills learned at the collegiate level to the student’s chosen profession. The learning needs of transitioning high school students are just as diverse as the individual students in a given entering student population. Hence, student input in collaboration with expert knowledge will result in enriched learning for transitioning students.

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Spring 2010: Challenge as Opportunity: The Academy in the Best and Worst of Times