Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Defining College Prep - part 3

In my original post on the topic, I explained that I've been exploring what "college prep" actually means, both in 2011 and in the years to come. After all, I believe its entirely possible we're doing "college prep" in schools across the country based on what college looked like for us years ago rather than based on what college actually looks like now and may look like in the near future. To get a current, accurate snapshot of what's happening on college campuses, my school organized an Alumni Summit, a round-table discussion with current college and university students. In a nut shell, they said the three things most frequently expected by their college professors are:
  • Collaboration for the purpose of solving a problem
  • Reading, writing, discussion
  • Clear, concise, fact-based oral communication
Let's look next at the second point: reading, writing, discussion. The alum were unified on this point. College professors are expecting today's college students to read deeply and come away from a text with a working knowledge of what they read. Often the college professors hold the students accountable upon their return to class in one of two two ways.

First, college professors often hold students accountable with writing assignments that require students to demonstrate, on a high level, their understanding of a text or excerpt from a text. These writing assignments vary in length from a few paragraphs to a few pages. However, one thing all the alum said was that professors expect the students to refer back to the text and cite examples or specific passages to support the point made in their writing. Without these references, the alum said, arguments presented are invalid and worthless to the professors. In grading these assignments, professors look for clear, concise, organized thoughts free of "BS and fluff." Writing is a way that humans unpack their thoughts and ideas and make sense of the jumble of information swirling around in their heads. Thankfully, college professors understand this and they expect their students to practice this often.

Second, college professors often require students to answer questions and take a position based on a specific reading. In college (and this would probably differ greatly from a high school classroom), the professors often do not grade each response or even each day's participation. How do they get students to do the work? They expect the students to be intimidated into being prepared for class. The professors rely on students' fears of being singled out, called on repeatedly and even being tossed out of class to ensure students come to class prepared. Professors also rely on peer pressure to make sure students are prepared. Once students are prepared for participation, professors expect students to be able to clearly articulate their thoughts, ideas and positions using references to the text. As with the writing assignments, the arguments are considered invalid and worthless without these references. Professors often require students to drill down into their own arguments; professors often ask questions such as "Why did you use this or that word?" or "How is this similar or how does this differ from other texts we've read by the same author?" Interestingly, the professors often allow other students in the class to put on the spot the student answering a question.

Is this "reading, writing, discussion" concept revolutionary? Hardly. In fact, it is timeless. I think it's worth noting that with the advent of 1-t0-1 laptop programs, interactive whiteboards, blogs, wikis, blended learning classrooms, and whatever else is just over the horizon, some things in education are and will continue to be timeless and still hold great value in the 21st-century school. Reading, writing, and discussion, done in a rigorous way with high expectations of the students (as described above) must be a significant part of every class, regardless of the discipline.

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