Teaching the Sixth Graders of College

As students start college in the next few weeks, we who teach them should recognize that, in several ways, traditional-aged first-year college students respond to their initial college experience very much like sixth graders do to their first year of middle school.

Of course, I don’t mean to say that 18- to 22-year-olds act like 12- to 13-year-olds in every way. Beginning college students definitely have a higher degree of sophistication than sixth graders, and their emotional maturity is also more adult.

Still, there are some similarities that we should keep in mind as we teach our new first-year students as they arrive on campus. This perspective can help us keep our sanity, boost our patience with our learners, and help these newcomers acclimate and become a successful part of the academic community.

I taught seventh and eighth grade English for 14 years, four of them at a small rural junior high/high school in Illinois and 10 at an inner-city middle school in Houston. In that time, I observed this transition phase of life from childhood into adolescence. I also started teaching part-time for my community college. After a few years, I began to have former eighth-grade students in my college first-year writing classes. And I noticed a number of parallels between students just starting out in middle school and those starting in college.

Sixth graders aren’t children anymore, but they certainly aren’t adults. The adults around them, parents and teachers, expect them to behave like adults, but they don’t know how yet. The adults want these students to be more independent, but when they try to act independently on their own, they make mistakes and are criticized for it. So sixth graders revert back to child-like responses because that’s what they already know.

Likewise, many college students aren’t adolescents anymore, but neither are they fully, emotionally mature adults or experienced professionals. The adults around them, parents and professors, expect them to behave like adults and scholars, but they don’t know how yet. The adults want these students to be more independent, but when they try to act independently on their own, they make mistakes and are criticized for it. So first-years revert back to adolescent responses because that’s what they already know.

What this all means practically is that, although they differ in age and maturity, the two groups share similar challenges and issues.

A changed physical environment. For sixth graders, the move to middle school is pretty dramatic and traumatic. Fifth graders are still in one room with one teacher and the same group of kids all day long. Each student is assigned a desk for their books and supplies. The class goes to recess, lunch and assemblies as a unit.

Sixth graders, however, often have to move among multiple rooms in a three- to five-minute transition period to see a different teacher and attend classes with different students, changing all day long. Seating may be assigned, but students don’t leave their belongings in the same seat or desk when class is over. They have a locker in a hallway instead — another stressing stop in the short transition period. The students aren’t expected to stay together during lunch or assemblies. In a similar fashion, college first-years are coming from a high school environment of usually one building and are now expected to roam a college campus over several acres of property with classes in a variety of locations.

Different academic expectations. Sixth graders are coming from meeting one teacher’s expectations into a situation where they now have to cope with several different instructors, each with different requirements regarding tardiness, behavior, homework, quizzes, group work and other factors. Similarly, college first-years have to cope with new and different requirements for attendance, assignment submittals, reading and working exercises for information (not a grade), schoolwork outside of class, time use between classes, and so forth.

New social environments. Since they’ve previously spent most of their time with one teacher and the same students each year, sixth graders’ circle of friends may be fairly small upon entering middle school. There, however, several elementary schools often combine, creating a much larger student body. Likewise, the previous circle of friends of first-year college students may be much smaller than the population at the college or university, with students of a variety of ages, ethnic groups, economic backgrounds and nationalities all attending. Add to this the new freedoms that college first-years have in being away from home for the first time, and the social life provides strong competition for studying hard for classes.

More academic independence. Students in both groups have to do more work on their own. Making use of time between and outside of classes, getting help from tutors, studying with classmates outside of class, working with classmates during class, completing assignments and submitting them on time, asking for help when they need it — all of these can be challenging for both sixth graders and college first-years.

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More difficult classes. Schoolwork gets harder in sixth grade and grows more difficult each succeeding year. Instead of relatively simple exercises like matching pictures and numbers and fill-in-the-blank tests, students are increasingly required to demonstrate more complex applications of the knowledge they have mastered. In the same way, college no longer demands simply the basic knowledge and comprehension levels of Bloom’s taxonomy but rather the application, analysis, synthesis and evaluation levels. The more adult-learning, andragogic teaching strategies of case method, Socratic dialogue and confrontation also engage college students in the higher-order thinking that they’re not accustomed to from previous high school studies.

A shift from external to internal motivation. Sixth graders are more driven by external motivation than internal motivation: I clean my room because mom told me to rather than because I want to; I do my laundry because mom told me to; I mow the yard because dad told me to; I do my schoolwork because my teacher makes the assignments and my parents make me rather than because I want to learn.

College first-years are similarly driven more by due dates on the syllabus than because they want to get the work done on their own. This is the difference between learning the subject matter for the score/grade versus learning it just for the sake of it. It’s the difference between professor reminders and remembering for themselves, between a desire for a high GPA and as desire to learn the content and skills.

New study habits. Their elementary school experience conditioned sixth graders to get the schoolwork done before leaving school so as not to have homework, with the possible exception of special projects. So, too, college first-years’ previous K-12 experience often allowed them to do less work outside of class and scrounge for extra credit points without studying much. Many could improvise or fake their way through class time, and still “get by” and do “all right” in their course grade. But in college, they increasingly find that they must devote more study time outside of class to get the better grades and learn the material. Procrastination is still at work on assignments, but the consequences may be more painful than they’re used to from past experiences. Underestimating time management for academic work is a major pitfall.

Teaching Suggestions

Teaching first- and second-year college students can be frustrating, because we professors are saying the same thing, semester after semester, to student after student, and they don’t seem to be getting it. But that goes with the job. Each semester brings us new students who haven’t heard it before, and they need to hear it from multiple voices for it to sink in. We’re asking too much if we expect them to think and behave like more experienced third-and fourth-year or graduate students who know their way around and have come to terms with the new expectations.

Another consideration for those of us who teach college is that it is more a matter of working with non-scholars to turn them into scholars than it is trying to help immature people to grow up. We expect first-years to be as interested in the subject as we or our graduate students are rather than recognize they are beginners who are still undecided.

So, what are we to do? We should:

  • Definitely not treat our college first- and second-year students like they are sixth graders. But we do need to view this period of their lives, the first couple of years in college, as a predictable, expected, transitional stage and help them to navigate and not stress about it.
  • Have patience with the continual parade of requests from students for information already in the syllabus or posted in the learning management system, for extra credit, for acceptance of late work, for offering 1,001 excuses for not completing an assignment and so on. Their previous schooling has preconditioned them to these default habits. Don’t give in to such requests, but help students deal with their choices and the consequences that go with them.
  • Be clear about, and hold to, higher expectations so that students, too, can come to value them as worthy of pursuit — and eventually realize that they can set higher expectations for themselves. Completing assignments before the due date is a good practice for the career world and a valuable work habit that lasts far beyond college assignments and schoolwork.
  • Encourage students in the abilities they exhibit to build their confidence, and work with them on those areas in which they are weak.
  • Encourage them to take up the challenge of more difficult academic work and show them how to accomplish it in practical ways that have visible results.
  • Help them to be more aware of the need to be adaptable to the changes and how to improvise solutions to the new problems.

And take heart that they don’t remain first-years. First-years do pick up on how college works and move on from there, succeeding in ways they can’t imagine — and, in fact, in ways we can’t imagine either.

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