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Five big ideas for freshman orientation

August 2, 2008, 1:00 pm

This past week saw most of the incoming freshman class converge on my campus for an initial round of freshman orientation. At the end of the month is a much more extensive exposure to orientation, taking up what appears to be 80% of students’ waking hours from the Friday before classes all the way up through the end of the weekend. One has to wonder how much orientation leads to disorientation.

I'm thinking these students aren't learning about studying or time management.

I'm thinking these students aren't learning about studying or time management.

The purpose of a freshman orientation program ought to be, well, to orient freshmen in college — that is, to give students a “compass bearing” in the strange and unfamiliar world of college. Many such programs do not even remotely address or even desire this goal, preferring instead to indoctrinate students into the correct political stances or endorse irresponsibility in an ill-advised attempt to be relevant. Other programs tend to focus on making college first and foremost a place for fun and socialization and only secondarily (if that) a place where hard work and learning is going to happen.

I’ve seen very few freshman orientation programs that really put academics first and seek to address the points of students’ greatest needs and misconceptions. Generally speaking, those are all rooted in the sudden and overwhelming freedom they get when they enter college. Students don’t have their moms or dads waking them up for school, making their breakfasts and dinners,  planning their after-school schedules, and — especially — checking to make sure schoolwork is done right and on time. Most freshmen I’ve met do not have a good concept of how to manage that freedom, nor do they understand the various ways its misuse can mess them up. That’s where freshman orientation ought to step in.

If I were to make up such a program, here are five big concepts that I would make sure the freshmen got in significant doses:

1. The basics of college-level academic expectations and how they differ from those of high school. This is by far the biggest need. I cannot count how many freshmen I’ve had, many of them academic standouts in high school, try to operate in college using high school parameters and end up doing poorly. The common refrain is “I never had to study in high school!” (High school teachers: What’s the deal with that?) Yes, in college, professors assign stuff for you to do, but no it’s not always taken up for a grade, and yes you are still supposed to do it. Yes, professors will expect you to complete the readings prior to class, and yes, you will look like an idiot if you don’t do them. Yes, we are serious when we say “two hours of studying outside of class for every hour inside”. Freshman orientation is a chance to set the academic tone for the entire college for the entire year. In fact one could argue that it always does so, and it’s just a matter of whether the formative impression students get is one of games and pizza parties or one of rigorous, rewarding learning.

2. Time/task management with a view towards a student-friendly version of GTD. This is a close second to academic expectations in terms of need. I’ve blogged about time/task management many times before. College is not, of course, all work and no play. But it is primarily work, and work involves getting things done with timeliness and quality. How many orientation programs have you ever seen which stress that there are only so many hours in a week, and you have to first give plenty of time to personal maintenance (sleep, etc.) and schoolwork, and THEN divvy up the remainders for the “fun” stuff? The tendency of orientation programs to have an 80/20 ratio of “fun” stuff to academic stuff doesn’t help. Time management is not something many freshmen have even needed to think about, so they need training and practice, and they need a system that works for them. I propose GTD, because it’s exactly the kind of system that doesn’t require much thought — indeed, a main idea with GTD is to minimize the amount of time you spend thinking about your system — and can be implemented with fancy computer software or just with a pencil and notebook. Here’s a good article which outlines a student-focused implementation of GTD that I think would serve well.

3. The meaning and centrality of academic honesty. This is really a subpoint of #1 above, but one which is so problematic these days that I think it must be driven home with force — especially since some so-called educators are redefining plagiarism to the extent that cut-and-paste hack jobs are considered endearing works of intellectual creativity. That works fine for 4-year olds, but not so much for grownups. Every semester I have to intervene, sometimes punitively, when students cross the lines of academic honesty, because their threshhold for dishonesty is a lot higher than mine or my college’s. I think most freshmen (or older students) don’t realize how important academic honesty really is to higher education.

4. Basics of nutrition and exercise. When I was a freshman, I ate horribly — including multiple trips per week to the pizza buffet across from my dorm — and I gained not the usual “freshman 15″ but more like 30 pounds that I struggled to get off all the way into graduate school. When you have the freedom to eat a breakfast that consists of lime jello, Cocoa Pebbles, and Mountain Dew — or maybe just the Mountain Dew — then you very well might do so. A lot of students forget that their brains are part of their bodies, and as your body goes, so goes your ability to think and pay attention in class. Even varsity athletes seem to struggle with this point. And I think it’s ironic that many colleges are spending millions on lavish new student athletic facilities but giving nothing in their freshman orientation about the importance of exercise or simple strategies for exercise during the school year when it’s busy.

5. The meaning of “free time” and how to spend it fruitfully. Many freshmen have a backwards idea of time. They think that every hour of the day is lawfully theirs, and when a professor gives an assignment it is cutting in to “their” time. The opposite is really the case. The freshman’s time belongs not to them but to the university and whomever else they are obligated. “Free time” is best defined as the time left over once a person’s obligations are taken care of. So freshmen have a lot less free time than they think (and some have so overloaded themselves that they have no free time). This means that free time, being scarce, is valuable and therefore must be carefully managed. If you budget 10 hours a week of free time, will you spend it playing video games or watching TV? Or exercising? Or working on a fraternity service project? Or doing some reading for pleasure? (The importance of reading for pleasure might be another item for this list.)  Nobody can tell a person how to spend his free time, of course; but there are some choices for doing so that are better than others. Orientation programs should spend some time driving home the truth that investing free time in something that will bear fruit for you later on is better than simply spending it on unfruitful things. That fact will lead different people to make different choices, but at least there’s a reason behind their choices which, maybe, will make their college education more full.

After the orientation program has addressed all that stuff, THEN the freshmen can play goofy group games and have pizza parties.

What are some other elements that you’d like to see in freshman orientation?

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