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There are a few important ways that starting college is scary. Reading about these can make them less scary. Understanding a fear shrinks it. Some practical suggestions also help.
Many of these ideas are taken from the book The College Fear Factor by Rebecca Cox.
Critical thinking is thinking about your thinking while you're thinking in order to make your thinking better.
- Richard W. Paul
High school culture mostly cares about learning objective, concrete, memorizable facts and procedures.
But college culture does not value learning objective, concrete, memorizable facts and procedures. Yes, there are some classes that require a lot of this type of learning. But even they do not value it as much as something else.
College culture values Critical Thinking Skills. What are these?
This change is scary! Most students who graduate high school are experts at extracting memorizable facts and procedures from a teacher's lectures and demonstrations, and from textbooks. But when students arrive at college they are surprised to discover that their expertise is valued little, and is only a minor part of what will be tested. Ack!
The good news is that your college instructors will not immediately expect you to be good at those skills. Instructors of lower-level college classes realize that high schools often do not teach Critical Thinking Skills. These instructors know they need to teach these Critical Thinking Skills as part of the class topics.
Initially, your job is be patient with teaching that is not about memorizable facts and procedures.
Some discussions, activities, and assignments will seem to be pointless or all about opinions. These are almost certainly trying to teach you Critical Thinking Skills. You might not realize how or why. But that is almost always what is happening.
However, nobody learns from pointless work or opinions. When tasks seem to be like that, ask which skills the task is trying to teach you. The task will change from seeming pointless or opinion-ish into something you can learn from.
The great news is that Critical Thinking Skills are a lot more interesting than memorizable facts and procedures. You will soon learn to recognize when and where these skills are being used. Then discussions and essays will become more fun than similar high school tasks.
It is all right to hold a conversation but you should let go of it now and then.
- Richard Armour
High school culture defines "smart" as knowing many facts and procedures. This means a "smart" student scores high on tests, can answer questions the teachers ask, and is seldom confused during lectures.
But college culture does not define "smart" that way. Yes, there are some tests that measure that type of learning. But even the instructors that use those kind of tests do not say they are measuring "intelligence".
College culture defines "smart" or "intelligent" totally differently.
Most college discussions resemble those campfire game-stories where people take turns adding a sentence or two to the story so far. Before the discussion begins, there is a structure and goal that everyone is supposed to know. Participation is supposed to build off what was already said, especially the most recent thing already said. Eventually the goal is reached. The discussion has a conclusion.
Just like those campfire game-stories, what you say is supposed to flow.
Just like those campfire game-stories, things tend to get fuzzy or drift off track. Participants are supposed to ask questions refocus the discussion.
College culture calls these discussions Intelligent Discussions to contrast them with simpler types of conversation such as question-and-answer pairs, brainstorming, or taking turns sharing opinions.
In college culture you show you are "smart" or "intelligent" by participating in Intelligent Discussions.
This change is scary! A high school student can appear smart by never revealing ignorance or confusion. Sitting in the back quietly was a safe way to avoid failure. But a college student who is quiet automatically fails participating in Intelligent Discussions. In college culture, silence equals failure. Moreover, you were probably never taught how to have flow in Intelligent Discussions. Now this is what people care about most? Ack!
This can be problematic. A college instructor might incorrectly interpret a timid's student silence as a lack of interest, enthusiasm, or work ethic. The instructor will mentally categorize all silence students as "less intelligent" because they are failing at participation.
Adapting takes courage. It would have been nice to have been warned that college success requires courage much more than background knowledge.
In fact, background knowledge is no help at all! True, placing above a remedial level class will save you time and money. But if the placement tests work well, you will always start each term in classes for which you do not already know the topics taught in that class. If you did, why would you be taking that class? You would have placed higher!
So college instructors assume (perhaps incorrectly) that you start each class not knowing any of that class's topics, and even needing some quick review of earlier and foundational topics. That is nice.
What is not nice is that no college classes actually teach flow in Intelligent Discussions. All your instructors will assume (probably incorrectly) that you have learned those techniques somewhere else.
The good news is that you can "fake it until you make it". Jump in when there is an obvious quick thing to say. Very briefly point out when the conversation's goal is unclear. (Yes, it is best to have a question to help clarify a fuzzy goal, but people will not notice you pointed out the fuzziness without a question.) Very briefly point out when the conversation has drifted into a tangent. (Yes, it is best to have a question to help return from the tangent, but once again people will not notice you skipped that.)
The great news is that in every class a moment will come when your participation in Intelligent Discussions allows the frame switches from "The instructor is the main character and I am jumping through hoops" to "I am the main character in this story and the instructor and my classmates are secondary characters helping me succeed." Then the class becomes fun.
Life can be like a boxing ring. You are defeated not when you fall down, but when you fail to rise up.
In high school the homework, textbook, and syllabus all clearly pointed at what was most imporant. High school culture paid a lot of attention to preparing students for big tests. (This was why it valued learning objective, concrete, memorizable facts and procedures, and defined "smart" in that way.) The homework, textbook, and syllabus all spotlighted which facts and procedures were the most important for that class.
But college culture does not work that way. College culture values Critical Thinking Skills. These are part of tests.
It is difficult to create homework tasks to practice or assess Critical Thinking Skills. Textbooks usually ignore Critical Thinking Skills. Even problems from a practice test might not resemble the actual test problems very much (because they assess different Critical Thinking Skills).
This means you cannot trust the homework, textbook, and even practice tests to prepare you for a test.
Your instructors will also grade you on "class participation", which is a code phrase about participating in Intelligent Discussions. The instructors value this immensely. But usually they must follow rules that limit how much of your grade is based on class participation. So you cannot trust that the syllabus tells you what the instructor values. (Obviously, studying alone with homework and the textbook cannot teach Intelligent Discussions either.)
This change is scary! How do you know if you are ready for a test if the homework, textbook, and practice tests do not tell you? How do you know what the instructor values if the syllabus does not tell you? Ack!
The good news is that no one is trying to surprise you or trick you. The best way to check up on Critical Thinking Skills is in conversation. Your instructor should know how to use a conversation to check your test readiness in a quick conversation after class or during the instructor's office hours.
Ask the instructor very bluntly about your whether you seem ready for tests, and how you are doing with class participation. Say, "Please ask me some questions to check if I am ready for the test." You will get the best "practice test" experience that way.
The great news is that you will eventually get used to noticing when Critical Thinking Skills are being taught by lecture and discussion, and how Critical Thinking Skills are tested with tests. Until then, your first few tests will probably take you by surprise in many ways, be really hard, and you will do better than you expect despite all that. Be strong. Keep going. You will become just as expert with learning and testing Critical Thinking Skills as you already are with memorizable facts and procedures. Once you understand how tests are more about opportunities to show off your Critical Thinking Skills than a duty to demonstrate memorization, tests become more fun.
You have good reason to believe that you can trust yourself. Not because you've always made the right choices, but because you survived the bad ones.
- Sandra King
At college you are an adult. Other people might advise you. But you make your own choices, and face the consequences.
If this is new, beware of tricking yourself in a common but harmful way: many choices that appear to minimize short-term discomfort often actually cause long-term discomfort. Turn in all assignments, even if some will earn a bad grade. Ask questions in class, even if they reveal your confusions. Visit office hours, even if that reveals your weaknesses to the instructor. Etc. All of that stuff helps pass the class and bring long-term life success.
This change is scary! You were probably never taught how to weigh conflicting advice from parents, friends, academic advisors, department staff, etc., and now this is what helps you most? Ack!
Never quit because of anxiety. In fact, ignore anxiety as much as possible because your job is to use good advice and anxiety always gives terrible advice.
There are many people who believe you can succeed. Find more of them if you need to. Defeat your anxiety by listening to them and trusting them.
There are many ways you will grow as a person and develop skills if you keep trying. Defeat your anxiety by trusting confidently that the work is worthwhile, even if you cannot yet see how things will turn out.
There are many situations where vague expectations make success look hard. Ask for clarity. If you are not sure what to ask, share that confusion too. Defeat your anxiety by trusting that people really do know what they want and how they will do grading, and care about your learning, even if they are sometimes clueless about how confusing they are acting.
The good news is that you can "fake it until you make it" with ignoring anxiety, and soon all the issues you were once anxious about will one-by-one be happily resolved. You do belong here. You can learn to fit into college culture. You can become good at a new topic or subject. You can gain the skills you need. You are capable of success.
The great news is that overcoming anxiety in college (where you can get lots of advice and are not actually in danger) will teach you how to deal with anxiety after college (where there may not be advice, and might be real dangers). Think of the cartoons in which someone making a decision had a tiny angel and demon on their shoulders offering two suggestions. Similarly, anxiety is not really who you truly are—it is more like an outside voice trying to influence you. Did you ever watch that kind of cartoon and want to smack the little demon giving a terrible suggestion? You get to do that with your anxiety. Teach it who's boss. Eventually you will smack it away reflexively, sometimes before it even has time to voice its terrible suggestion. You become more who you truly are. And that is fun too.