As an educational consultant, parents and volunteer organizations for foster children have asked me what they should be thinking about as they help teenagers prepare for academia. These are the basic skills that students should have in place to help ensure academic success:
A) Critical Thinking Skills:
Reading: The more you can encourage reading, the easier the student will have it when they get to college. Reading skills are the most complicated critical thinking skill to teach. How to read, especially when you're in college, is a huge issue. Most students don't know what to read for, so they underline everything in a textbook. Help them find the major issue in a piece of reading. What is the piece about? Who is it written for? What is the piece trying to get you to believe? Do you believe the credibility of the writer? These are crucial places to begin in college reading for any class, any discipline.
Categorizing: Ability to sort information hierarchically, logically, in order of importance. The ability to summarize, to express the gist of something. First-years will often give a blow-by-blow and think it is a summary; it’s not.
Vocabulary: Students often believe that ‘fancy’ words make them sound pretentious, and they need encouragement to use one longer word instead of three short ones. Therefore it's ideal to start with words they think they already know the meaning of, or words they think are funny-sounding. If you can get them to underline words they're not familiar with, and then look each word up in the dictionary, it's a great start toward building their vocabulary.
Argumentation skills/Providing evidence: Students must learn how to rely on sources when writing term papers. College writing will require students to use evidence to support their assertions and arguments from primary and secondary source material. To be taken seriously, they must get used to this convention, especially the reality of providing more than one source to support or contravene an argument.
Essay-writing: Usually based on argumentation skills. Ability to locate the argument/topoi, and to argue for and against. Tell student about Blue books (remember those?). Students generally haven’t heard of them, nor are they familiar with essay-writing conventions. Usually they know the five paragraph theme from high school, but its conventions and rules will not help them in college. In fact, it will hinder them.
B) Practical Skills:
Note-taking: When to take notes during a lecture; what to take notes on (when you went to college, how did you know what was important and what to listen for?). Most first-year classes in big schools are lecture courses, so note-taking is crucial to surviving the first year. Students often believe that the information they’ll need on a test is in their textbook, and are dismayed to find that issues covered in class show up on the test.
Computer skills: Familiarity with computers, finding websites, online resources, and Microsoft Word, plus any other programs that will get the student through their first year. Microsoft Word is the standard, expected word processing program.
Internet Use: It is really helpful if students are not just familiar with computers before they get to school, but are actually fairly fluent. One of the best ways of familiarizing the student with the colleges they’re interested in is by having them search online for the colleges, departments, and courses they think they might want to take.
Library: Find a book and follow through with the entire process of looking it up in an online catalog locating it on the shelf, and taking it out. It's important for the student to have some familiarity with journals and magazines in a specific area of interest. Professional journals are frequently overlooked by students as a source of information.
2) More complicated issues that will need your help:
Taking responsibility for their own learning: Students don’t ask enough questions for fear of looking stupid. Scared students from a difficult background are most at risk for not going to the teacher to ask questions, preferring to disappear into the woodwork rather than look as though they need help.
Writing Across the Curriculum: This curriculur change is fairly standard now for most larger schools, and smaller schools are catching on to it as well. Essentially, what it means is that students will be writing in all their classes, not just English Composition. Writing skills are central to success at college. Anything you can do to promote and support their ability to write rhetorically in any given situation (to make an argument regarding an issue, support it, show the opposition’s point of view, and what the writer intends to do about the problem they’ve discussed) will help the student’s chances of success in college.
Being able to work in a community of learners: The educational process is less and less about the individual and more about collaboration and group work. This can present a challenge for students who don't expect to have to listen to their peers more than to the teacher, whose authority is increasingly questioned. Authority issues have become a subtext of most college classrooms.