The Second Year Slump

Much has been said about the difficulties and challenges that both students and teachers face during that first year of college. For some, the increased academic demands weigh heavy on their shoulders, while for others, the culture shock of a new, independent environment away from their comfort zone can be emotionally draining. Last semester, Provisions explored ways in which we can help these students to adapt, on both a personal and an academic level.

However, it appears that, even after those first year teething problems have been treated, educators must brace themselves for a familiar challenge…

In “Disengaged and overwhelmed: why do second year students underperform?” from the The Guardian, Clare Milson explains how students can often experience a slump in their academic progress. Whereas the first year and the last year arguably carry more significance in the minds of the learner, the middle year(s) is awkwardly caught between the two, struggling for identity. Milson, who likens the second year to a middle child, states that this issue is, in fact, “a widely recognized” phenomenon, which is referred to by U.S. academics as “the sophomore slump.” Research undertaken at a U.K. based university found evidence that one in three undergraduate students had been affected by an academic decline.

Milson notes that this phenomenon is far from simple to explain. Many of the students who were found to have experienced the slump reported that they felt “lost, perplexed, and disappointed” with their second year performances. Studies suggest that students were not prepared for the increase of the workload. Whereas students in the first year found their classes to be “cute and fluffy”, the second year represented a significant change in difficulty and volume.

Milson describes how students feel that there is a lack of “support and guidance” given to students entering their second year. Despite this yearning for help, many students do not actively seek it. Very few students took it upon themselves to make use of student services designed to provide the help and support that they clearly felt they needed.

Milson proposes three strategies that institutions of higher education can help students in the second year:

1) Design a second year induction program to reacquaint students with the challenges ahead of them.

2) Ensure that your subject is fresh and appealing. It is important for the student to feel excited about the upcoming semester.

3) Inform the students about the on-campus resources available to them.

While it is true that students may not be aware of the support available to them, there are many that are aware, but harbor feelings of embarrassment about seeking help. In order to provide students with the platform to change, educators must attempt to remove the stigma around it. What other ways can educators prevent students from succumbing to the sophomore slump?

September Provisions: Teaching First Year Students

Our first Provisions session of the year kicked off with the topic of “Teaching First Year Students.” The presenters, who so kindly volunteered to impart their knowledge to the 38-strong audience, were Dr. Jelane Kennedy, Counseling and CCSA, Mary Fitzsimmons, Director of HEOP (Higher Education Opportunity Program) & AOE (Academic Opportunity Experience) and Dr. Shirlee Dufort, Writing Center Director.

Jelane Kennedy was the first to present. She chose to talk about Arthur W. Chickering and his theory of identity development. Chickering’s theory features seven vectors of development:

  • Developing Competence – Intellectual, Physical and Interpersonal
  • Managing Emotions
  • Moving through Autonomy toward Interdependence
  • Developing Mature Interpersonal relationships
  • Establishing Identity
  • Developing Purpose
  • Developing Integrity

These vectors or stages all make up how one’s identity is developed, particularly throughout a student’s life in higher education. After giving a brief run through of each vector, Dr. Kennedy focused in on three that are of the most significance for First Year Students:

  • Competence – Trying to adjust to the realities of college life. There are many new obstacles and transitions that High School Students must face when making the leap to college. There are so many new tasks and experiences that they may have not encountered before. They may have to deal with basics such as making their own dinner, doing their own laundry and more demanding homework. On top of that, they must learn how to find time for their personal leisure activities, and get along with roommates and professors, as well as learning a new academic schedule.
  • Managing Emotions – There are a lot of emotions in those first few weeks of college: How do I connect to people? How to make new friends? Feeling homesick (leaving behind friends, family and partners). They have to be able to cope and deal with a range of emotions and the questions that emanate from them.
  • Moving through Autonomy toward Interdependence – A need for approval and feedback. Academic feedback is regular from K through 12 but may be less abundant in those first weeks in college. There is also a desire for personal feedback: Do people like me? They may have yet to reach the point where they don’t care about what people think and are comfortable just being themselves.

Dr. Kennedy provided a handout that followed up on the stages faced by students as they continue their academic journey – Chickering

Up next was Mary Fitzsimmons, who, as well as being the director of the Higher Education Opportunity Program (HEOP), teaches English 105 (a First Year Program).  She began her presentation by commenting how different St. Rose can appear to students who are not from the local area. For example, students from New York City had commented that the campus seemed like a park to them. Another girl shared that it was the first time she had had to cross four lanes of traffic.

In English 105, Fitzsimmons said that she liked to communicate individually and privately with her students. One way she does this is through the form of an online assignment; the students do a journal and are also asked a check-in question such as, “Is everything going okay in the program?” Fitzsimmons feels that by initiating direct communication with her, the student starts to feel more comfortable. She mentioned a student who came up to her after class and posed  the question, “How do I make friends?” – A question that really emphasizes the struggle, for some students, during those initial weeks at college. Through her dual role in student affairs, she said that it is easier to be more of an ambassador of the college for students. Fitzsimmons encouraged other members of the faculty to do the same by knowing who their partners are on campus, and in turn, knowing where to direct any in-need students. In her role as Director of AOE, Fitzsimmons invites students to attend a presentation that gives advice on how best to adapt to the standards they have to live up to at College.

Fitzsimmons continued by introducing the role of the AOE, where 1st year students are able to get assistance in making the transition both academically and socially. The students have a well planned schedule which allows them to attend workshops, get tutoring, and have structured study, as well as to gain help moving in, and to enjoy a celebration dinner to welcome the new arrivals. Fitzsimmons sees this early start orientation as a way to create community, comfort, and a challenge.

Last on the floor was Shirlee Dufort, director of the Writing Center. As part of her work with the AOE, she assigned students to write a research paper in five days. The main goals of this process were to walk through the stages of writing the paper, make it virtually impossible to plagiarize, and to collaborate academically. Over these five days, the students learned a lot about college writing, and the experience would no doubt hold them in good stead for future challenges. Here is Dr. Dufort’s handout from the presentation, which goes into detail about the five day experience – Shirlee Dufort Handout

After the presentations, during the Question & Answer session, some interesting points and observations were made by various members of the faculty:

  • Faculty should recommend help from specific individuals to struggling students, to add a personal touch.
  • Having academic coaches check up on students would be beneficial.
  • Students need to know where help and resources are for them on campus.
  • Self-motivation is key; while professors may provide inspiration, students are ultimately responsible for their personal growth.
  • Faculty should strive to put themselves in their students’ shoes, and try to remember what it’s like to be a beginner.
  • Make deals with students; give them the opportunity to improve. For example, a student given a poor first grade on a paper was given the chance to rewrite it in the office of the professor, and the new grade was averaged with the initial grade.

To listen to a podcast from the session, check out our soundcloud page at http://www.soundcloud.com/stroseprovisions