Franklin & Marshall College Franklin & Marshall College

Question of the Month

Excerpted from the January 2012 Parents Newsletter in which Newsletter Editor, Maura Condon Umble, poses a question each month.

 "Why is my first-year student struggling?"

I recently spoke with Jennifer Morford, Ph.D., chair of the Chemistry Department, and asked her why students sometimes struggle during their first semester, particularly in chemistry. Her thoughts and advice apply to students across the curriculum:

There is a substantial difference in expectations between high school and college, and the transition can be daunting. Morford explains that chemistry is often the first science course for many students, so the difference in expectations becomes apparent in this course.

Even in advanced-placement chemistry courses in high school, teachers often emphasize memorization with many teacher-led drill and repetitive exercises during the four or five classes students have each week. College chemistry courses often meet only three times a week. Because there are fewer class hours, daily attention to chemistry by students is necessary. Students are expected to not only memorize, which is fundamental to learning, but to also conceptualize the "why" and "how" behind the memorized facts.

Morford recommends students prepare for each class by reading ahead, taking detailed notes in class, memorizing key concepts and facts, completing practice problems (whether they are assigned or not), understanding the logic behind the reasoning in complex problems, and applying the fundamental concepts to new types of problems. Not all students adjust immediately to these demands.

Morford feels many incoming students struggle with the new and varied demands of college while trying to find their footing in a new environment and living away from home for the first time. Some Franklin & Marshall students who excelled in high school with minimal effort discover that they lack the intensity and focus toward studying that they need to succeed at the college level.

Morford offers the following advice for students. Feel free to share...

Treat academics as an opportunity to embrace subjects that will broaden and enrich your life. Schedule schoolwork with consistent hours every day, with 1-2 hours devoted each night for each class. Don't just passively re-read the textbook! Active study involves grappling with definitions, internalizing concepts and wrestling with recommended problems. Group study can help to reinforce concepts, but is not a replacement for individual, focused study; group study should be considered after your own foundation is sound.

If you're having trouble in a class, see your professor during office hours. Don't expect the professor to review the previous class or to teach you how to do a problem if you haven't spent your own time on it. Use those office hours to ask specific questions that will help you better understand the material. See your professor while you're struggling with a problem so that he or she can identify where the "train left the tracks" and get you moving in the right direction.