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Akst: Teaching students to succeed in 2014

Published: Thursday, Aug. 28, 2014 11:37 p.m. CDT

Beloit College in Wisconsin produces a fascinating annual study. “The Beloit College Mindset List,” which now garners global attention, is a look at how incoming college freshmen interpret the world.

It provides “a look at the cultural touchstones and experiences that have shaped the worldview of students entering colleges and universities in the fall.”

The list began humbly: it was created to remind faculty to be wary of outdated popular/historical references. Anyway, the freshmen who just began college were born in 1996.

Sample these data and see if they make your lumbago flare up. Today’s freshmen …

• have long been able to get immediate approval through Facebook “likes” 

• think Harry Potter when they see wire-rimmed glasses, not John Lennon

• think “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” has always been the only news program that really “gets it right” (I’m mostly convinced they’re correct about this)

• were upset by repeated images of planes crashing into the World Trade Center in their first few weeks of kindergarten

• have always seen hard liquor advertised on TV.

This fall, I’m teaching “UNIV 101,” an optional, one-hour credit course for freshmen at Northern Illinois University. In some ways, UNIV 101 is exactly what it sounds like. It’s designed to give freshmen the best chance of success at college.

I hear you saying, “In my day, we just ...”. Indeed, much “old school” advice holds true. Study hard, sleep, eat nutritiously, manage time wisely, exercise, make friends, join a club, party in moderation … these are truisms as relevant today as when “Animal House” seemed more like a documentary than a comedy.

But UNIV 101 in 2014 kicks it up a notch. The class helps students navigate the technological portals critical to sending and receiving course material. It emphasizes strengthening oral and written communication. It focuses on decision making, critical thinking and problem solving. Part of it is about helping students learn to thrive in a diverse but shrinking world. Most NIU students (some say about 80 percent) grow up within a two-hour radius of DeKalb, but that two hour-circle encompasses the full spectrum of urban and rural settings.

I think UNIV 101 will be useful for most students, and I would encourage parents of future freshmen to encourage their children to take it or something like it.

I’ve met my freshmen a couple of times. They seem like good kids. They’re quiet, reserved, and are hesitant to speak up in class, even when called upon. It’s too early to tell how academically prepared they are for college.

Confession time: Much of my interest in this class is personal. When I was a college freshman, I was the epitome of everything not to do. I blew off class. I partied hard. I did assignments at the last minute. I was isolated. I didn’t have many friends. I didn’t ask for help.

I finally pulled my head out and finished college (a different college) in good academic shape in 1985. I began a career, and a few years later, I went to graduate school and did well there.

But I paid the price for my earlier screwups, academically, personally, financially and professionally. Some of the damage remains. I have frequent anxiety dreams about messing up a class, flunking out and failing at life. I’ve been having those dreams nearly 30 years.

I would spare my students that fate.

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