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Student Underpreparedness:
Bridging the High School to College Gap


Newsletter of Teaching & Learning at Penn State York

Best Practices, Teaching Tips, Ideas, Resources, What's NEW!!

Volume 2 Issue 1 January/February 2007

A friend's son is a senior in high school and is in the process of discerning what to do next with his life: college, trade school, work, military? His mom and I often talk about how he might fare in a college setting. Never strong at academics, he struggled with every step in school. On the up side, he is smart and articulate, a natural problem-solver, and he loves films and compelling stories, although he loathes reading. He has a great sense of humor and is good with his hands. He's a drummer and loves music and all things computer-related. Put him in a formal classroom setting, however, and crash! College just doesn't seem logical for this kid, but there is so much pressure on parents to send their kids to college, fearing that they just won't succeed in life without it. This, in spite of some evidence to the contrary. A recent article in the York Sunday News about average salaries for the trades - plumbing, HVAC, electrician, etc., revealed salaries stunningly above what I earn after about 11 years or so of post-secondary education and ten years experience on my side!

So the point? Even with all of this data out there, there is still a huge societal pressure to send kids to college. The likelihood, therefore, of kids, like my friend's son, showing up in your classroom is pretty high. So what to do?

This issue of the newsletter will look at some of the practical issues related to student underpreparedness and/or readiness:

Special thanks to Dr. Cora Dzubak for sharing her recently published article, What Skills and Whose Standards: Why Are Students Underprepared? which appeared in the online journal for The Association for the Tutoring Profession in its November 2006 issue which will be summarized in the Review section of this newsletter.


FEATURE: Bridging the High School to College Gap

continental divide

This is a challenging topic. I've tried to use the bridge metaphor and break it down into three broad areas:

  • Keeping tabs on the left bank - What is going on in that K-12 environment?
  • Meeting students on the bridge - Understanding the students who come to us, their current skill level and possible gaps in their preparation and readiness as well as research conducted about the bridge
  • Walking with them to the other side - strategies and programs that work

Read the article HERE

question mark Q & A

This is my own question this time: What support/training/resources do faculty need in order to try innovative strategies in the classroom?

I realize this is my take on things, so I would love to hear your ideas on this...

What prompts someone to make a change in their classroom practice? Well, a lot of things, but two of the biggies probably are:

  1. A new idea comes your way - sheer creativity - great - this is the most fun to work with - Something stirs up an idea that you'd like to run with - what do you need? Access to the tool/gadget/resources that can make it happen, training, and on-going support during implementation. Time to think about and develop the idea would be crucial. Freedom from the pressure of being formally evaluated would also help.

  2. This one is more challenging - necessity is driving the need for change - you sense that things just aren't working like they used to, or your student evals have started to drop. Perhaps a curricular change is coming down the pike and you can't quite envision how the changes could look - what do you need? Same as above - access to resources, training, and on-going support during implementation. What also helps is being able to talk to other practitioners about what they are doing. Everyone goes through adjustments and difficult times in the classroom. Conversations with trusted, experienced teachers can help you make the adjustments you need and can also re-energize your life in the classroom.

What can get in the way of innovation? Trying something new can be risky and anxiety provoking. The stakes can be high. You don't want bad student evals if things go wrong. You don't want to seem foolish or incompetent if it bombs. You don't want the change to impact student learning in a negative way. Change is hard - there is no denying that! Take a look at Mike Muir's blog on the difficulties of paradigm change in the classroom.

Support & Ideas

Use different lesson planning models to envision changes to current practice. A constructivist model produces quite different results from a traditional model for instance. Jumpstart new ideas.

  1. Apply for grants and support to facilitate your changes:Schreyer Institute Grants and TLT's Faculty Engagement Initiative are two.
  2. Meet with me to brainstorm ideas and locate resources
  3. Admins, consider giving the gift of time to faculty - many universities offer release time to faculty as they try new innovations
  4. Admins, consider a one semester moratorium on formal student evals during the initial implementation stage of a new innovation
  5. Admins - continue to reward faculty innovation in the classroom.
  6. Budget/strategic planning committees - continue to provide adequate funds for faculty innovation including training and support dollars
  7. Evaluate and revamp as needed - get input from outsiders who can suggest improvements - share what you've learned/done with others.

While change can be difficult, the rewards are well worth the effort in terms of your own motivation, satisfaction, and engagement! Any other ideas/needs/wants that would support your innovations? Send them my way, please!!!

Article Review journal logo

Cora Dzubak’s article, What Skills and Whose Standards: Why Are Students Underprepared (2006), succinctly and accurately describes the issues that impact student preparedness for college and offers practical solutions for faculty in the classroom. This review will briefly summarize the highlights.

Underprepared students are defined in the article as those students who are deficient in reading, math, or writing, and who may also lack effective study and learning skills.  Dzubak examines three primary variables that contribute to the problem of student underpreparedness:

  1. the gap between the skills and requirements needed for graduation from high school and those needed for success in college courses

  2. societal and cultural changes that can negatively impact educational progress

  3. the fast pace and desire for instant gratification characteristic of life in this country. 

She then identifies successful approaches and strategies for working with underprepared students.

  The gap between high school and college
College curricula are generally developed on the assumption that students come to freshman courses college-ready. Yet many students arrive without the proper academic preparation for college-level courses. Nearly 30% of first time freshman need to enroll in one or more remedial courses.  This number is growing causing many concerned parties to ask for the reasons why. Inflated grades, lowering of standards, parental pressure levied against teachers to give good grades, changing student attitudes and behavior are some of the factors that contribute to this lowering of skill levels by high school students.

Remedial courses can play a major role in getting students ready for college level courses. The merits of remedial courses are evident through research.  88% of students who successfully complete remedial English and 82% of those completing remedial math, go on to successfully complete the college level counterpart.

The growing gap between high school and college preparation has caused some states to require exit exams for graduating high school seniors, although there is some evidence that even these scores are not always indicative of actual skills acquired.

Societal and cultural changes
Demographic data indicate changing trends in society, some of which negatively impact educational progress such as: number of children living in single parent homes, number of first generation students attending college, increase in number of low-income families,  decreased amount of time children spend with their parents, and lower emphasis on academic achievement in the home. These contribute substantially to the degree to which students are prepared for college.

Fast pace of modern life
The pace at which we live our lives and the strong desire for instant gratification have led to behavioral changes in adolescents during the last ten to fifteen years which can impact their engagement in the learning process. Some of these changes are:

  • increased preferences for visual and kinesthetic learning styles in contrast to oral/aural style used in many college classrooms

  • visual preferences that do not extend to adequate competency in reading and comprehension, but are more geared towards multi-media reception

  • low-level cognitive task preference such as processing facts and other data over more complex thinking skills.

  • decrease in attention span. Students may not be able to hold their concentration for long periods of time, preventing them from listening attentively and thinking critically about material being presented.

  • student expectations of classrooms that are active, interactive, and visual. This may be counter to what they find in a typical college classroom.

  • students who are more extrinsically motivated. This may require outside reinforcement to maintain their interest in a project or task.

  • students who demonstrate high self-esteem, but low self-efficacy. That is, they have a strong self-concept, but do not connect that success in college is based on their performance which most likely demands significant time and effort on their part.

  • students lack effective problem-solving skills, critical thinking skills, and the ability to defend their opinions based on reasoned argument

Approaches and strategies
A team approach between faculty and staff in admissions, advising, and learning centers is most effective in dealing with the problem of student underpreparedness.  Effective strategies are:

  • standardized assessments to measure incoming skill levels

  • mandatory placement in remedial courses for students below standard

  • identification of the skills and characteristics required for success in college to be used as goals for underprepared students

  • set academic standards for developmental courses that are predictive of college success

  • tracking student progress during the first semester and early intervention

  • measure student achievement and outcomes at the completion of the first year

  • teach problem-solving and critical thinking skills during the first semester

  • “front load” academic support skills by teaching students how to read to learn as well as effective study skills

  • Expect student engagement in the classroom and encourage faculty to use a multi-sensory approach to teaching

  • Foster a stronger sense of belonging to the campus community via summer programs, mentoring, learning communities, tutoring and study groups, community service and volunteer activities, participation in clubs and organizations

  • Promote and expect student self-advocacy, independence, and responsibility, maintain high academic standards

Dzubak summarizes by stating that college personnel must work from a model of achievement, not from a deficit model, maintaining high standards while building academic skills needed for college success. As students experience success, their motivation and persistence will improve which will lead to a stronger sense of self-efficacy, meaning students will attribute their successes to their own hard work and performance.

Colleges must hold onto their high standards. If underprepared students are admitted, then adequate services must be supplied to help students prepare for college level courses.

Dzubak, C. M. (2006, February 14). What skills and whose standards: Why are students underprepared. Synergy: The Journal of the Association for the Tutoring Profession, 1, Retrieved February 20, 2007, from

newspaper boy

ANGEL 7 is coming - May 19, 2007
Resources available to you now;

  1. Video
  2. ANGEL Hub - all things ANGEL 7

Create your own eGames
Help students review vocabulary and basic conceptual information by using a free eGames Generator.
Turnitin is a tool to help you and your students check their work for plagiarism. Available to faculty to use with their courses, Turnitin provides a place for students to submit papers. They will be checked against a database of submitted PSU papers and several prominent databases such as ProQuest. A report is generated (that can be viewed by faculty and/or students - your choice) showing which parts of the paper match previously submitted papers or those in the database. To read more about this new tool, visit

2007 Horizon Report
The Executive Summary states that, “The annual Horizon Report describes the continuing work of the NMC’s Horizon Project, a research oriented effort that seeks to identify and describe emerging technologies likely to have a large impact on teaching, learning, or creative expression within higher education.”

Survey says….

Respondents indicated that…

* they value most: weekly e-mail updates, one-on-one assistance, Teaching & Learning (T&L) newsletter,  T & L web site, special speakers, Schreyer Institute offerings, and workshops

* they  would like to see: ongoing ANGEL updates, series featuring innovative faculty on campus, using Adobe Acrobat, How-to’s: online surveys, SMART board, wireless laptop lab, Breeze usage, obtaining pre-made PowerPoint presentations

* 90% feel informed about teaching & learning resources available to them

* 84% prefer to receive info about upcoming workshops and resources via e-mail

* the summer offerings they would most like to see available would be: blended learning series, creating simple web pages, new Internet tools, and instructional strategies and learning theory

See the results of the full survey at:

Workshop Schedule and Professional Development Opportunities

  • Spring 2007 Workshops @ PSY

    Schreyer Events:

    1. Via Polycom – March 7th - 12-1:30 in MCB 31B lunch discussion:  Strategies for Collecting Student Feedback That Improves Learning

      Students are a great source of useful information for improving a class. But what is the best way to get that information from them? And what do you do with the information once you have it? At this luncheon participants will share experiences they've had gathering student feedback and how they have used the feedback to make course improvements.  – See a more detailed description at
      Contact me to register
    1. Regional Conference at PSU Berks – Friday, March 23 - Teaching, Testing and Learning: Fostering a Learner Centered Environment: a conference to explore the relationship between teaching and assessment – Dr. Virginia Anderson from Towson University presenting along with other faculty presenters – Go to to register and for details of each session

    2. Cindy Decker-Raynak of the Schreyer Institute will be here on campus, Wednesday, February 28th from 10:00-2:00 pm. She will be available to meet with faculty as needed. If you have an interest in meeting with Cindy, please contact me to schedule a time.

    Breeze Online Workshops - - No registration or RSVP required, just login to the room by clicking the link above. Dates & Times:

    Friday,  March 2, 1:30pm
    Tuesday, March 6, 2:30pm
    Thursday, March 8, 3:00pm
    Friday, March 16, 9:00am
    Tuesday, March 20, 9:30am
    Thursday, March 22, 1:00pm
    Monday, March 26, 2:30pm
    Wednesday, March 28, 1:30pm

    For more information about Breeze, go to


    breeze log-in                      

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    Nov/Dec 2006 : Assessment

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