Top students may not be ready for college

Even some top students with high grades and test scores aren’t ready for college, writes Elaine Tuttle Hansen in a Chronicle of Higher Education commentary. Now executive director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth, Hansen was president of Bates College and a professor of English at Haverford College.

It’s a problem even at Johns Hopkins, which  is highly selective, says the  director of undergraduate studies in math.

“What they don’t have is a deep understanding of why the techniques they’ve been taught work, the actual underlying mathematical relationships. They walk into to my classroom in September and don’t have the study habits or proper foundation to do the work.”

“Not all of the smartest kids who have jumped through the hoops required for selective college admissions are ready for the demands of college-level work,” writes Hansen. Bright students can earn good grades without working very hard.

Take David, a college student I heard from recently, who loved the summer program he took at the Center for Talented Youth a few years ago. But it wasn’t enough to save him from being so bored in school that he “coasted” through elementary, middle, and high school and his first two years of college. “By the time I found academic work that challenged me, … I realized my work ethic and study skills were atrocious, in large part, I believe, because I had never been forced to use them,” he said. “I would like to know the person I would have become had I been engaged as a young learner.”

Sometimes excellent students have parents who’ve been directing their education from baby play group on up. They don’t have the maturity, self-discipline and time management skills that college demands.  However, you’d think they’d have a solid academic foundation.

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  1. George Larson says:

    I graduated college in 73, not from a top tier school, a state cattle college, but this does not surprise me.

    I would not expect many to have “the understanding of why the techniques they’ve been taught work, the actual underlying mathematical relationships.” That is a reason to go to college, to learn to think like a mathematician not like a high school student.

    • Mark Roulo says:

      It isn’t about learning to think like a mathematician.

      It is about whether math is seen as a lot of unrelated tricks with no system behind when you apply them or it is seen as a coherent, rigorous whole.

      One of my pet examples is how dividing fractions is taught. The common approach is that you “invert and multiply.” But *why* does this work? And, more importantly, do the students know why it works? I’m not asking if they have been *shown* why it works (I won’t say “taught”), but do they remember/know it?

      Most high school students, I suspect, do *NOT* know why it works.

      It isn’t that hard to teach this in such a way that each step makes sense, but that isn’t how it is taught today (I think).

      • Fatima Ibrahim says:

        Being a current college student, I understand the message that is being addressed here, it is true, many students are not taught to understand why they use certain formulas for a math problem, or what the true significance of finding out the solution is. I think this is the main problem as to why students don’t become highly involved in their education, because the real meaning as to why they are being taught certain lessons and topics. I know from experience that there are many students who graduated with honors and have not truly received a proper education, because all they were concerned about was receiving high marks and a high GPA. Once a student learned the material, they automatically erase all of the material they had just learned, rather than applying it to further concepts. It would frustrate me, knowing that I actually put time and effort into my studies and I always try to understand why a certain topic is being addressed,rather than just coasting along.

      • Foobarista says:

        I suspect most teachers don’t know how this works either. The best math teacher I had in HS was the track coach, who was learning the math at the same time we were (and said so). He explained why formulas were put together the way they were, instead of just saying “here’s the quadratic formula: learn it, know it, live it”.

        • Fatima Ibrahim says:

          Yeah I completely understand what you mean. I had a calculus teacher who taught us why we were learning the derivatives and what their purposes were. She even went as far as to teaching us how to figure it out on our own, which I enjoyed because I felt like I was actually learning the material with meaning.

        • The quadratic formula is easy to derive, taking about 10 minutes to demonstrate on the board.  There’s no reason not to teach it if the students are truly learning algebra.

  2. I’ll cross Johns Hopkins off my son’s list. Either they are knowingly letting in unprepared kids or they can’t tell the difference. The Peabody Institute was nice when we visited, but now I have questions about the parent school.

    “Visit a summer program for talented and gifted students, and you’ll see contradictions of claims that today’s students aren’t as well prepared as we were. But as I’ve come to understand, such programs continue to grow and thrive precisely because the kind of engagement, enthusiasm, and active group learning they provide is so hard to find in most classrooms. Yet supplementary work may not be enough, even for the fortunate few who qualify for accelerated, intensified programs and have, or are given, the means to participate.”

    You have to read the article to get the proper spin on the message. It’s a promotion for CTY and “active group learning”, as if that’s the only key to “deep understanding” and proper “study habits”. Apparently the SAT II and AP tests are not giving Johns Hopkins enough data to figure that out. Apparently AP courses don’t do the trick. I won’t argue about “underlying mathematical relationships” when I don’t buy their message.

    My son qualified for CTY in fifth grade and we have been getting their brochures ever since. They are overpriced and I see nothing that indicates a better process than what many high schools offer. In fact, I see a lot of problems with “active group learning.”

    • SteveH: Maybe it’s not incompetence on John Hopkins’ part? There’s a whole industry out there devoted to helping kids and their parents “fine tune” their entrance documentation, etc. to basically trick the selective colleges into letting them in. It’s like a game of chess now, between those folks and the universities themselves…

      • “It’s like a game of chess now, between those folks and the universities themselves…”

        I’m in the middle of that with my son and I’m even considering hiring specialized help. However, the person from CTY is defining a problem in a self-serving way just to promote CTY.

        The college admittance game usually centers on the intangibles, not so much the test scores and the high school grades. Perhaps some high schools give out easy ‘A’s and don’t expect much for effort, but it’s hard to trick all of the other things like SAT, ACT, SAT II and AP. I assume that at Johns Hopkins’ ranking level (#13), most kids take AP or IB classes. I see a lot of those kids busting their butts, and it’s not just on joining clubs and helping out in soup kitchens. It is very competitive at the top end and you really can’t fake it grade-wise.

        I will agree that for many of these kids, classes cover a lot of ground, and they have little time to put it all into perspective. (IB is probably better at that, but I don’t know.) Some claim that a lot of learning ends up being rote, but I don’t buy that. The learning has just not been developed or made more flexible. I might argue that flexibility and perspective would be a more important goal in high school than the rush to AP classes, but that’s another issue.

        Bad study habits are problems that could happen to many bright kids because some high school courses are so simple, but I really don’t buy that except for a very few kids. I also don’t buy the idea that CTY could fix that, especially with “active group learning”. Study habits are important when the learning is not fun, not when you are at a summer camp. My son can (and does) study things like Fourier Series and string theory on his own, but that doesn’t necessarily translate into the skills required to do work that is not so interesting, and his AP classes give him lots of practice with that.

        • Classics Mom says:

          Any recommendations for specialized help for college admissions?

          • I don’t know. I get email from “Application Boot Camp”, but I haven’t used them. I know that admissions people can smell an optimized application a mile away, but the goal is to learn how to better present the real you. The goal is not necessarily to create an imaginary a well-rounded person. As an admissions person from Harvard told parents and students at a meeting we went to a couple of years ago, they try to put together a well-rounded freshman class, but that can be done with “oblong” students. I think it’s better to be really good in a couple of extra-curricular activities rather than average in a lot of things. Top colleges are looking for unique students. In a negative sense, it reminds me of the “Slug Club” in Harry Potter. You have to be interesting. Good grades are a given.

            At a recent tour of MIT, the admissions person said that they got rid of the regular student essay and just ask for five things that students like to do outside of class. They want to see what you have a passion for, and it doesn’t have to be some organized sport or club. In fact, I got the distinct impression that it would be better if it were not. They don’t seem to want to hear that you are good as a follower or even as a leader of an existing organization. They want to see if you can create something of your own. Of course, you have to show that you can do this on top of easily getting top grades in all of your courses. Instead of being the president of your class, they want to see if you’re the type who could figure out how to put a police car on top of their dome. I’ll be damned if they didn’t make a really big deal of that, and the tour guide made a point of showing us that car enshrined in their new Stata Center. On the literature they handed out, one of the rhetorical questions they asked was: Can you think of any interesting hacks?” No. They don’t want people who are presidents of their class. They want people who will create an app that will let them know when their laundry is done. Yes. They made a big deal about the students who did that. I think each college is different, and you have to do your homework. In doing so, you might find that some colleges really aren’t a proper fit. My son, however, is ready to move into Random Hall.

          • lightly seasoned says:

            I’m not sure it isn’t a waste of money. Plenty of my (public school) students get into highly selective schools and Ivies without anything more than my help on their essays.

    • cranberry says:

      SteveH, I don’t think it’s a John Hopkins problem. I think their university professors might be more honest about comparing current students with their predecessors.

      A Johns Hopkins professor, W. Stephen Wilson, wrote this paper, diagnosing weaknesses in current students due to inadequate preparation in arithmetic and long division:

      A different essay was printed in Education Next, as “What do college students know?”

      • What Wilson is talking about is proper mastery of skills. What Hanson is talking about is some vague idea of understanding and study habits. These are two different problems, not one, and Wilson describes the much bigger one of the two. What Hansen suggests as a solution will not solve the problem that Wilson is describing.

        As I’ve said on so many occasions, the problem in K-8 math is a focus on student-driven learning that hopes to use “active group learning” to drive mastery of basic skills. Educators put the onus on students and hope that vague ideas of critical thinking and understanding will get the job done. It doesn’t happen. When these kids get to high school where there is a lot more material to cover, their skill gaps mean that they can only barely keep up with the material. They might manage to get good SAT scores, but they are at a mountain top for math, not a base camp for tackling college math. This is what Wilson is seeing. This is not due to a lack of “active group learning” or having time to explore or be creative. These are kids who lack enough mastery of the basics to be able to successfully handle calculus. The solution is NOT more fun-time creative learning in K-12. That’s what caused the problem in the first place.

        There might be some students who easily absorb the mechanics of math, but would benefit from more exploration or seeing the bigger picture. However, this doesn’t mean that schools should flip the process around for everyone and hope that exploration and being creative will drive mastery of the basics. The learning process must be bottom-up rather than top-down. This doesn’t mean that you can’t include ideas that try to put all of the skills into perspective (like why do you need to know about synthetic division), but educators can’t assume that explaining concepts will give students the excitement and drive to slog through homework sets.

        I’ve been tutoring someone in Algebra II and he can understand the concepts very nicely. He can even see the bigger picture. However, he gets poor grades because he doesn’t force himself to do each homework problem to prove that he really understands what’s going on. It’s worse because his teacher does not give partial credit. Conceptual understanding will get rounded down to zero. Full understanding is shown by doing the problems correctly. You cannot pass math with rote skills and you cannot pass math with conceptual understanding. You have to consistently be able to do all of the problems in each homework assignment. That is NOT a rote skill.

        Colleges use SAT/ACT as a factor for admission, but they are crazy if they think that decent math grades on those tests show potential for calculus courses. Perhaps that’s why many college degree programs limit their requirements to things like college algebra or statistics. Tests like SAT II and AP give a better idea of potential, but colleges don’t admit students into departments. Why should they be surprised when many students can’t handle calculus?

        Hansen is promoting CTY, but I would say that their courses would be best for those who have already mastered the basics. However, it has to be more than just active group learning. My son went to Interlochen summer music camp, but to get in, he had to apply and submit a video showing he had mastered a high level of mastery of the piano. At the camp, he had private lessons and group classes for things like theory, performance (they hold formal master classes with professional artists), composition, and chamber music. Kids are expected to practice (individually) for hours each day. Students audition and compete for slots in WYSO. It is so much more than “active group learning”. The goal is much more than just engagement or being creative. It requires a LOT of hard work. That drives results and inspires kids to greater heights. (You can see YouTube videos of how amazing WYSO is.) Hansen should look at places like Interlochen, BUTI, and Brevard to see how things really should work in math and science.

    • Fatima Ibrahim says:

      I agree, I think extra programs such as the CTY do not help as much as they could, but I still don’t believe that high school is actually training students properly with the required curriculum. I personally believe that topics in school are just grazed over and it is really clear- cut. the classroom setting in today’s high school does not allow students to figure out problems on their own, they are just given the material to memorize and take a test on. Part of becoming a successful figure in today’s society involves being able to address situations with innovative ideas.

      I have been enrolled in AP and honor courses all throughout high school, and if anything they definitely do not help with engaging in new ideas and broadening the perspective of a student’s mind. In fact, we were barely given the opportunity to use our creative, because we were solely focused on achieving high scores for our AP tests. So most of our time was devoted to studying, memorizing and writing the facts, rather than forming our own ideas.

    • Crimson Wife says:

      CTY and other programs like it (Stanford’s EPGY, Northwestern’s CTD, etc.) are the only way many bright kids can get access to properly challenging coursework in this era of detracking. My kids’ zoned school does not offer honors classes until ELEVENTH grade.

      I don’t think it is right that only those bright kids whose parents are savvy enough to find out about the talent searches and wealthy enough to afford the course fees should have access to intellectually challenging courses from elementary school on, but GATE has not been a priority in this country.

      • As an alumna of CTY summer camp (archeology!) I think the social aspect of CTY is as important, possibly more important, than the academic aspect. You get to hang around with kids who actually ‘Get’ you, who read books, who understand your conversations, and who don’t think you’re a freak or an oddball. For a lot of kids, these summer programs are the only place they really fit in until college. And for some of them, CTY is literally what’s keeping them alive through the school year. (I was lucky. I had access to exam schools. Most of the kids there didn’t.)

  3. Once again, it comes down to math. It always comes down to math. If we don’t solve the math / innumeracy crisis in this country, and soon, we’re going to be a 3rd world country in just a few generations.

  4. cranberry says:

    She writes, “They should: Evidence suggests that academic talent is quite specifically diminished, not developed, by the school experience. A Fordham Institute study of how young American students testing in the 90th percentile or above fared over time found that roughly 30 to 50 percent of these advanced learners lost ground as they moved from elementary to middle school, or from middle to high school.”

    However, scoring on an advanced level on a test in elementary school does not necessarily mean the student is gifted, curious, or interested in school. It could mean the parents have been very invested in the child’s development. As children get older, schoolwork becomes more complicated. It becomes harder to catch up with the naturally curious and hyper-intelligent through after-school tutoring. In middle and high school hormones affect students’ interests.

    Students who are interested in other things pay more attention to out-of-school activities than academics. So, a student who scored in the 92nd percentile in 4th grade might be a great musician in high school, but neglect his biology labs for jam sessions in a friend’s garage.

    • Hi there,
      You guys raise some interesting points; however, I’m going to disagree with some of the comments here that say it all boils down to math in the end. The truth is that a certain amount of maturity comes with brain and psychological development (you can’t expect a 17 year-old to think like a 21 year-old. What college needs from us is solid life experience, since at the end of the day, it’s this experience that is going to make the difference between dropping out or graduating at the top of your class.