Ensuring Students are Prepared to Be Successful Learners

Excerpt: Academic preparation is the biggest predictor of success for students in higher education. We must learn to strengthen students’ focus on preparation by defining the preparation that will lead to success and by rewarding and reinforcing an academic culture focused on preparation. By studying this article and its linked resources, and by using the associated shared files, you will be able to: • Design an introductory college curriculum and orientation process that will prepare students to transition successfully from high school, other higher ed institutions, or from the work environment. • Implement a new curricular planning process that is built on both expected competencies for successful learning (learning incomes) and on learning outcomes. • Implement a new form of student evaluation process that rewards students for being prepared to undertake the learning before them. • Formulate a white paper to explain the relative advantages and disadvantages of the current and new approach, and to charge a group to study its potential implications and implementation at your institution. • Formulate a plan to help students be better prepared for the teaching and testing styles of each instructor, and to help them share success strategies and useful resources among themselves in advance of course enrollment. • Evaluate the current curriculum’s strength and weaknesses at preparing students to be life-long learners.


The Boy Scout’s motto, “Be Prepared”, is sage advice for all walks of life, but most especially for successful learning. One of the biggest determinants of student success is their level of academic preparedness for the courses and programs they are undertaking, and one of the biggest challenges our colleges and universities face is how ill prepared they often are – especially as they transition from high school to college.

There are several factors that affect the foundation upon which the students’ college learning is built, including:

  • How well the high school curriculum prepared the student for the college curriculum.
  • The skills the student has acquired that enable them to be an effective learner. Higher Ed certainly expects a lot more independence and self-direction than Secondary Ed. See the section on transition to college in the article Defining What, Where, and When We Want Students to Learn.
  • Socioeconomic factors that often affect the quality of the education, resources, and opportunities available to the student during high school, and within their personal lives. Many students, even full timers, arrive in our colleges and universities needing to work to pay for their education and support themselves.

In the learning centered institution, we must meet the students where they are, irrespective of their level of preparation. We must also take responsibility for adequately preparing students for future learning experiences, so they are ready for each course they undertake, their major program of study, and for continued learning after graduation. This means we must provide them with:

  • Remedial courses or co-curricular support to bridge the high school to college gap in academic preparedness, and work with the K-12 system to narrow that gap.
  • Flexible alternatives to traditional on-campus classes through blended and online delivery mechanisms.
  • The knowledge and skills needed to be independent, self-directed, and lifelong learners.

Developing the Knowledge and Skills to be an Effective Learner

There are many articles, books and web sites written on learning skills, and this article will therefore only touch lightly on this area. Examples are, the summary article in Scientific American Mind called “How we learn: What works, what doesn’t” and an excellent book by Brown, Roediger, and McDaniel called “Make it Stick: The Science of Successful Learning“. In addition, the University of Wisconsin La Crosse has developed a great web site on this topic.

A learning-centered institution would not assume that students who graduate from high school have good learning skills – even for high achieving students. It would take responsibility for teaching its students to be effective and efficient learners. It would therefore set goals and outcomes related to this and identify where these are addressed in the curriculum or orientation processes. To be effective learners, students should be provided with opportunities to achieve the following learning outcomes(1)Developed by the Transition to College Task Force at Mercy College.:

  • Self-understanding
    • Identify how they learn (i.e. learning styles, brain dominance, personality profiles, and sensory modality preferences) and how that knowledge can be applied to study strategies, note taking, classroom and other learning situations. They should develop strategies to identify and convert an instructor’s teaching style (usually based on his/her preferred personal learning style) to their own optimal learning style.
    • Identify their current status within Bloom’s ladder of learning and understand how learning expectations within their program of study progress up the ladder as a student moves toward completion of the credential.
  • Learning skills
    • Develop and employ powerful study skills (study cycle: preview, attend, review, intense study, assess) to meet the requirements of their courses.
    • Apply organizational skills/habits for time and information management. They should identify the amount of work necessary to successfully complete a course, and how this might be distributed across a term to support effective learning.
    • Develop and apply strategies for effective test taking.
  • Course modalities
    • Identify the strengths and weaknesses of each of the modalities (online, blended, F2F) by which courses can be taken.
    • Identify strategies for informal and life-long learning.

A learning centered institution would also not assume that its faculty were knowledgeable in these outcomes and would therefore provide faculty development opportunities in this area of student mentoring.

Preparing Students for Their Courses

Having the correct pre-requisite knowledge and skills is one of the best predictors of student success in a course. That is – the better a student is prepared for learning, the more successful he or she is likely to be. Between primary, secondary, and tertiary education, and as students transition to the work force, this fact is recognized, and the students’ level of preparation is often the focus of intensive testing as shown in Figure 1. Secondary (High) school prepares students for pre-tests such as SATs and other entrance exams. Degree programs prepare students for graduate school pretests such as the GRE, LSAT, etc., or the ultimate pre-test – the job application and interview. Within courses, we traditionally change this pattern and focus on post-testing – usually with a mid-term and final examination, as shown by the bars indicating evaluation of learning outcomes in Figure 1. Based on this configuration, students often see each course as a hurdle to be overcome, and promptly forget most of the course material as soon as the final is complete. They also do not understand, rarely attempt or are asked to integrate materials across courses or disciplines.

Instructors are often frustrated by the wide range of academic preparation within the students entering their classes. Figure 2 is a simulated histogram of the distribution of the degree of preparation of the students in a 300-level course. The black (all) plot shows a normal distribution for all students in the class. However, the class is made up of several subpopulations, freshmen (blue), transfers (red), and upper level students (green). Since this is a 300-level course, freshmen would not be well prepared for it. Some transfers, depending on the academic rigor of their institutions of origin, could also be ill prepared (this is a common but often not well-founded complaint of faculty). This lack of preparation means that instructors feel they have to constantly repeat foundation material for these students instead of focusing on the content appropriate for a 300-level course. As a result, strong students feel unchallenged and weak students overwhelmed by the pace and content of the course. This can also affect the pedagogical approach taken in the class. For example, student group learning activities are frequently contentious as well-prepared students carry most of the load for each group while less prepared students tend to coast.

Flipping the Curriculum and Learning Incomes

Let’s indulge in a little fantasy and assume that a new policy is enacted requiring all courses within a program to test prerequisite knowledge and skills before a student is admitted. Further, the instructor is empowered, based on the test results, to allow only appropriately prepared students (designated by the shaded area in Figure 3) into the course. As a result, the instructor can now reduce the amount of repetition of foundation material in the course. They can also teach new material, confident that the students are all starting at the same level of academic preparation and have the skills and knowledge necessary to comprehend it. The course and its pedagogy would no longer be hampered by students who need additional time and support because they are inadequately prepared.

To test preparation faculty would first have to explicitly define, in a manner similar to learning outcomes, the knowledge and skills that students are expected to have at the start of the course to be able to undertake and complete it successfully – the course learning incomes. Let’s assume the course the instructor is teaching is Course B in Figure 4. The student would be prepared for the learning incomes in Course B by the learning outcomes achieved in courses D and E. The Course B instructor would set up a process to test the students’ level of preparation for their course. If a student were found to be inadequately prepared to enter Course B, he could be provided with the detailed results of this prep-test showing the Course B incomes in which they were deficient. If the test were administered as an end of term prep test in the prior semester, as shown in Figure 5, the student could then use the intersession time to study the areas of deficiency and retake the prep-test at the beginning of the next term – giving him a second chance to qualify for entry into the course. It is important to note that this Course B prep-test would cover the expectations of the instructor from all prior learning – in this case courses D and E. The instructor could therefore test integration of concepts across these pre-requisites in a multi-disciplinary approach not usually employed in the final examinations of the individual pre-requisite courses, as shown by the oval beneath Course B in Figure 4. Pre-tests would therefore act like a multi-course comprehensive exam and encourage students to think about integrating concepts across courses. They would also emphasize the inter-connectedness of the courses and how the curriculum builds progressively. The pre-test would therefore be a much better barometer of the student’s preparedness than any combination of the final exams from the individual pre-requisites could be.

If the final exam in Course D is replaced by a prep-test for Course B, how do we test the students on the content in Course D? The blue bars in Figure 5 indicate several evaluations within each course focused on its content material. The proposed process does not eliminate the final exam for Course D – it simply integrates it into the pre-test (red bars) for Course B in a more useful way. These pre-tests could therefore replace the final exams of the pre-requisites (D and E) – essentially transforming finals week into prep-test week! During this week, students could take the prep-tests for any courses that they are interested in enrolling in for the following term, and then enroll in the courses for which they are best prepared. Figure 6 shows a flow chart of this process with an additional interesting option. Assuming that a student has passed Course D but was found to be weak in some of its critical outcomes in the pre-test for Course B. Rather than repeating Course D the student could take a different course that also addresses those outcomes and perhaps even addresses weaknesses for other courses.

This approach also creates very tight alignment between courses and their predecessors – essentially creating a different form of curriculum map than is traditionally used. This new map is based on aligning each course’s learning incomes with the learning outcomes of its predecessors as shown by the blue arrows in Figure 4. Freshman course income evaluation could be used to develop more effective diagnostics and placement tests, which could then be used to provide more focused co-curricular support (see red arrows in Figure 4), and to better inform the K-12 system about the preparation college students need. Local K-12 systems might even be tasked with delivering remedial courses, which would not only outsource the solution but also force them to engage with it. Evaluation of the entry-level courses for a degree program could be used to inform Liberal/General Ed curriculum or inform undergraduate programs about the needs of graduate programs. For example, evaluation of the learning incomes by the Course B instructor could be used to provide feedback to the instructors of Courses D and E about how effectively they are preparing the students.

In the scenario above, it is proposed that students only gain entry to Course B if they surpass a threshold score on the pre-test. A softer approach would be to make the score on the Course B pre-test a component of the final grade for Course B and not set a passing threshold. This approach has some advantages because it rewards the student for being well prepared for the course but does not prevent entry. The contribution of the pre-test score to the final grade could be at the discretion of the individual instructor or set by department policy – obviously the larger the contribution the more the student would be rewarded for preparation. This approach would discourage but not prevent the ill-prepared student from enrolling in a course as he would be disadvantaged by a low score in the pre-test that would then set an upper limit on the final grade he could achieve.

The Impact of Learning Incomes and Pre-Testing on an Institutions Culture and Processes

Instructional Costs and Student Success

Currently, once students have passed any pre-requisite courses they are automatically admitted to the next course in the curricular sequence. The ill prepared students, fated to fail, do not usually realize their jeopardy until late in the course – long after the drop/add date. With this new approach it would be harder for students to get into courses, but once admitted they would have a high probability of success. This means they would only pay for courses they have a high chance of passing and the repeat rate in courses would significantly decrease. When compared to the current process this approach could cause an initial drop in enrollments as illustrated by simulated data in Figure 7. However, the improved retention rate thereafter would more than make up for the difference, and overall graduation rates would be higher. Weak students, unlikely to ever graduate, would also drop out sooner but with less debt.

Steps Not Hurdles!

The shift in perspective from “I need to pass this course to get into the next one” to “this course is preparing me for the entrance exam for my next course” should have a significant impact on the student-faculty dynamic. It should encourage the students to see each course as a step up in the educational process rather than as a hurdle to get over and forget once passed. Faculty would be seen more clearly as learning allies assisting them in their forward progress. Students would also gain a better understanding of how courses are interconnected and designed to provide a cohesive program of study. This would create a significant positive cultural change within higher education.

Transfer Courses

A common concern of faculty is they often believe that courses that students transfer in from other institutions do not have the rigor and focus that courses within their own institutions have, and thus the students are not well prepared for their own institution’s courses. Pre-testing would eliminate these concerns, as only students who are prepared, irrespective of where that preparation occurs, would be or would self-select to be admitted. The pretesting standards and results could be shared with feeder institutions (K-12, community colleges, etc.) providing critical information about how well they were preparing students. It might even identify feeder institutions from which courses should not be accepted. This would be especially useful within university systems wherein students are transferring between sibling institutions.

Independent Assessment of Learning Outcomes

With the current process instructors teaching the pre-requisite courses make the judgment as to whether the students are prepared for subsequent courses and have achieved the learning outcomes of the course. Based on the principle that independent assessment is preferable, it would make more sense that the instructors of those subsequent courses make this assessment via the learning incomes. They could then feed specific information back to prior instructors which would more effectively contribute to discussions about the overall curricular design within departments.

Adoption process

An institution, college, or department considering adopting the learning incomes approach documented above might form a faculty study group to assess its viability and implementation options. A white paper on Evaluating and Assessing Student Readiness for Courses is provided in the shared library as a tool to start the discussion at your institution about assessing student readiness for learning.

Preparing Students for Each Instructor

When a student encounters an instructor for the first time in a course, they must get to know the instructor’s teaching style, how they emphasize what content is important, the amount of work expected, how they test, and so on. It takes time to develop this knowledge, and the student is unlikely to perform optimally until this is achieved. While this is unlikely to have a bearing on what she learns in the course overall, it may affect evaluations and success.

Students also have their own agendas when they go to college. Some have jobs and need to be as efficient as possible with their academic work. The best want to learn and be challenged. Some are willing to work hard, and others simply want to get through with as little work as possible. Some work independently while others need to be engaged by the instructor to learn. Students also arrive in our courses with a wide spectrum of strengths and weaknesses. While the instructor cannot customize the course for each student, the students themselves may find resources that fill the gaps in their knowledge and enable them to succeed.

The path through many of these challenges can be made more navigable if students are empowered to share intelligence about instructors and courses with each other. This can easily be accomplished by providing a subset of questions on the end of term student survey that are designed for sharing between student peers rather than between student and instructor. These might include questions such as the following questions –

  • Likert scale
    • I found the course engaging.
    • The course was intellectually challenging.
    • The course changed my perspective on this field.
    • To be successful, it is necessary to actively participate in this course.
    • The amount of work was appropriate in this course, as compared to other courses that I have taken at the same level and number of credit hours.
  • Open text
    • I found the following resources, beyond those required or recommended by my instructor, helpful.
    • I would describe the instructors teaching style as-
    • The instructor emphasized important material by-
    • I would give the following advice to other students planning to take this course-

An added advantage of including these types of questions is that it encourages students to participate in the surveys, especially if this information is only shared with students who complete the previous term’s surveys!

Preparing Students for Their Major Course of Study

As discussed in the article on Defining What, Where, and When We Want Students to Learn, General Education is defined as that component of the Liberal Education curriculum which students need to successfully undertake to be prepared for the courses in their major. It is important that we understand how well this curriculum is serving its purpose. Since this program is usually a significant part of the curriculum for any degree, there are usually a large number of outcomes spread across multiple disciplines. Assessment of the outcomes achievement can therefore be challenging. The article on Continuous Quality Improvement of Academic Programs, suggests the creation of foundation, cornerstone and capstone Liberal Education courses. Of relevance here is that in the foundation course it is suggested that students be taught how to gather artifacts (papers written, projects, art, presentations, etc.) of their educational accomplishments and write a reflection on the learning achieved in each course. Using these artifacts and reflections, the cornerstone course could then be used to assess Gen Ed accomplishments, and the capstone to assess overall liberal education outcomes. The program self-study / review process, also covered in this article, offers an opportunity for faculty in each program to reflect on how the General Education program could better support student preparation for the major. This would be most effective if learning incomes assessment data is gathered by the program in its foundation courses. By creating and engaging in these processes, the learning-centered institution should be able to better prepare students for success within their major course of study.

Preparing Students to be Lifelong Learners

Education no longer ends with the awarding of a credential. Graduates are expected to constantly learn and upgrade their knowledge and skills. We must provide our students with the knowledge and skills and instill within them the attitudes necessary to be lifelong and self-directed learners. This includes many of the Gen Ed learning outcomes for information literacy, information technology, and knowledge management shared in the document library. It also includes developing curiosity, initiative, independent learning skills, and the ability to reflect on new learning and integrate it with existing knowledge. Please see the AAC&U value rubrics on lifelong learning for more details.

CC BY-NC 4.0 Ensuring Students are Prepared to Be Successful Learners by Graham Glynn is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

References   [ + ]

1. Developed by the Transition to College Task Force at Mercy College.

CC BY-NC 4.0 Ensuring Students are Prepared to Be Successful Learners by Graham Glynn is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

Categories: Chief Academic Affairs Office Staff, Dean’s Office Staff (Deans, Executive Deans, Associate/Assistant Deans, etc.), Department Chair Office Staff (Chairs, Assistant Chairs, Program Directors, etc.), President’s Office Staff, Vice President Student Affairs Staff (VP, Assoc./Assist. VP, etc.)

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