By about this point in the semester, freshmen may be starting to feel like they belong in college. Then they get back their first big grade. For some, it’s a lot lower than they’re used to seeing.

I talked about this pattern with a former dean of first-year students at a liberal-arts college that I visited last week, right around the time that students were taking midterms. “Students who end up at a top-level liberal-arts college tend to be at the top of the academic food chain in their high-school environment,” he says. They may have a vague sense that their new classmates were also standouts, he says, but “the reality of what that looks like doesn’t hit them until this point in time.”

Realizing that the study habits that got students into college might not be enough for them to succeed there is a pivotal moment. The way they — and their college — react to this early academic feedback can set the tone for the rest of their time on campus.

The power of the first big grade is a well-known phenomenon that plays out at colleges of all kinds, says Natasha Jankowski, director of the National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment. And most colleges are doing something about it, she adds. The problem? In the bulk of cases, colleges have an early-warning system that kicks into gear — encouraging students to meet with an adviser, for instance — after they receive midterm grades. By then, the semester is halfway over, and only so much recovery is possible.

But there are things that colleges — and even individual professors — can do proactively, Ms. Jankowski says. Professors can prepare students for the kind of evaluation they’ll face by giving quizzes or providing “a sample of a well-written paper” or a rubric of how they’ll be graded.

It also helps, Ms. Jankowski says, if students talk with other students — particularly upperclassmen who can reflect on their own transition to college, and perhaps encourage freshmen that they need not go it alone. “A lot of times, for high-achieving students, there’s this stigma of, I shouldn’t need the help,” Ms. Jankowski says. A college can combat that, she says, by creating a culture in which seeking help is “just part of the experience.”

How do you help students acclimate to college-level work? Has your college found ways to ease the stigma of asking for help?




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