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My Students Are More Prepared for College Now Than They Have Ever Been Before

Photo by Gabriel Benois on Unsplash

I’ll be the first to admit it: this past school year, my high school physics students learned far, far less physics than in any other year of my career. It’s not surprising: live classes met twice a week instead of daily, and over half of that time was spent on Zoom instead of in person. My students were understandably distracted because their families were at risk, already sick, or (in some cases) passing away. I often chose to spend precious class time on something much more critical than learning physics: talking about life. I did have some success when it came to teaching on Zoom, but this past year was obviously not the same.

Let’s get one thing out of the way before we proceed: “learning loss” is not an accurate term for these circumstances. (I’ve been thinking about learning loss ever since I read this article by MfA president John Ewing last winter.) Nobody “lost” anything; they just didn’t learn as much academic content as they would have learned in a non-pandemic year. And they did indeed learn quite a bit — in particular, they learned social-emotional things. Our students became more deeply human through their adversity and the collective processing thereof. Who can deny that our society needs more community and empathy, just as much as — if not more than — academic prowess? I agree wholeheartedly with articles like this one, which bemoan the use of “learning loss” for its deficit mentality and failure to see the whole child during the pandemic.

But there’s another domain in which my students made great strides this year, which I haven’t read about in other education articles: students now have college readiness skills that their pre-pandemic counterparts lacked. Before the pandemic, my school had decent college matriculation rates, but many of our students dropped out of college, overwhelmed and unprepared for the independence. This year, all students from kindergarten to twelfth grade acted like they were in college because they had no other choice. It was much more painful than it needed to be, but they learned something important. I’m less worried now about whether my students will make it to their college graduations.

So what are these new-found college readiness skills? Well:

  1. They learned how to set an alarm. There was no luxury of an end-of-period bell this year telling my students when their next class was going to begin. Instead, they needed to set their own calendar reminders or risk missing class. This past year, students’ schedules varied from one day to the next, and they often had gaps of free time at home between live classes. This is what college is like: different classes meet on different days of the week, and students are responsible for showing up to all their classes and managing their time in between. It was not easy for my students to handle. At the beginning of the year, we teachers would text our students to remind them to join our Zoom links. By the end of the year, most of them had figured it out.
  2. They learned how to communicate online with adults. In an ordinary year, most of my students could go from September to June without emailing me. Indeed, the hundred-fold increase in email volume that came with the pandemic was a surprise to students and teachers alike. But in college, email is the norm. In college, email is the primary tool for communicating with professors, administrators, employers, and peers. Many of my students had never written a professional email before the pandemic. I taught them how to do it. I even led a special Adulting Club segment on how to manage your emails so you don’t fall behind, and how to write emails so the recipient will respond.
  3. They learned how to use LMS’s and other digital tools. Colleges have been using LMS’s (learning management systems) for decades. I experienced my first LMS when I was a freshman in college in 2005. Until the pandemic, public high schools didn’t really need online platforms for students to view syllabi, submit assignments, collaborate, and receive grades, because we met daily and in-person. We teachers had online gradebooks, but students usually submitted their work the old-fashioned way: on paper. Before the pandemic, I (as the tech lead for my school) had been gently nudging colleagues to migrate more of their classes to a digital space. Once the pandemic hit, we had no other option. Consequently, we needed to train our students (and teachers!) to navigate Google Classroom and use it to submit assignments. It wasn’t easy: even in March, I still had students who emailed me their assignments, and I needed to call them up and walk them through the process for submitting online. A college professor is unlikely to call their student on the phone to help them submit assignments online. Better to learn this in high school than in college.
  4. They learned how to work independently. In my ideal classroom, everything is groupwork. Collaboration is necessary for meaningful learning and meaningful progress. When school moved to Zoom, I worried about how my students would work together. My concerns were well-founded. No amount of cajoling, bribing, or inspiring could get my virtual students to work together without me as an intermediary. It made me feel like a first-year teacher again, when my “growth area” was to get students to talk to each other during class, instead of just having a back-and-forth with me. The silver lining here was that my students did learn to work independently. The best learning comes from groupwork, but the reality of college is that most undergraduate courses expect students to work 100% independently. During the pandemic, my students did indeed produce most of their work independently, because unfortunately the barriers to working together were too high.
  5. They learned how to ask for help. In a typical year, many students muddle through their high school classes by looking over the shoulders of others and copying what they see, whether or not they understand it. Covid made it harder: students could still copy, but they needed to proactively reach out to a peer in order to do it. By creating a classroom culture that rewarded questioning, and by designing assignments where I expected different answers from each student (e.g., “Pick a YouTube video where somebody takes a physical risk, capture a screenshot, and draw a force diagram”), I incentivized my students to ask for help rather than asking for “the answer.” It’s a good habit to get into. And for students who didn’t ask for help — well, it was a lot more obvious to me that they needed the help because they lacked the opportunity to copy off their peers. I reached out to those students and offered support. I personally survived college by asking for help when I needed it, and I’m glad my students can now do it, too.

Millions of American students learned about half of the academic content they were “supposed to” last year. But academic knowledge can always be learned later. Life skills, especially college survival skills, are more urgent. My students may have missed out on some physics content this past year, but I am confident they will be able to pass their physics classes in college, because they know how to manage themselves in a college environment. Now that we’re going back to fully in-person school (at least in New York City, as of this writing), I will keep building my students’ college readiness skills. I don’t just want to get my students into college. I want them to graduate. I want them to thrive in the professional world. And the pandemic has taught them to do just that.

Photo by Christina @ on Unsplash

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Elissa Levy

Elissa Levy

I teach physics and computer science in East Harlem, New York. I aim to engage.