Last week, I emailed a student that I have been coaching through university to see how she did on her first university-level exam. This was her response:
I just got home and was about to email you.
I wanted to let you know that I got my test back and I got a 93% on it!!
This is not an exaggeration. This is a real response, from a real student, with real results from a credible university in Toronto.
I first started coaching this student when she was a senior in high school. Her views of the upcoming transition to university were typical. She was excited, but at the same time, she was uncertain, anxious, and a little fearful.
Most people around her, including her high school teachers, had essentially scared her into thinking that university is a place where a drop in grades, accompanied by immense pressure, is a virtual certainty. After hearing what she had been told about university, particularly what would make her successful as an undergraduate, I candidly expressed to her that much of what she believed was inaccurate and I reassured her that she had the potential to do well. From there, we got to work on developing the skills that would make her successful in the eyes of her professors.
The work of getting this student to the A level in university began early. Prior to attending university, our sessions focused on things like how to understand, and not simply read, academic texts. I showed her how to confidently pick out important information from articles and how to use this information on exams, papers, and in tutorials.
After each session, she thanked me profusely. She also told me that much of what I taught her was brand new. Some of it even contradicted what she had been taught in high school. Since I have taught at the undergraduate level, I wasn’t surprised by this. However, I couldn’t help but linger on the point that everything we covered in the first couple months of our sessions were skills that I know university instructors expect their incoming classes to be familiar with already.
With this in mind, my experiences with this student catapulted me back to a very familiar place. As a former teaching assistant and a course director, I had seen many, and I mean many, students who had a ton of potential, but who lacked a clear awareness of what their professors expected of them in university. It wasn’t that these students were incapable of doing well, it was that they didn’t know HOW to do well.
I also saw that when this happens to a young person who is intellectually vulnerable, or a young person who lacks confidence, a C or a D on their first paper can easily turn them into a C or D student. Simply put, they come to believe that they are their grades because the expert teaching the class told them so. I saw how hard it is for students to escape this tragic, yet very avoidable, slippery slope.
Back to the student. In scheduled coaching sessions, I learned that her first exam was approaching. Let me restate a point I have said on many occasions elsewhere, which is that students typically do not have a problem with studying for exams, but they have immense problems with execution.
Knowing this, we got to work on developing the skills to navigate different types of exam questions. I showed her what her professor would be looking for and I taught her the basic infrastructure of a university-level exam answer. As promised, I showed her HOW to do well by showing her HOW to properly use all of the hard work and time she had invested in her course readings, lectures, and tutorials. We covered the most common mistakes undergraduates make. I also showed her what the best undergraduates do in order to shine.
In short, my student was able to get an A+ on her first university-level exam because she knew exactly what was expected of her. Most importantly, she was coached on how to meet those expectations.
I don’t want to take anything away from her because I know how hard she worked to get this grade, but this student is not some genius who was laying low in high school. She is not special and she does not have some rare intellectual gift. Like most students, she has to work hard to get good grades.
The difference is that I showed her, with exact precision and expertise, how to meet a goal. In this case, it was how to construct A-level exam answers.
With BridgesEDU, I know she’ll be able to rise to the heightened academic expectations on her written assignments and tutorials, too.
So here’s the secret. How did I coach a B-level high school student to get an A+ on her first university exam? I empowered her with the skills that I expected of students when I taught in a university. I showed her how to get beyond studying, how to execute, and how employ her talents in order to earn an exceptional grade.
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