What Do English Students Struggle with the Most?

I just had the most delightful email from an elementary school student who was asking questions about how the university system works. She asked me the following question and I thought I would share my answer.
So my question for you is this, what are some of the things first year English students struggle with the most, and what (if anything) could high schools do to better prepare them?
I can only speak for myself as a university professor, not as a specialist in high school education, but I think that there are three things that high schools can do to help ease the transition into university level English courses. The first is a matter of the words we use and the second and third are a matter of the standards we have.

1 Words

One of the main things that students struggle with when they come into university English courses is the terminology. By that, I don’t mean the crazy stuff that only gets introduced at a university level – ideas like jouissance or the panopticon, but I mean words like “metaphor” and “image” and “comedy.” See, those words, that everyone uses quite freely in high school, actually have very specific and technical meanings.
When people get to high school, they take physics and chemistry courses and they learn that the way that physicists and chemists use terms like “force” or “attraction” is slightly different than you might use it when you are out on the street. I think that we get used to the special use of those terms really quickly in high school because we see so fast that, though they sound like the same word, they are being used in a very special way in the classroom. After all, terms like “force” are put right next to terms like “electron” and we would never talk about “electrons” normally, so there must be a special use of the term “force” to go with the special use of the new word “electron.”
With terms of English literary analysis, I think we tend to miss the fact that terms like “comedy” can mean both something in everyday speech, but mean something slightly different in technical analysis.
It may sound odd to say that the one thing that I wish high schools would do is to remind students that words can have more than one meaning, (because, let’s face it, it is pretty obvious when you think about it) but I think that a lot of the stress of that transition between high school and university English courses could be overcome if we recognized that students can’t just say anything that they want and it is correct.

2 Failing

The second thing that high schools can do to help transition students into university level English is to allow for failure. Teachers and students often don’t like talking about failure or failing a student. It’s treated as though it is the worst thing that could possibly happen. It’s to be avoided at all costs. In fact, it has got to the point now where in Ontario half of graduating high school students have an average of 80% or higher. That means that over half of any graduating class is excellent, superb, or above average.
By definition, if the majority of a group is working at a given level, that majority is not above average – they ARE the average.
Failure and education go hand in hand – it is something that we recognize at a university level. If a student is not able to do the work or not able to answer the questions on an assignment, it is our job as university professors to fail that student on the assignment. Thus, when students come to university for the first time, they are entering into a world where they are capable of failing for the first time. This scares a lot of them.
Knowing that all of your educational life you have been working with training wheels (that is, that you can’t fail no matter what you do) and then suddenly those training wheels are taken off (that is, you are free to fail) causes first year students a great deal of stress and anxiety. There’s no reason that students should have this sudden and titanic shift from one mode of marking to another.
For me, the sad thing is that I see these students in first year come into university and starting to fail their courses and they have no idea how to deal with failure because they’ve never had to do it before. They’ve never had to fail at anything, so they lack any kind of coping strategy. This leads me to my final point…

3 You Aren’t Your Grade

So many students come into university and they associate their sense of self-worth and self-image with the grades that they get. Then, for some of them, when they don’t get the grades that they are used to from high school, they think less of themselves as people because they aren’t getting the grades they want. Those students sometimes end up spiralling into depression and anxiety because their grades don’t reflect who they see themselves as.
From a professor’s point of view, this is so hard to watch. We want to make sure that every student has the chance to do well, but we all know that not every student is going to be a superstar. When a student’s self-expectations don’t meet with the reality of their grades, then some students just don’t know how to cope.
I wish high schools would do more to help students to recognize that the expectations at university are different, but that doesn’t mean that the students are bad people or that they aren’t good in some way. I guess, when it comes down to it, I wish high schools would start the process of helping students to deal with failure.

Now, I hope that doesn’t sound a bit harsh. Let’s face it, for every student who doesn’t do well, there is a student who just blossoms in university. Some high school dropouts end up becoming the greatest writers of all time! (This is literally true – Shakespeare dropped out of his equivalent of high school. Did you know that?) I don’t want to overemphasize the aspects of failure in university, but I do want to try and minimize the anxiety and suffering that I’ve seen some students go through because they simply weren’t prepared for university.

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