Summer – time to prep for the transition to college.


For most families summer means a change of pace from the normal routine that has been part of their school year. If this is the final summer before a student starts college then it will be a particularly exciting time of planning. For those moving to dorm rooms there will be decisions to make about what to bring and anticipation and probably some anxiety about what will happen in the fall.

This is a great time for families to ensure that their students are receiving the level of practice they need to be successfully independent with the day-to-day life skills that will be necessary as college students. Is the student responsible for getting herself up, taking her own medicine; is the student doing his own laundry, remembering to maintain his personal hygiene routine? The summer before college begins is the right time for families to be making sure these life skills are well-practiced.


Summer is also a good time to have a student practice making and keeping their own doctor’s appointment. Often, students are still reliant on a parent/guardian to take care of these kind of details for them. As they transition into adulthood, being mindful of their own medical care is an important aspect of staying healthy, particularly if the student requires medication, or has a health concern that requires monitoring.


Summer is also an excellent time to practice grocery shopping and fixing a few simple meals. Many dormitory buildings now have common kitchen areas where students can make a meal to share with friends or to enjoy alone when they need a change from cafeteria food. Having the practice of shopping for ingredients and preparing a few such meals is another life skill that will continue to benefit the student; it may also provide an opportunity for the student to make food to share with new friends – a positive way of creating social connections with others. When I was a college student my two best friends and I used to greatly enjoy getting together for simple meals, a time to relax, de-stress, and enjoy each other’s company without needing to spend a lot of money or travel.


Associated with shopping and cooking of course, is the practice of doing dishes. Even students who have little interest in cooking should have the practice of preparing a meal or snack for themself and then cleaning up in a timely manner after themself. Many students will transition through a time of shared space in either dormitory or apartment life. Without the practice of maintaining the communal living space in a mutually acceptable way to others, they will inevitably engage in conflicts. This implies that the student also recognizes when chores like vacuuming and floor washing are necessary and responds appropriately.


Finally, don’t forget to make sure students have practice sorting and washing their own laundry, including their bed linen and towels. If a student is a low impact clothing user – i.e. they live in six tee shirts and a couple of pair of jeans – then they might be able to get by doing one load of laundry a week. It will also be very noticeable to their professors and peers that they are not doing a load of laundry when those few ‘go-to’ outfits start to smell of body and food odor. Ironically, sometimes students can be very aware of odor other than their own, without realizing that their own aroma is starting to offend people. These are conversations that families should have with a student before the student is expected to transition to college and the student should have ample opportunity for hands on practice of maintaining their own clean clothing.

Summer is a great time for creating opportunities to practice life skills that a student may not have had time to polish during the more hectic school year. These opportunities can be combined with other events that a family has planned; in fact, practicing taking medicine without reminders, maintaining personal hygiene, keeping track of one’s own laundry needs – these skills can all be practiced during vacations and other family outings.

family summer

Even if a family’s time continues to be very scheduled, it is important to create opportunities to assist the future college first year student in being prepared with the adequate life skills they will use. Remember, the more practice a student has being independent before the new school year starts, the more likely they are to be able to successfully navigate the anxiety of transitioning to a new set of expectations.


I know you have stress, what are you doing to deal with it?


Photo – Workers Law Watch

The life of a college student is stressful. The stress begins with the initial transition to campus from home, then the transition in expectations from high school to college life; the longer you stay in school, the harder classes tend to get; roommates and others might be difficult to share space with; professors may have unrealistic expectations…and then there’s the exams.

As I watch the students around me melting down as we ramp up into final exam period, I understand that everyone has reason to feel distressed. This is a busy time of year, there is still a limited amount of sunshine in our northern climate, and everyone is ready for a break from classes. When I talk to students about how they are caring for themselves, though, I find that they are not doing some of the helpful daily things that can assist them in finishing the semester on a strong note. Some appear intent on burning themselves out, apparently forgetting that just because the semester is nearly over doesn’t mean they will have some magical recovery once the last test or paper is handed in.


In order to help one’s self deal with stress there are some very practical steps a person can take.

1. Create a pattern of sleeping, eating, homework/study that allows for breaks while studying as well as time to sleep and eat.

2. Sleep at night – for many students the time for sleep may be midnight to seven a.m. and for those taking medication or with certain disabilities, getting to bed before midnight may also be necessary.

3. Give your brain time to relax before it is time to sleep – make a relaxing walk, shower/bath, listening to quieting music or whatever works for you – part of your ‘wind down’ time before going to bed.

4. Don’t engage in activities that get your brain or adrenalin going just before trying to sleep. No exciting video games or pumped up music or activities that will leave you revved up instead of winding down.

While it is important to create this routine for yourself, it is also helpful to work every day, throughout the day, on your homework and study. Most students have under-utilized chunks of time during the day that just slips away – use these time slots to start working on an assignment, or to complete some of the reading that has been assigned in class.

Leaving all homework and reading until the evening again increases stress, decreases how much you will remember, and thus feeds into the cycle of feeling like you’re working hard and getting little in return for that hard work. If you have trouble with time management, seek out an academic adviser or councilor who can assist you with working on these skills.


Recognize also, that by the end of the semester one either has been keeping up with the information needed to pass a class or they have not. Waiting until the final weeks to try and learn a semester’s worth of information basically does not work. Instead of trying to pull a passing grade out at the last second, consider what can be done differently in the future to avoid repeating the mistakes of the present. Set up appointments with counseling services for the beginning of the next semester. Talk to your academic adviser about your proposed course load, and reconsider taking foundational courses that were barely passed – you probably didn’t learn as much as you will need. Future courses build on the information you were supposed to be learning in foundational courses.

A degree, by itself does not get a person a job. A person’s grades and the experiences they gain through work study, internships, projects, research etc. are all important. Stress increases when a person realizes they are struggling and if one is struggling too much in classes that are corp to one’s field of study, then one may need to consider changing their field of study.

If you are a student who is stressed out all the time, then you may simply be studying in the wrong subject area  – career service advice is available on basically all college campuses. If stress seems fundamental to the area of study you are pursuing, then talk to career services about possible areas of study that might prove less distressing for you, given your personal strengths and challenges. Remember, education is supposed to be challenging, not painful.


If your stress is based on the other hand, on not being prepared for classes and tests – then you may need to re-examine if you are ready to be in college yet, or if you need to spend time in a minimum wage job. Until one feels a personal motivation to be in college, one is probably wasting time and money, and invariably increasing their personal stress level for the wrong reasons, by being in college. If you have no personal reasons for being in college, then the entire process is likely to be stressful – and an expense that might take years to pay off.

Failing Classes: What can I do?


Every semester I meet with students who have the same concern, “I’m failing my classes – what can I do?”

I usually respond by trying to find out what the student is already doing.

  • Do you go to class
  • Are you completing homework on time and handing it in
  • Do you read and review the assigned readings
  • Are you going to your professor’s office hours and asking specific questions when you do not understand something
  • Are you using the learning centers on campus

Usually by the time we get to the end of this list I will find one of two things: a) the student is not doing these things and offers reasons/explanations for why these activities are not possible for them,  or b) the student has tried all of these and is still failing.We’ll return to these points in a moment.

I also inquire into a student’s time spent on other activities: do you work; do you belong to a social group; are you involved in a sport; are you gaming online; do you use social media very frequently? Students do not always make a connection between all the time they spend on other activities and a lack of success in classes.


First we will consider the students who are doing everything – going to class, homework, asking  specific questions of professors, using learning centers…these students may have a disability which is interfering in learning the material or they may just have a learning style which does not work with the professor’s teaching style. I often advise these students to consider dropping the class they are failing. If a student is failing everything and doing everything – then we have a conversation about needing to change their course of study.

If as a student everything you can do is not enough to be successful in the majority of your classes, you are in the wrong area of study. Education is supposed to be challenging, not painful. Talk to the Career Services or Career Counselors on campus – you need assistance finding a field of study that works better with your strengths and doesn’t emphasize the areas of study where you struggle.


If on the other hand, as a student you are not going to class, handing in homework, asking the professor specific questions – for example, you have tried to complete a problem several times but still do not understand how to reach the correct answer – and you are not reviewing the reading or using learning centers…then I’m not surprised you may be struggling in a class. Students do not always leave high school having learned how to study; often smart students do not need to study in high school and when they are finally challenged in college they aren’t sure how to respond.

If as a student you aren’t sure how to approach studying, then learning centers and academic support will be vital life-lines for you to use. If you have a disability, then you should be talking to the campus disability service provider about academic support that will assist you. Tutors can be very useful also. Finally, look around you for fellow students who do know how to study and talk to them about what they do; some use flash cards, some read their textbooks and make margin notes or use highlighters, they recopy their notes from class – try different techniques like these to help you remember the information from class and the assigned readings.

Also consider the number of classes and the amount of homework you are attempting in the semester. Sometimes students fail because they try to fit too many classes and/or social activities/work activities into their limited number of hours each day. If the classes you are taking result in more hours needed for homework then as a student you have available, at least one class needs to be dropped.

If social activities and/or work are adding too many extra obligations to a student’s limited hours, then these other activities either need to be cut down or eliminated.


If a student needs to work to support herself then being a full time student may not be possible; it may be better to take one or two classes at a time. If on the other hand, a student is determined to be a full time student, then work may need to be cut down or eliminated during the semester if work is taking too much time from study/classes.

I often meet students who feel frustrated; they feel like they have tried everything and nothing works to help them be more successful. Often though, they have tried just what they can think of and there are actually options which they have not considered, or there are options that they have dismissed without trying. And sometimes I meet students who give up on an option too quickly, “I tried the learning center once and it didn’t help.” I’ll then remind the student that many people work in a learning center and just because the first person they met with wasn’t a good match, doesn’t mean they shouldn’t go back to the learning center and try meeting with a different person.

Sometimes talking to a person in the Dean of Students or Chancellor’s office, or an academic advisor can help students think of a strategy for success that hadn’t occurred to them yet, or may even allow a student to become aware of a service on campus that they didn’t know about.


Students – do not suffer in silence. If as a student you feel like you’ve done everything you can think of and still are not being successful then reach out for some assistance. Or maybe you know there are things you need to do differently but are struggling to take the next step. Either way, you can talk to your academic advisor, or disability support person, or make an appointment with the Dean of Student’s Office or Chancellor’s Office…there is academic support available on campus if you are willing to seek it out. Make an appointment to talk to someone who can assist you!


Are colleges adapting to increasingly diverse students?


I note that the media has recently been discussing the increasing numbers of children being diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum.

I was pleasantly surprised to hear and read the recognition that this does not mean there are necessarily ‘more’ autistic children – rather, that the medical community is becoming better educated about recognizing autism in it’s many different presentations – which can vary significantly from one person to the next.

I wonder though, about the way education is going to need to continue to change as socially we recognize the degree of difference that is present among a classroom full of children. I would suggest that with so many children experiencing autism, AD/HD, learning disabilities, dyslexia, affective disorders, etc. that the education system is past the point of being able to expect the ‘majority’ of children to have significantly similar learning styles, considering that even when they do not have any form of disability, people often have different ways of best learning new things.



My own work and research echos what John Dewey observed at the turn of the last century; if there is one way of best teaching, it is to provide mentored opportunities for a person to learn, hands on, by doing. What it means to ‘do’ will vary – writing requires opportunities to write, discuss, revise (and read others’ writing); science requires experiments; social studies means experiencing other cultures, traditions, and ways of thinking about things…some of this does happen currently yet, hands-on practices still do not make-up the majority of learning opportunities in the education system.

Think particularly of higher education; how often do we still expect people to learn by sitting in a lecture hall and listening? This is particularly true for first year classes – a student’s crucial first year often requires trying to learn in a style that fewer and fewer students are well suited to. If a student survives the entry level classes, there will be increasing opportunity for the student to gain hands-on opportunities with field work, seminars, or work shops. These opportunities are seldom available to freshmen.


It seems impossible to avoid the conclusion that as learners continue to change, the institutions responsible for educating them will also be required to adapt. Many of the students who previously were not diagnosed as autistic, were not diagnosed in part because they functioned well enough to still participate in social functions like seeking an education. As the medical community becomes more adept at recognizing that these high functioning people also live with a disability, more people who attend college will arrive with documentation that they live with a disability. Students who in the past would have had to struggle through on their own, will increasingly have documentation that they live with a disability – and will be at last eligible for the accommodations they require. Those who teach or administer in the higher education realm would be well served to be increasingly prepared as these students arrive on campus.


Housing, classroom expectations, peer social interactions/support, needs for counseling – these are all areas where planning should be taking place now to facilitate the increasingly diverse student population. Meanwhile, families should be practicing routines with children which will also support their college success: taking medication, following basic social protocols when meeting new people, learning study techniques even if the student is intelligent enough to not need to study for class – these are all skills the child needs to practice at home, to support their eventual college success.


Preparation is needed on both the home front and in the institutions that educate, if we are going to assist the increasingly diverse student population in becoming educated social citizens. Failure to rise to the challenging but necessary work of adapting to the changing needs of students will have a negative impact on society. Too many bright young people are in danger of being pushed out of the current education system – it is time to reconsider business as usual. Focusing on one ‘fix-all’ answer (like technology) is also not appropriate, as there is too great a range of learning styles to assume that any one answer will be suited to all student needs.Diversity of students requires diversity of methods in teaching.




College doesn’t have to be for everyone; education does.


There seems to be an ever increasing amount of talk in media sources that the future of the work force and the future of the economy lies in technology. As someone who is employed at a university which specializes in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM), I certainly can attest that the students graduating with degrees in these fields are very employable. What that truth overlooks though are several other truths: not everyone excels in these fields; one does not need to excel in these fields to be employable. In fact, not everyone has a learning style or capacity that is well suited to four/five year university degrees. There is more than one way for a person to become educated to do work and not all that education needs to take place in a university.


Skilled tradespeople, technical degrees that take months or several years vs. four+ years, and manufacturing jobs all continue to provide employment opportunities for people. Not everyone is interested in, or may not be well suited to longer study periods of the four to six years necessary to obtain a degree in the STEM fields and these people should be encouraged to look into other opportunities that do still exist for employment.

Ro Khanna’s, “Five Myths about Manufacturing Jobs” which appeared in the Washington Post on 2-15-13 points out that despite the talk about China being the new source of all things manufactured, the U.S. continues to produce 1/5 of the world’s manufactured goods – the same amount as China. Khanna argues that manufacturing and service jobs continue to be large employers in the U.S. and that the service sector will see the largest growth in the near future.


There have also been concerns being [under]reported since at least 2007 (Virginia Manufacturers Association; Manpower, Talent Shortage 2011 Survey Results) that a short fall of people in the skilled trades – such as welding, tool setting and operating, machine maintenance specialists – is slowing down economic growth as demand for these skilled tradespeople outstrips supply. The Virginia Manufacturers report for example, states that the statewide need was being met by “only 44 percent.”  A 66% shortfall of needed workers, trained in skilled trades.

Everyone with the capacity to learn should have the opportunity to become educated to work. The best education for working though has to be dependent on an individual’s learning interests and capacities. Those who have an aptitude for a STEM education ought to have that option; we should as a society though, continue to value and provide opportunities for people to become skilled in trades that support the manufacturing we continue to do and recognize that the service sector continues to be vital to the way our society functions. [There is a separate argument/concern that service sector jobs may not pay well enough to support a family – as a society dependent on service sector jobs to support lifestyles we enjoy, this certainly seems to be another issue we ought to be addressing.]


Can anyone study STEM?


STEM studies — science, technology, engineering, and math — are often said to be the fields of study of the future. There has been and continues to be demand for people educated in these fields and these fields offer a broad range of possibilities. Students at the university where I currently work study ecology, biodiversity, chemical engineering, computer science, networking, and administration, forestry, physics, psychology, technical communication, nano-technology, packaging and marketing, pre-medicine/veterinarian, alternate fuels…the list is only as short as one’s imagination.


What kind of students study here? All kinds! We seem to particularly attract students who self-identify as being the ‘geeks and nerds’ of their high schools. These are students who may have several invisible disabilities at once, and who prefer opportunities to work hands-on while learning. Some are very shy, some belong to half a dozen organizations, a few know everyone on campus. Just like every campus, we have a range of personality types.

Who isn’t happy here? Usually if you would rather be doing something else than learning, then a STEM school is not a good fit for you.

student sleep

If you want to kick back, sleep in, and quit listening, then a STEM education is not a good investment for you or your family. If you hate math too much to get through a calculus one class – which everyone has to take – then STEM education probably isn’t right for you, and you might not like college at all. If you can, however, work your way through one or two classes that you don’t love, in order to move on to the information that excites you, then you have the potential to be a STEM student.


I’m always happy to answer questions when people want more information about STEM education. I also encourage readers to post their own experience with studying STEM; what fields excite you?