Higher education professionals are relatively comfortable defining cohorts of students to design and designate resources, assign teaching loads, and pair or group students for housing purposes. Colleges dedicated to honors students, summer assistance programs for first generation students in college, welcome orientation events, even highly technical majors such as engineering are examples of communities and programming that have been developed to cater to and enhance the educational experience of specific groups of students. Even as learning assistance professionals we have specific ways of describing and dividing the higher education experience into distinct pieces: graduating year; tutoring by individual subject or class; grade requirements for an academic program or major; developmental education, etc. And like it or not, altruistic or not, an administrative outcome of having learning assistance programs is to improve retention.
Recently, however, some colleges have noted a very different pattern in attrition. Rather than an eventual tapering off of drop-out rates, a peak is now noticeably occurring in the middle of a students’ experience: during and after the sophomore year (Pattengale 2000, 32). For years, practitioners have bantered about a “sophomore slump,” a phenomenon in which a student experiences malaise, apathy, and frustration as the high expectations of college stand in stark contrast to the experienced reality. Little attention is paid to these students since many institutions spend their energies “front-loading” freshmen with attention but leaving sophomores to wade in the murky waters between transitioning to college and making life decisions (Gahagan and Hunter 2006, 17).
Gardner (2000) in Visible Solutions for Invisible Students utilized a survey at a large public institution to determine cohort characteristics of sophomores. The results of the survey yield results imperative to our understanding our students and to our mission as learning assistance professionals. Among those results discovered were that the sophomore year was critical for academic growth, in that:
As a result of these factors, the author suggests implementing on-campus or major-related job opportunities so students can better adapt their learning and test their interests, creating courses that assist with decisions that need to be made in the sophomore year, and creating career planning opportunities (in conjunction with an advisor). It is even more clear, however, that you as professionals, advisors, counselors, tutor trainers to keep these needs in mind and to provide a clear connection between course materials and real-life applications.
Much of the research in the first generation looking into sophomore studies suggested an individualized approach to treating a slump. Anderson and Schreiner (2000) in the monograph Visible Solutions for Invisible Students emphasize how one of the common relationships most college students have in college can be an effective intervention to helping students through their “middle child” years in academe (Gahagan and Hunter 2006). In brief, academic advising can be “’showing students the box’ as they are putting together the ‘jigsaw puzzle’ of their curriculum” (Anderson and Schreiner 2000, 56-7). The picture on the “box” in this metaphor includes understanding the general education requirement connections, major and career selection, academic and social connections/integration, and finding motivation, curiosity, and engagement. These broad topics combined with effective planning skills promote an interest and ownership of one’s selections that, the study shows, can be effective in getting sophomores over their slump. Although academic advising is cited here, it should be noted that advising is teaching and occurs in many different forms, through many different individuals throughout a student’s career.
An individual approach is strongly recommended by much of the literature as a way to facilitate sophomore integration and ease the slump experience. Astin (1993) and Tinto (1993) both express the importance of student finding a common bond or community on campus and many of us can attest that a learning center and tutors may and do provide just that. Further, many campuses already provide learning assistance and the idea of developmental advising or even understanding the needs of different class years in advising is not entirely a foreign one to learning professionals. On most campuses, learning centers have the important – and accessible - ability to promote: student responsibility for learning, motivation to succeed and persist in college, active student involvement in planning their futures, making connections with academics and career selections, and cognitive development (Kramer 2000, 85). Nowhere is this more needed than during the sophomore year.
I challenge you, as we enter this spring, to consider the freshmen and sophomores you know who will be choosing a major soon, or who may be beginning their introductory classes in their major. Study their behaviors and reactions to their new works. Ask them how their classes are going. Learn to gauge their interest and doubts, and suggest career opportunities for them. At the intersection of course work, cognitive skills, and “big picture” thinking, take a minute to remember your own career and educational path and share in the experience of connecting those interstates.
“By three methods we may learn wisdom: First, by reflection, which is
noblest; Second, by imitation, which is easiest; and third by experience, which
is the bitterest.”
*This column is from a much larger work by the author. For further discussion, questions, or comments, please email Julianne at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Anderson, Edward, and Laurie A. Schreiner. 2000. Advising for sophomore success. In Visible solutions for invisible students: Helping sophomores succeed (Monograph No. 31), ed. Laurie A. Schreiner and Jerry Pattengale, 55-65. Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina, National Resource Center for The First-Year Experience and Students in Transition.
Astin, Alexander W. 1993. What matters in college?: Four critical years revisited. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Gahagan, Jimmie, and Mary Stuart Hunter. 2006. The second-year experience: Turning attention to the academy’s middle children. About Campus 11, no. 3 (July-August): 17- 22.
Gardner, Phillip A. 2000. From drift to engagement: Finding purpose and making career connections in the sophomore year. In Visible solutions for invisible students: Helping sophomores succeed (Monograph No. 31), ed. Laurie A. Schreiner and Jerry Pattengale, 67-77. Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina, National Resource Center for The First-Year Experience and Students in Transition.
Kramer, Gary L, Larry Taylor, Beverly Chynoweth, and Jerry Jensen. 1987. Developmental academic advising: A taxonomy of services. NASPA Journal 24, no. 4 (Spring): 23-31.
Pattengale, Jerry. 2000. Policies and practices to enhance sophomore success. In Visible solutions for invisible students: Helping sophomores succeed (Monograph No. 31), ed. Laurie A. Schreiner and Jerry Pattengale, 31-45. Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina, National Resource Center for The First-Year Experience and Students in Transition.
Tinto, Vincent. 1993. Leaving college: Rethinking the causes and cures of student attrition. 2nd
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