A+ Advice for Parents

Persistence, Mindfulness Key for Incoming College Freshmen

Q: My son starts community college soon and is worried about failing. He isn't a star student, but I know he can do this. How can I reassure him?

A: These fears are normal. Even with the excitement of oncoming independence, students still worry about flunking out, managing the workload, affording the costs and making friends.

Unfortunately, the fears aren't unfounded, says Carl Wahlstrom, professor emeritus at Genesee Community College in Batavia, N.Y. and co-author of the practical guide "Learning Success: Being Your Best at College and Life" (Wadsworth Publishing; 2002). He says the first two to six weeks are a critical time of adjustment if students are to succeed in college.

No matter how stellar a student was or wasn't in high school, success is his if he masters three key traits.

-- The first is staying power.

"Some really smart kids fail because they didn't have the persistence, commitment, focus and discipline necessary for achievement," says Wahlstrom.

His popular "First-Year Experience" course stresses persistence.

"It comes when students learn to take personal control and responsibility for their actions," he says. "Persistent students don't blame others for their results. They use strategies, such as writing down daily goals and reviewing them each evening, to move forward. Optimism, creativity and the ability to take psychological risks also help a student hang in there."

-- Second, become a mindful learner.

This is a big shift for most college freshmen, says Wahlstrom. They are used to searching for "the answer," yet in college, a professor might say, "That is one answer. What are others?"

A mindful learner is a critical thinker "who can create new categories of information in his head, is open to new information, and is aware of more than one perspective," he says.

Mindful learners are more engaged and remember more. "They are creative, alert to distinctions and open to novelty," says Wahlstrom. "They are aware of different contexts and perspectives, and oriented in the present. When they study a topic, they question, critique, speculate and hypothesize.

"For example, a student in world history will likely remember more about the date that the U.S. dropped an atomic bomb on Japan if he speculates on what would have happened if the U.S. had dropped the A-bomb on Germany first."

-- Third, master informational literacy.

"That means learning how to find, evaluate and use information of all kinds," says Wahlstrom.

This means knowing how to access "the Four C's: campus resources, community resources, computers and communications pathways such as the Internet. Students may know how to use Facebook, but have no idea how to do an Internet search for a term paper," he says.

Wahlstrom tells students to take full advantage of campus resources.

"That's a first stop!" he says. "There are many, and they lead you to others. Successful students aren't afraid to ask for information and put it to use for their benefit."

Give your son a copy of Wahlstrom's "Learning Success" before he heads to school. The self-directed exercises will help him have a more successful freshman year.

(Do you have a question about your child's education? Email it to Leanna@aplusadvice.com. Leanna Landsmann is an education writer who began her career as a classroom teacher. She has served on education commissions, visited classrooms in 49 states to observe best practices, and founded Principal for a Day in New York City.)

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