Ideas for Freshman Success

Not long ago a good friend of mine was hired to teach a “Freshman Success” class at a local high school. This was the first time she’d be teaching the class. She is an excellent teacher, and I’m confident she made an impactful semester. But, it got me thinking, what would I want to teach a high school freshman about to set them up for success?

The premise of the class is that this is a class freshman take their first semester in high school, alongside their first high school classes.

The thoughts below were generated by thinking back on my USA-based high school experience, so take this in context and with plenty of skepticism. I’m also focusing on things I think carry over to college (and life) well. Should you listen to me? Probably not. But I’m posting this anyway.

The Ideas

The following ideas are in no particular order.

Syllabus Ingestion and Organization

One of the key things to do in the first couple of days of every semester is to ingest all syllabi in their entirety into a central planner. This is an upfront cost that frees up brain space for the rest of the semester. It is powerful to know when all homework is due, when labs or exams are, what weeks are going to be crazy, what weeks are going to be lighter, etc.

There is of course a huge variety in tools that that planner might be. It might be a physical paper planner/notebook. Maybe it’s Google Calendar. Maybe it’s a TODO app on their phone. Maybe it’s a bullet journal. Maybe it’s a text file on their desktop. Maybe they try a bunch of different tools to see what they like best.

Whatever system they choose, this is a practice that will serve them well throughout their schooling. No better way to start off a semester.

Note-Taking Techniques

Students always hear generic things like “take good notes”, “review your notes”, “use the margins for questions”, etc. But, there are more concrete techniques that I suspect many students are not exposed to unless they seek them out. Naturally, there is no one-size-fits-all. But, being aware of these techniques may provide a jump start for them to find their preferred approaches.

Some students might benefit from the structure of Cornell Notes (I am big fan of these). Others might prefer the QEC Method often talked about by Cal Newport. Others might prefer mind maps. The technique you use for math class might not be a good fit for history class. Maybe you prefer writing by hand over typing. Maybe you set up some regular review/processing of arbitrary and messy notes each day.

My main point is that there are specific techniques that students can learn and adapt from that are concrete places to start. Talking about the process of taking notes itself is valuable, and quips like “take good notes” is not.

Studying for Exams

There are again many techniques people use here. If this were the class, we could review these a week or two before midterms started. One of my favorites is creating a “cheat sheet”. Some classes allow students a letter-sized paper (or similarly constrained space) to take with them to a test. Most don’t. But still, I find the process of creating such a sheet (reviewing notes, homework, textbooks, etc.) and trying to extract all the bits I’m most likely to forget is an effective way to study. There are many other ways, of course. For example, having study groups, you can teach each other portions of the material, create your own practice problems, etc. Or, if it’s something where pure memorization is needed (looking at you, biology), then the Anki method is strongly supported as one of the most effective techniques.

Deep Work Habits

I’m a huge advocate of Deep Work by Cal Newport. I recall in high school that I thrived when I had good focused blocks of work at my desk every day. (I once ranted in an interview about it, but they paraphrased.) To do deep work, students need to have a place they can get in the zone and focus deeply. It’s great if there is a place at home for that, but not everyone has that luxury. Maybe it’s at a friend’s house. Maybe it’s at the local library.

I recommend reading Deep Work, its worth the time! There are many techniques to improving the quality if your deep work. Go learn about things like Pomodoro, or time blocking, fixed-schedule productivity, or other techniques. Building deep work habits as a freshman will pay dividends.

Discard any Innate-Ability Theory

This might actually be the most important idea in this post.

Sure, there are geniuses among us, but they are the exception, not the rule. “Smart is not something you are; smart is something you can get.” There is big impact of having a “growth mindset”. People have the capacity for brilliance, and the right mindset, mentorship, and refinement of techniques and processes can help them achieve it.

This is a tough one to learn, as it is also quite intertwined with self-confidence. I also suspect this is hard one to teach.

All I know is that it is devastating to hear things like “I just suck at math” and “I’m just not smart enough for this”. It feels like the battle forfeit before it began. Believe in the words of the late mathematician Piet Hein: “problems worthy of attack prove their worth by fighting back.”

Planning Extracurriculars

What extracurricular activities do you want to be involved in? What does your school have to offer? What does your community have to offer? When can you participate? If you wanted to be involved in leading one of these, what can you do your freshman year to prepare? For example, some organizations might elect new leaders from the Junior class, and if you don’t know when to apply, you might be out of luck.

Importantly, don’t take these to just “pad your resume”. Do things you find fulfillment from. Do things you’re curious about. These open opportunities to meet other people and explore. After all, it’s often the extracurriculars that make a student genuinely interesting and stand out. I highly recommend How to Be a High School Superstar by Cal Newport to learn more about ways these open doors.

Seminars and Guest Speakers

Mentorship is highly impactful. We all know that. I believe it is particularly impactful in two ways: (1) it can raise others aspirations and (2) it can demystify the pathway towards those goals.

But, as a freshman, how do you make those connections? I like the idea of facilitating those connections in a “freshman success” class.

Maybe its just with upperclassmen. For example, there could be some fun panels involving some of the “best” at various things. Maybe a Q&A panel with several of the top academically-ranked seniors. Maybe a panel with the presidents of all the various extracurricular organizations at the school. In Utah, we have a program called Sterling Scholars, which recognizes one student in a handful of different subjects for each school. Perhaps there is a panel with all the sterling scholar winners that year. Or, maybe the SBOs. Or, maybe notable alumni. Or, maybe the city mayor. Or, maybe college admissions officers from the local schools.

Not all freshmen will come from a social support circle that can help make impactful connections. A freshman success class could help present those opportunities.

I’ll stamp this idea with a quote from The high-return activity of raising others’ aspirations by Tyler Cowen:

Yesterday I had lunch with a former Ph.D student of mine, who is now highly successful and tenured at a very good school. I was reminded that, over twenty years ago, I was Graduate Director of Admissions. One of my favorite strategies was to take strong candidates who applied for Masters and also offer them Ph.D admissions, suggesting they might to do the latter. My lunch partner was a beneficiary of this de facto policy.

At least two of our very best students went down this route. Ex ante, neither realized that it was common simply to apply straight to a Ph.D program, skipping over the Masters. I believe this is now better known, but the point is this.

At critical moments in time, you can raise the aspirations of other people significantly, especially when they are relatively young, simply by suggesting they do something better or more ambitious than what they might have in mind. It costs you relatively little to do this, but the benefit to them, and to the broader world, may be enormous.

This is in fact one of the most valuable things you can do with your time and with your life.

Support Resources

What counseling services are available? Who can I talk to about choosing classes and scheduling? Who can I talk to if I’m getting bullied, having issues at home, having conflicts with a teacher, etc?

Not everyone has parental support they can go through for these things.

Awareness of Time-Sensitive Opportunities

Some scholarships, summer programs, etc., only target a particular year. For example, MIT’s MITES Summer specifically targets rising seniors, meaning you must apply as a junior. Many of these opportunities are missed simply because students are not aware of them.

Inspiration From MIT’s MITES Program

Speaking of MIT MITES, when I was a freshman, I remember being really excited to apply. I researched the program and found a set of slides that they published in 2004. I read these early on in high school, and it dramatically shaped a lot of my thinking/strategy for high school at the time. In particular, after reading about the Uri Treisman study I really started pushing to mix my social/academic circles, dragging my friends into AP classes, doing study groups after school at my house (with snacks, courtesy of my mother), and more. Because of these slides, I did start planning and ingesting syllabi. Because of these slides, I tried to not sit in the back of the class.

The slides cover many of the same ideas in this post, but in a wonderfully 2004 PowerPoint aesthetic. It was influential enough for me as a high-schooler than I saved these slides all of these years and still value them (even though I was promptly rejected from MITES when I applied 😅).

MIT MITES 2004 - Working Smarter (PDF, 13MB)

Conclusion

This was a fun and somewhat nostalgic thought experiment for me. I’m glad there are educators like my friend out there who are making positive impact on future generations. I’m glad there were educators like my friend when I was in school that helped set me on my path.

What did I miss? What would you change? What would you want to teach?

Updates

2023-12-03

I recently had an opportunity to chat with my friend and it was sobering. While I think the ideas above are still good, it was sad to hear that the biggest issue she faced is far more fundamental: attendance. These tips are great for engaged students wanting to get tips on getting ahead. They are worthless for empty chairs.

Nationwide, the numbers are close to 1 in 3 students having chronic absenteeism, for example, Ohio had 27%. In Washington D.C., more than 40% of children were chronically absent last school year. In Utah, where I went to high school, nearly 25% of kids are chronically absent. It does seem like non-profits like Attendance Works have some good ideas, like the Attendance Playbook, made in partnership with FutureEd.

What a hard and sad problem.

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