College campuses and their surrounding communities are busy, exciting places. We have lectures, concerts, philanthropic events, student organization meetings, athletic events, and more every day. Participating in (or helping organize) these events present important learning opportunities for students. Years later, alumni often remember one or more of these out-of-class experiences as particularly influential. A lot of the work of staff members in my division, the Division of Student Life, revolves around providing opportunities for those experiences.
That said, these experiences can’t possibly replace the learning that takes place in classes. Maybe that’s obvious, at least from a distance. I think it’s possible, though, for students to lose sight of the centrality of their academic work. I often remind folks that while it’s true that the university experience should be much richer than just attending classes, students who pay too little attention to their classes risk losing the opportunity to experience that richness. Academic success is a prerequisite for success in the out-of-class experiences.
That’s why, for the last several years, I’ve asked all of the staff in the Division of Student Life, members of the university Student Success Team, and an increasing number of others on campus to join me in making an effort to include conversation about academics in every conversation we have with students. Every Monday, I send out some conversation starters that are appropriate to the time of the semester. Early in the semester, we are asking students things like:
- Are you ready for the new semester? How do your classes look?
- How was the first week of classes? Are you going to have a lot of tests this semester? and
- Have you settled into a rhythm for classes for this semester? Are you keeping up with your homework?
Around the middle of the semester, we ask:
- Do you have midterms coming up? What kind of questions are there going to be- multiple choice, essay, short answer, problems to solve?
- Are you working on any papers or projects these days?
- Are any of your classes turning out to be tough? What kind of resources have you found to help?
And as the semester nears an end, we might ask:
- How does the end of the semester look for you? Do you have much due between now and finals?
- Do you have a lot of finals to study for? How are you feeling about them?
I have a lot of other conversations starters that I share, and of course most of us have our own ways of starting the conversation. The important thing is that we take every opportunity to turn our students’ minds to their academic work. Our questions often act as subtle (or not so subtle) guides for students. For instance, when we ask, early in the semester if there are any weeks when they are going to have a lot of tests or papers due, we are encouraging them to plan ahead. I hope that our conversations also convey to students that we, the faculty and staff members, care about their academic success.
I find most of these conversations, brief as they are, very rewarding. Students seem to appreciate the fact that someone cares about their academic success. I invite you to join us in checking in on your student’s academic efforts. While you’re at it, you might ask what else they are up to. Successful students are deeply engaged in university life in the classroom and beyond.
Whether we’ve delighted or disappointed you, please be in touch. Reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Each month Tom Rocklin addresses the parents and family members of current University of Iowa undergraduates in a column that is distributed in an email newsletter.