5 Bad Habits High School Students Learn that Won’t Help Them in College

“Human beings get better at what they practice.”

I tell my students that at the beginning of my course “Introduction to the College Experience.” They are all taking my class because the school I work for recognizes that many students are coming to college without the skills and behaviors they need to be successful. It’s largely because of what they have been practicing and most of them are coming from the K12 system as their last educational experiences.
Also, having taught high school and junior high school and adult education before becoming a college professor, I know the skills that those institutions value. Even if you have never taught high school, most of us remember what it was like being 17 or 18 years old and still asking permission to use the toilet. Practicing that and other behaviors long enough and it does something to you. So what lies does one learn in high school that will need to be unlearned?
LIE NUMBER ONE: Compliance is a prized character trait.
High schools tend to prize students who are compliant with the rules that create order and efficiency in that system.  Think about it for a second. Can you close your eyes right now and picture the “good students” that you went to school with? Weren’t they the people who either followed all the rules or at least charmed the teachers and administrators into thinking they followed the rules?
Fact is that many high school students think that the rules of school are laid out for their benefit and if they follow them all, we will do well. What actually happens is they lose their “intellectual virginity” when they give up on what they think is important and comply with what is expected of them.
Think of it like this: Do you remember when you started taking multiple choice tests? I recall doing it in about 3rd grade. At some point, we all read a question that had an ABCD answer we were supposed to select, but in our hearts, we felt that none of the answers were correct, but the thought enters our heads, “What do THEY want me to say?” We pick C or whatever because we believe it is the one that will get us points on the test. We comply and learn to value what someone else wants over what we care about. For lots of us, we have to unlearn that throughout our lives.
LIE NUMBER TWO:  Someone else will plan your schedule.
One of the skills I work on in my classes is to teach students how to manage their academic time. This is done in a variety of ways, from planning what classes to take (so they know how long it will actually take to graduate) to planning time to study for tests or get their reading done.
Part of the reason I have a job is because many of these students have not have not learned these skills. It’s not that they’ve never heard of them before, but they’ve never had to practice them before. They have gone to school and picked up their schedules that their guidance counselors have made for them so that their lives from 7:30AM – 2:30PM, five days a week, was planned out for them for 4 years. My students knew that if they followed the rules (See Lie Number One) then they will graduate on time.
When they get to college, there is no guidance counselor who tells you what to do to get into the programs they want. They begin to realize, in my classes at least, that there is no ONE way to get to graduation or that successful career they are looking for. There is a dizzying array of classes and majors and internships and programs and scholarship deadlines. Often they want me or an advisor to tell them what to do. While I am happy to help them plan, and many of them sit in my office to do that, when they express how difficult this planning is, I tell them: “Welcome to the rest of your life.”
LIE NUMBER THREE: Teachers will always care about your success more than you do.
As a former high school teacher and as a younger person, I got into the whole teaching gig because I wanted to help people learn. High school teachers often equate “learning” with “doing well in my classes.” That being the case, high school teachers often will make a way for students to “be successful in classes” that has little to do with learning in their classes.
When a student has done nothing all semester and comes to a teacher during the last week before grades are due and cries “How can I pass this class? My parents are going to kill me if I fail?” Or some version of this (“I’m going to get kicked off the football team” OR “My car insurance rates will go up.” High school teachers often fall for this line of reasoning. They care too much to let the student fail on his/her own. They create extra credit assignments or alternative ways for students to pass without having them put in the time that the other students who did the work and showed up in the class have been doing.
In college, this is not a helpful behavior. Professors are not invested in whether or not you pass the class or even attend the class.  While many professors need to keep a record of who attended classes for financial aid, they have little investment in whether students turn in assignments or pass classes.  High school students who have been practicing behaviors where their teachers want them to pass more than they do are in for a hard lesson.
LIE NUMBER FOUR: Grade grubbing is more important than learning.
Grade grubbing, the practice of scrounging for points to pass the class. is a time-honored tradition in education. While I cannot say that it doesn’t go on in higher education, it does seem to be a learned behavior that starts in junior high and high school. Let me be a little philosophical for a moment on this.
American education is steeped in the behaviorist tradition (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Behaviorism). Students learn early that if they listen to the teacher, follow instructions and complete activities without disruption, they will be rewarded. Conversely, if they do not, they will be punished (this is the internal logic embedded in LIE NUMBER ONE). Behaviorist believe in a system of “target behaviors” (i.e. “learning the stuff”) and set about coercing students into those behaviors by a system of “reinforcements” (i.e. good work=rewards from the teacher, bad work/no work=punishment from the teacher).
In his book, Punished by Rewards (http://www.alfiekohn.org/books/pbr.htm), Alfie Kohn, debunks the relationship between target behaviors and reinforcements. It seems that, according to Kohn’s research, the more a student concentrates on this reinforcements/target behaviors system, the more the student shifts his/her focus from the target behavior (learning) to the reinforcement (reward or punishment). So it is easy to see K12 education as a highly refined system where learning is less prized than grades, and high school students refine the techniques they use to get the prizes for the least amount of effort, while ignoring the actual reason they are there.
In college, many classes and programs (especially the really good ones) pose interesting questions and come to understanding materials or acquire skills related to that discipline through tests, but often projects, group work, rubrics and other external evaluations. Work is often taken outside of the confines of the classroom and feedback comes from places beyond the control of the instructor. High school students who practiced in the number of points they can collect from an instructor will not be prepared for the different facets (benefits and pitfalls) inherent in this type of learning, which again is a large part of the really interesting academic and professional activities they could be involved in.
LIE NUMBER FIVE: Doing well on standardized tests is something you will need later in life.
While standard testing seems to be a staple in the experience of K12 educators, most college do not really on standardized testing in their programs. True, that colleges use placement tests (like the ACT, SAT, Accuplacer, COMPASS or PERT) as part of their admission processes, most college recognize most placement test don’t predict how well a student will do beyond one or two semesters.
Many professors either write their own tests or draw test questions from a test bank that comes from their textbook publishers.  They are not standardized for all students in all classes in the state or in that discipline or even in the same class that is taught be different instructors on the same campus at the same school. Professors have academic freedom to teach their courses as they see fit.
Even if they use multiple choice (or other objective) test, they will not be telling you whether or not you know what you need to know about that subject or discipline.  Students will have to make that determination.  Students need to know, as they near their professional aspirations, whether or not what they are learning is in line with what they need to know for their professions.
It is a good habit to know what is the expectation for your profession or discipline rather than relying totally on your professors and simply the tests they use. Let’s face it, we have all had bad teachers. Standardized or objective tests don’t tell you who you are, don’t measure intangibles (like perseverance, engagement or just plain hard work). High school habits where one believes one knows something or can do something simply because he/she passed the knowledge test about it is about defies what most of us actually know. If that were the case, no one would smoke, no one would get HIV/AIDS and no one would be pregnant who didn’t want to be. Simply put, the practice of a thing is different than knowing about a thing,
Be careful what habits you practice.
by Mark Hendrix – a professor at Palm Beach State College (www.palmbeachstate.edu) in Palm Beach County, Florida, who teaches “Introduction to the College Experience,” “Career Development” and “Introduction to Leadership.” He also serves as an editor for Bedford/St. Martins and as a faculty consultant for McGrawHill. He has taught high school, adult education, college and university classes in Minnesota, Kansas and Florida.

6 thoughts on “5 Bad Habits High School Students Learn that Won’t Help Them in College

  1. Clayton Luke Liscom says:

    Having read through your blog I understand a little more on how you think, and I particularly like the beginning part about Vikings. I want you know that I find your passion and urge for learning desirable, and your ability to teach through example is what makes you a good teacher.


  2. Miriam Exelrud says:

    Thank you Professor Hendrix for this broad view, observation and suggestions in many aspects of students behavior. It is the first time I am reading your great style, intelligent comments and deep knowledge in education.
    You are a great teacher.


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