Local Colleges Say First Semester Most Important

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A new study set out to learn just how much college students actually learn.

The unprecedented study followed several thousand undergraduates through four years of college and found that large numbers didn't learn skills that are widely assumed to be at the core of a college education.

According to the study, many of the students graduated without critical thinking, complex reasoning and written communication skills.

Forty-five percent of students made no significant improvement during their first two years of college.

After four years, 36 percent showed no significant gains.

Some local college officials say, if a student doesn't adjust well the first year of college, they maintain poor learning skills and study habits throughout their college career.

Lee Ward, the director of Career and Academic Planning at James Madison University, says, "The habits that students develop in their first year and largely in their first semester are going to stay with them for a long time."

However, he says that first semester is the toughest for most students and they often hear from students who are struggling.

"'This is harder than I thought it would be. I've never had to read this much before. My roommate has different hours and sleep habits than I do, I'm struggling with that,'" describes Ward.

Dr. John Downey, the president of Blue Ridge Community College, says, with most students commuting for class, the transition can be easier.

"They don't have to deal with the transition that many college students have to deal with in terms of roommate issues and transitioning changes in their living environment," says Downey.

He says students aren't taken through everything step by step like in high school.

"In college, there's a lot more of an assumption that students will be motivated on their own to explore learning for its own sake," says Downey.

Both schools say a smoother transition starts with a good orientation.

"What really is expected of them, what role do you have to play, so that they get a clear picture of what's going to happen here and they can start to meet those expectations. So the communication is the first part of that," says Ward.

Officials at both BRCC and JMU say they work hard to have personal relationships between faculty and guidance counselors and their students.

They say having those relationships helps students know they can talk to someone if they have concerns and need help.

Both schools say they're constantly working to improve that first year learning experience.