College may look and feel similar to high school, and, for the most part, you already know how to perform your student role within this setting. However, there are some fundamental differences. The most obvious ones are that high school is mandatory (to a certain point), freely available, and a legal right. They have to offer you the opportunity, regardless of your grades. College is optional, costly, and performance-based. Most institutions will dismiss you if your grades don’t meet a certain minimum. But college is different in more subtle ways as well, and those differences reflect the evolution of the university.
In their original ancient and medieval forms, universities were centers for scholarship, existing at the pleasure of the crown, church, or state. While centers of study go at least back to ancient Mesopotamia 2500 years BCE, the Islamic and European universities of the first and second millennium CE are usually considered the first of the modern model. Highly privileged people went to these universities as students, but they didn’t really attend classes, write papers, and take exams like college students today. Instead they acted as independent, though novice, scholars: they read everything they could find in their areas of interest, attended lectures that expert scholars gave, and, if they were lucky (and perhaps charming), got some feedback from those scholars on their own work or assisted scholars in theirs.5 Students were simply the most junior of scholars at a university, enjoying the extraordinary privilege of interacting with the revered academic superstars of their day.
Obviously, colleges and universities today are much more student-centered,6 and most higher education faculty spend most of their time carefully crafting educational experiences for students. But the notion of the university as a center for scholarship and exchange still shapes how colleges and universities operate today. Some points:
- Professors are scholars and artists: Most of your professors have had little to no formal training in pedagogy (the science of teaching). They’re extensively trained in their scholarly or creative fields, well versed in relevant theories, methods, and significant findings. Many taught during graduate school, but most come to their jobs relative novices about teaching. Professors apply themselves to the craft of teaching with the same creative and intellectual fervor that drew them into their fields. They attend conferences and presentations about effective teaching and learning (such as The Lilly Conference, the AAC&U, or the American Educational Research Association), keep journals and portfolios to reflect on their teaching work, and read books and articles about cognitive neuroscience, trends in higher education, and the social worlds of their students. There are some professors who still see themselves in the classical model—as someone who delivers content through lectures and assesses performance through a final exam or term paper, but that approach is becoming ever rarer. Almost all professors seek out innovative and engaging pedagogies.
- Professors have competing obligations: While you may view your professors primarily as teachers,7 your instructors are also collecting data, writing books and articles, making films, writing poetry, consulting with businesses and organizations, or inventing things. Even those who spend a majority of their time on teaching think of themselves as scholars or artists who also teach.8 Scholarship and creative activity are central ways that colleges and universities serve society. In addition to educated graduates, higher education also produces ideas, findings, and innovations. High school teachers, though similarly engaged in the craft of teaching, have much more formal training in instruction and are more likely to see themselves primarily as teachers, even those that are writing magazine articles, restoring wetland ecologies, or composing music on the side.
- Professors design their own classes: While both college professors and high school teachers teach, one condition of their work is substantially different. Most high school teachers in public school systems are contractually obligated to deliver a particular curriculum and, in some cases, to use particular methods to do so. The topics and materials are often determined by state regulators, local boards of education, and school administrators. There is room for innovation, but under the current mania for standards, many teachers are no longer treated (and respected) like craftspersons in their own right. Higher education instructors still have a lot more latitude than their high-school counterparts. Your instructor may be required to cover particular concepts and skills or even assign a particular textbook, especially if one class is a prerequisite to more advanced classes. However, he or she still has a lot of freedom to determine what students should learn, what they will do to learn it, and how their achievements will be measured. As a result, two different sections of the same college course (such as Ancient World History) could differ dramatically, much more so than two parallel high school sections.
- Students drive their own learning: The assumption behind high-school instruction is that the teacher is the engine of learning. Consequently, a lot of time is spent in direct face-to-face instruction. Homework is for further practice to reinforce material from that day. Teachers will often tell students what each night’s homework assignment is, follow up on missing work, and closely track students’ progress. The assumption behind college instruction, in contrast, is that students are the engine of learning, and that most of the significant learning happens outside of class while students are working through a dense reading or other challenging intellectual task on their own. Most college classes meet only 1-3 times a week for a total of about 3 hours. Consequently, college instructors think of class meetings as an opportunity to prepare you for the heavy-lifting that you’ll be doing on your own. Sometimes that involves direct instruction (how to solve a particular kind of problem or analyze a particular kind of text). More often, though, professors want to provide you with material not contained in the reading or facilitate active learning experiences based on what you read. The assumption is that all students—like their medieval counterparts—have the skill and self-motivation to carefully read all the assigned texts. Professors lay out a path for learning—much like how personal trainers develop exercise routines—but it is up to students (and athletes) to do the difficult work themselves.
While university systems have clearly shifted toward student-centered practices, colleges and universities still see themselves as communities of scholars, some senior (i.e., faculty), most junior (i.e., students). Your professors are passionate about their fields, and they want to share their excitement with you as effectively as they can. However, they also know that you came to them on a voluntary basis, and they fully expect you to take complete responsibility for your own learning.