How to Help New Students Adopt a College Mindset

Students Resting on Steps
Online LearningStudent Success
Reading Time: 4 minutes

Daisy Annan is a Financial Economics major at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County


For a student, the educational leap between high school and higher education is quite significant. Teachers create multiple college readiness activities and courses that fail to achieve their purpose: to prepare students for higher education. In high school, students study through memorization, and never truly ingest any information. In college, they have to understand the material and apply it to real-world situations. It is one of the reasons so many first-year students underperform or hit an all-time low in their mental health and studies.

If a student tries to maintain high school study habits in college, it will be impossible to succeed in higher education. To do well in college, incoming first-year students must understand that they need to develop new habits, and who could help them understand that better than college professors?

How to Motivate Students

When I started my first semester at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, I was overwhelmed. It felt like I always had homework to do and very little time to study. Being a commuter did not help. I found myself at school struggling to concentrate for hours on end. There were too many distractions and too many people around, hindering my ability to focus.

My week looked like this: I went to class, attempted to do homework, and then went home to complete my assignments; however, by the time I would get home, I was bombarded with issues that needed to be resolved. Completing my tasks at home was highly inefficient and forced me to have additional work on the weekend. I also found little time to complete assignments as they piled up.

My first semester is when I learned that balancing life is very important; you cannot work too hard or too little. Certain assignments required more time than others. For example, I was given a week to complete a five-page essay in the same week that I had to write a two-page essay. I did not know how to manage all of those responsibilities because I was never taught how to in high school. Instead, I forced myself to finish both essays in one sitting. I was left stressed and burnt out.

I realized how different high school and higher education really was. What I did to prevent this from recurring was create a schedule to complete my work.

For students, finding the motivation to do homework is troublesome, but so is waiting until the last minute. Of course, simply creating a schedule alone will not motivate students to do their homework. So here are some tips instructors can use to help new students adopt a college mindset and inspire them to work.

Tips to Help Students Keep Track

Create a to-do list

Most people feel very accomplished when they can check off an assigned task. Start the week off by informing students of what is being assigned and the due dates of those assignments.

Organize Group Projects

I have found that I am more likely to get things done when I am around people who are like me and support me. Group projects and other activities encourage students to interact with their peers. As the students create bonds and become friends, they help each other feel supported and accountable for their work. However, it is important that they are educated on the significance of study groups and how they should be led.

Stay Positive

Repeat positive affirmations to the students. Higher education is not easy. Students should be proud of themselves for even giving it a chance. Failing a test should not stop students from wanting to succeed, those failures do not define who they are or what they can be. They will not ace the test every time, and they will not fail every time. Positive affirmations will strengthen students’ willpower, reassure them that they are more significant than they think, and help push them forward.

Be Engaged

I have had professors who are enthusiastic about teaching, and some who want nothing to do with it. As an instructor, students are looking at you to learn a variety of topics that should deepen their passion for their major. Students can tell when you are not eager to be there or when you are just not in the mood to teach. A lot of the time, students change their major because of their professor’s attitude toward teaching. Often, the instructor is not focused on the students and ends up going through lectures and assignments too fast. This causes professors to miss raised hands and faces of confusion. It is not necessary to exert too much energy into teaching. Adding expression to your voice and answering students’ questions as they come up during a lesson goes a long way. It makes students more likely to stay engaged.

What’s More Important? The Nitty-Gritty

Now that I have gone through some basic ideas that contribute to better study habits, it is time to get into what will help students the most.

Put Concepts Into Practice

Back in high school, I would study by memorizing formulas and random information, but in university, there is an application aspect to what students learn. Instead of remembering the Pythagorean Theorem, students must understand how a2 + b2 = c2 works, why it works, and how to apply it. After understanding the concepts or skills, it is ideal for students to put them into practice – A LOT. This includes writing countless essays, completing more math problems, and reading more in-depth about historical events. Many students do not know this, so it would be helpful to ensure students truly understand concepts and their applications. It is also a good idea to provide multiple materials to practice.

Be There

When faculty make themselves available to students it can make a big difference. Some professors are not quick to answer emails or do not have office hours to set up to answer students’ questions. It might be helpful for you and your students to compromise on a time for office hours or record lectures/office hours for those who cannot attend. Answering emails promptly, when possible, can help students complete their assignments on time.

Help Them Prepare

My last tip is to tell students what information is essential for acing exams. Remind students who take notes during class that color coding and legible handwriting can make study time easier since the notes will be clear, organized, and easy to read.

Once high school is over, students must become more adaptive. High school and higher education are two completely different worlds. Although high schools try to prepare adolescents for the future, they are not yet well-equipped to do so successfully. If you follow these tips, plus add anything that works for you, you will be able to support your students during their transition from high school to higher education. They will be more disciplined and flexible for the challenges life throws at them.


Want to find new and exciting ways to engage your students? Get The Student Engagement Handbook for five peer-tested exercises you can bring into your classroom.