As I saw the Freshers going through the annual orientation rituals, I resisted the urge to resort to the familiar negativity I have come to attach to this yearly exercise. Unlike previous years, seeing them dart from office to office with their parents and guardians in tow triggered in me a renewed sense of feeling that continuity of academic culture is fully assured. As they swarmed campus streets, clogging the sidewalks and the alleys of the faculties, I willed myself to overcome my petty annoyance that my space has been invaded and instead felt that the exercise is a necessary pre-requisite towards the greater good. Even when their representatives came to my office in their first week of residency to enquire about lecture materials, I stifled the chuckle that is always a reminder of the patented student behavior: academic exuberance in their first few weeks of the semester followed gradually by academic lethargy as the semester progresses through the year. As much as possible I will suffuse the experience of this group of Freshers with fresh new perspectives on our academic culture so that their journey of self-discovery and transformation into intellectuals will be distinct and unique from the prior ones, I intoned!
Freshers first semester experience at the university is highly crucial to the achievement of their academic and career pursuits because it sets the stage and the mood for the first academic encounter with higher education. The results of this encounter may either improve or handicap efforts to achieve and maintain future academic excellence and may also create and sustain new foundational frameworks for deeper intellectual development. So this time my decision is to assist in making this critical first step an exciting experience devoid of drama, fear-mongering and uncertainty but enriched with hope and excitement.
So as they stared at their new academic environment with eager inquisitive eyes, their expressive faces revealed their new aspirations for a golden academic future filled with hope and success. Their faces exuded an incomparable confidence that all the academic world is within their mental grasp. After all, their high school exam scores are among the best in the nation. And with their patented tried and tested habit of rote memorization a few hours before exams, their spongy brains will mop-up all unwieldy academic material as they effortlessly surmount all academic mountains at this university. Yes but no! Tried as I did to simply tag along this optimistic feeling because I was unwilling to be the person to burst this romantic bubble, in the end I just could not resist the urge to comment.
My extensive experience in student mentoring and instinct in student behavior gave me a strong hesitation to endorse this unspoken Freshers simplistic philosophy of learning and to validate their classic sunny disposition. For a start, the rigorous academic culture in the university demands more than cursory glance of lecture notes before exams: it requires deep, persistent and strident dedication to reading, studying, memorizing, revision of lecture notes and other supplementary materials as well as the development of practical problem solving skills honed through countless practice exercises. But many Freshers in the past had desired that teaching and learning will center on the regurgitation of previous level’s academic content so that the path that they traverse in the semester's coursework becomes more predictable and less time- and effort-demanding. But universities risk downgrading the “habit of the mind” custom that forms the foundational edifice of its academic culture if this frivolous Freshers desire crystalize into practice.
And there are other reasons. The first year Organic Chemistry course that I teach covers topics that take its foundational basis from the high school syllabus and assumes previous rigorous knowledge of some fundamental facts. But high school instructors typically skip Organic Chemistry preaching to their confused students that they can still make an excellent grade in the WASSCE without a working knowledge of Organic Chemistry. Poor students but bright-eyed enthusiasts nonetheless. I don’t at all doubt their enthusiasm for chemistry nor question their motivation for feeling buoyant during course registration, but I still have a palpable fear that the first year Organic Chemistry course material will give them more problems than they bargained for. And I have been proven right every year!
When students arrive on campus unprepared for even the most minimal expectations of a university course, they are set up unwittingly by unnamed conspiratorial forces to fail. Gradually and contrary to desired scholarly achievement goals, Freshers develop attitudinal dislike for rigorous new information in the course. The fear of obtaining a poor grade may assert itself in students psyche in a way that will cause them to operate in a consistent academic panic modes. Together with learning anxiety, self-doubt and uncertainty that commonly accompany entry into uncharted academic landscapes, students’ enthusiasm will visibly lag. This scenario encapsulates my annual chronic persistent headache. The expectation of prior knowledge and the practical reality of student deficiency in some of these concept is a great source of frustration for me and for students as well.
Also, central to the achievement of Freshers academic endeavors are the provision of accessible lecture halls, labs, workshops equipped with multi-media platforms. Although the university has made some commitments in resources and facilities befitting local and international standards, they fall short of ideal. Classrooms are yet to be fitted with PA systems that improve students hearing and comprehension of lecture materials. Only a small fraction of the students will, once again, be able to see the chalk-board as I write and hear me clearly as I speak during classes. Few reference textbooks available in the library have been re-shelved by enterprising students. New components of the Freshers residency now include mixed halls that present interesting challenges. That is why I am still trying, despite my initial reticenec, to curb Freshers’ enthusiasm for an immediate out-of-this-world academic success in their very first exams. But as earlier noted, I will not attempt to rain torrentially on their outdoor orientation party with matter-of-fact negativity this time.
Can Freshers manintain these heartfelt initial enthusiasm throughout the semester and sustain it till graduation? For some Freshers, these early enthusiasm may be just a fleeting: transitory moment that comes before poor personal and career choices set-in to cripple their nascent intellectual development. With time, the novelty of attending lectures will fade and some Freshers will refuse to attend lectures and succumb to the laziness and to the intractable habit of blaming lecturers for the demise of their academic enthusiasm. Others will manage their time poorly, failing to make smart choices between the multiple competing demands from myriad extracurricular activities that clamor for their time and for their energies. And still, others will resign themselves to the handicap of lowered expectations. This is not a burst of negativity but just the facts!
Can the university meet freshmen expectations? Yes, it can! KNUST is known to attract highly qualified Freshers and develop them into a cadre of outstanding students and intellectuals. The least Freshers can do is to avoid entrenched negative campus academic culture that hampers excellent academic work and heed the clarion call to study and perform admirably. And the least I can do is to refuse to draw on past experiences as a measuring stick for the academic potential and aspirations of current Freshers. Each Fresher class is distinct and demands unique and refreshed perspective for evaluation. Freshers’ retention and improvement in learning outcomes is an achievable goal. A little bit of lecturer positivity can make Freshers baptism into the academic world of higher education a memorable upbeat experience. More than anything, Freshers have to perceive me as being helpful and considerate but above all envision me as a dedicated educationist. Tough love never hurt anyone!