University News

First-years ‘somewhat prepared’ for Brown

Contributing Writer
Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Nearly 50 percent of faculty members find first-years to be “somewhat prepared” for academics at Brown, according to a Herald faculty poll conducted this fall. Almost 12 percent responded that first-years are “somewhat unprepared.”

Jim Miller ’73, dean of admission, said his office attempts to select applicants who “will prosper here academically” but noted that students come from diverse backgrounds, which provide different levels of preparation.

“Being prepared is a function of experience in secondary school, and this varies dramatically. Preparation doesn’t preclude excellence,” he said. And “preparation is not as critical as potential.”

Rachel Friedberg, senior lecturer in economics, said the students in her ECON 0110: “Principles of Economics” class, many of whom are first-years, are often accustomed to being at the top of their class. She said first-years at Brown often expect faculty “to protect and support and polish their records.”

“My role is to challenge them, not to make sure that everyone walks away with an A,” she said.

Lawrence Stanley, senior lecturer in English, also said his first-years struggle with expectations. “What I find, when I’m advising freshmen, is when you’re at high school, you’ve got to be good at everything. But then you come to university, and you realize that you’re not good at everything,” he said.

Gregory Elliott, professor of sociology, said he considers the issue of unprepared first-years indicative of a larger problem within the American education system. “You see the phenomenon of high school teachers teaching the test, instead of teaching people how to think. Brown’s not like that,” Elliot said. “Brown expects you to think about facts and information, to understand relationships between different concepts and to think creatively about them.”

 “I feel sad for the students who I see come here,” Elliot said. “I’m sad because they have been shortchanged through their tenure at high school.”

The administration is aware of the leap between high school and Brown academics, according to Dean of the College Katherine Bergeron. In the last four years, the University has introduced a new orientation session called “Taking the Leap: On Becoming a Brown Student” that focuses on the academic transition.

Luis Campos, student coordinator for Excellence at Brown, said pre-orientation programs attract two different kinds of students: “People who are coming from schools where their writing programs aren’t the best … (and) people who want to get a head start.” Campos said the programs aim to inform students about the Writing Center and various other academic support options available on campus.

Stanley, who teaches a course on the academic essay primarily for first-years, said first-year writing suffers because students lack the requisite critical thinking and reading skills.

“I’m trying to teach my students to pay attention to details. We’re trying to … get students to think inductively,” Stanley said.

“If anything, Brown makes the transition easier than any other Ivy League school,” said Arnold Weinstein, professor of comparative literature, who teaches a first-year seminar. “Brown has a more consumer-friendly approach. I think there is more of a collision between high school and college elsewhere.” While college work requires an academic leap, he said he believes his first-years have the ability to adequately complete the work he assigns.

“Time management is the hardest thing,” said Andrew Triedman ’15, though he said he was “pretty adequately prepared for college-level work.”



Online questionnaires were sent to personal accounts of 902 faculty Sept. 25 and advertised on the faculty Morning Mail Sept. 27, Oct. 4 and Oct. 7. The poll closed Oct. 8. Only faculty that “teach, advise or interact with undergraduate students” were invited to respond, and 174 responses were recorded. The poll has a 6.6 percent margin of error with 95 percent confidence.

Find results of previous polls at

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