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Poll: First-years come prepared for academic success

Professors said Brown first-years are consistently equipped to adapt to college learning

A majority of faculty members find first-year students prepared for college-level academics, with 23 percent responding that first-years were “very prepared” and 50 percent responding that they were “somewhat prepared” in a Herald faculty poll conducted earlier this month.


 Professor perceptions

John Stein, senior lecturer in neuroscience who teaches NEUR 0100: “The Brain: An Introduction to Neuroscience” and BIOL 0200: “The Foundation of Living Systems,” said his first-year students are “obviously very bright.”

He added that there is a “high bar” at Brown, with material in some courses like biology and chemistry taught in one semester, despite being taught over an entire year at other institutions.

Faculty members who have not taught at other schools “may not understand how bad it can get,” said Rose McDermott, professor of political science who teaches POLS 0400: “Introduction to International Politics.”

Having taught at other institutions such as the University of California at Santa Barbara, Cornell and Harvard, McDermott said she found Brown undergraduates to be “extremely well-prepared and best (she has) ever taught.”

First-year students may lack some prior knowledge in social sciences specifically, due to little emphasis on such subjects in high school, said Russel Church, professor of cognitive, linguistic and psychological sciences.

“I don’t think that the students have a great deal of knowledge of psychology in general, but they have a lot of competence to learn it,” he said, adding that he has found students in his first-year seminar, CLPS 0050I: “Art and Science of Learning,” to be very well-prepared.

Many faculty members said work ethic and motivation are the most important to helping first-year students succeed.

Dan Katz, lecturer in mathematics, who teaches MATH 0090: “Introductory Calculus Part I” and MATH 0100: “Introductory Calculus Part II” and oversees the calculus program, said students who do work beyond the requirements are more likely to succeed.

“One of the biggest mistakes students make is that they choose to skip the first optional problems, and then later in the semester find they are in over their heads,” he said.

Stein also said motivation is important, noting that though there are no weekly assessments in NEUR 0010, students should keep up with the reading in order to succeed.

Robert Pelcovits, professor of physics who teaches PHYS 0070: “Analytical Mechanics,” said students who take advantage of optional sections tend to benefit.


Preparedness over time

First-year preparedness has been consistent throughout some faculty members’ careers at Brown, they said.

Pelcovits said students he has taught recently have been equally as prepared as those  he taught in the same introductory physics course 30 years ago.

“I would say the generations are comparable in their ability to master sophisticated material,” he said, adding that the only difference is that students are now much more reliant on their calculators for computations.

Howard Chudacoff, professor of American history and urban studies, said he has not noticed any change in first-year preparedness, but he questioned whether University efforts to increase first-year preparedness are necessary.

“The question is, ‘Why does the Dean of the College think first-years aren’t prepared?’” he said. “Why have they developed a bunch of programs to deal with this ‘lack of preparedness’?” he said, citing examples such as the increase in writing requirements and constant communication between deans and first-year students.


Students speak

Many students said they felt well-prepared for college.

Gabrielle Hick ’16, who attended a small all-girls private school in Canada, said her high school adequately prepared her for studying in college.

Angela Guo ’16, who attended a large public school, said her high school “fostered an environment of ‘just be yourself’” that was helpful in encouraging academic exploration.

Fletcher Bell ’16, who said he attended a small public high school that was “not very diverse,” did not learn “specific skills that translated into college” but instead gained useful habits like participating in class, he said.

Some students said they wished writing skills were more emphasized in high school.

“Coming from a public high school, writing essays is very mechanical,” Bell said. “You don’t progress much as a writer because you turn in things and get them back without personal attention.”

Particularly in English classes, “Knowing what my professor was looking for is something I’ve learned more and more being here,” Hick said.

“It is difficult to gauge the expectation at the beginning of a social science or humanities course,” Hick said. “You really need to do an essay, and then get feedback or participate in discussion, and figure out what to say.”

Students said background knowledge was not critical for success.

Hick said that taking the time to do work for class is important, like completing assigned reading.

“Your own personal degree of interest and motivation determines your success,” Guo said. “You don’t have to naturally be incredibly talented in a class.”



Questionnaires were sent to the email accounts of faculty members and advertised on the faculty Morning Mail April 9. Only faculty members that teach, advise or interact with undergraduate students were invited to respond, and 120 responses were recorded out of a population of 713. The poll has a 8.7 percent margin of error with 95 percent confidence. 

Find results of previous polls at

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