Challenge Me | Eastern North Carolina Now

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    The author of this post is Alex Thomas.

    A student at UNC-Chapel Hill is surprised to find that his freshman courses were less rigorous than many high school classes.

Alex Thomas, an author for the John William Pope Center.
    I was a successful student in high school. I was one of the top students in my class, and I took multiple Advance Placement courses. I knew that my hard work had helped me form strong studying techniques. After four years in the North Carolina public high school system, I was looking forward to enrolling in my first semester of college at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, one of the top universities in the South.

    But, at the same time, I was also a bit intimidated. Teachers said that a university education would be a rude awakening compared to high school. Sometimes when college was brought up in class, teachers remarked on the difficulties college would present to us, such as the rigorous courses we would have to take, or the difficulty of balancing social life and school work. To prove their point, their remarks were punctuated with horror stories from their own experiences. For example, one teacher told us how he got a G.P.A less than a 1.0 (on a 4.0 scale) in his first semester in college, and even considered back-up opportunities if the school revoked his soccer scholarship.

    I envisioned long nights of studying and countless hours of work and wondered if I would be able to handle it all.

    My concern about rigorous courses was related to the amount of time I spent on my AP U.S. History course. In addition to outlining a thousand page textbook over the course of an entire year, we had to write two essays and become knowledgeable about the history of the United States. I did well in this course and even consider it to be my favorite course in my entire high school career, although I was told it represented college-level work.

    If so, I could barely imagine doing the same amount of work I had to do for my AP History course for all five classes I would be taking my first semester in college. I felt as though I would surely mess up in my first year for not being able to handle the massive workload waiting for me in Chapel Hill.

    Additionally, the way college is portrayed in the media also didn't help. Films often show colleges and universities as places where the professors are unnaturally strict, the classes are inhumane, and every hour of the day is spent studying in the library with no end in sight. If anyone based his or her opinion of a post-secondary education on such sources, college would appear to be an exercise in self-torture.

    As the date approached for my very first class of my college career, German 101, I began to grow increasingly apprehensive. What would happen if I couldn't handle the workload? Was there even such thing as a fair professor? How could I find the time to socialize without failing my classes? Finally, my German class began. Fifty minutes later, I realized something new: Either the teachers of Weddington High School had overdramatized their arguments a little too much, or I needed to learn not to become so nervous about new experiences.

    Or, perhaps there was a third lesson: college is not as hard as it used to be - or as it should be. German class turned out to be easier than my AP classes in high school; the workload was nothing compared to that of my AP US History course. We had small assignments, but there wasn't any outlining, and the homework was simple compared to that of the AP curriculum. How could this be? After all, weren't those AP classes proclaimed to be college-level courses? I immediately thought that this was a fluke, a rare occurrence in higher education.

    My next class was a Geology 101 lecture. It was in a lecture hall that could seat a hundred people easily. I thought for sure this had to be the course that would force me to study for hours on end with teachers who knew no limits. But it wasn't. In fact, it was only slightly harder than my German class, with a workload significantly less than that of my advanced classes in high school. (However, I would personally like to state for the record that I did not enjoy learning about rocks.)

    The rest of my classes followed a similar pattern to the previous two: they required very little effort compared to my AP classes. Even a history course, American History after 1865, needed no extra effort on my part in order to pass the class. The course only required two essays, neither of which was as difficult or as challenging as those I wrote in my high school AP History class.

    Reflecting back on this experience, I believe that the classes I took in my first semester at UNC were less difficult than my AP courses. My high school teachers used better and more efficient methods of teaching than those I saw in my first year of college. The amount of work they gave me proved to be more challenging and more time-consuming than my UNC workload. If I knew what I know now back in high school, I would have put less effort into preparing for Carolina. It would have been demotivating to know that an elite institution such as Carolina is less challenging than a good high school curriculum.

    Yet there are also good things about the teaching at UNC. Professors and teaching assistants were generally cooperative, willing to meet with students during office hours to discuss any problems that they may have with the course material. In addition, I liked working off of a course syllabus, rather than the day-to-day agendas of high school teachers, since I could learn at my own pace and plan ahead just in case something came up. UNC professors properly expect individuals to be responsible for their own progress.

    Still, my story should be a message to those who run the university. When you have high school teachers who prepare students more rigorously than college professors, there is a problem. Maybe it is time for colleges to look at high school AP teachers for inspiration on how to teach at a high level. After all, how are students going to progress and gain knowledge if no one is willing to challenge them?
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