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Answer by Ben Y. Zhao, professor of computer science, UCSB:
Obviously, a question of this type has many valid answers. Here are a few that pop to my head in terms of importance and prevalence.
A weak variant of the “imposter syndrome”
In today’s social media–driven world, students often see the best side of all of their friends’ lives, not just in academic performance, but also in fun activities, general happiness, etc. Students at top schools see all their friends seemingly doing great at everything, which in turn makes them doubt their own abilities and whether they were an “admissions mistake.” I’ve been asked similar types of questions on Quora, and a similar type of phenomenon was documented in a recent New York Times article.
While some part of this can be attributed to the power-law social graphs on Facebook, some part of this is just human nature. People tend to give overly positive impressions of how they’re doing to their friends and acquaintances, both online and offline. Your classmate sitting next to you might inflate the numbers a bit when he tells you about his midterm results, and your roommate might cover up a bad breakup with a cover story. (The power-law phenomenon I’m referring to is the other types of behavior.), with corollaries to
All this serves to challenges the self-esteem and produce personal feelings of insecurity by students and can have obvious and serious consequences.
On the other end of the spectrum lie students who have a distorted and highly personalized view of college. They, perhaps because of their prior successes, assume that college is an experience meant to serve them, perhaps as a reward for their successes up to this point. Some have grown up in an environment where they have always been the center of attention and have never experienced real failure. These students often have highly personalized views of what classes should be. If they do not perform well, the response is always to shift the responsibility elsewhere (“Why did the exam ask such obscure questions?” or “Why isn’t this project assignment more explicit in its instructions?” or “I know there’s a lot of material in this course, but why can’t everything be explained more in detail?”). These students often think that the onus is on the university to “educate” them and don’t understand the concept of “learning” as a proactive activity.
Thinking of faculty as “unapproachable”
As a professor, I really enjoy engaging with students in a one-on-one fashion after class or in office hours. Yet I often find that many students come in with a preconceived notion that professors want to have nothing to do with them. Some see faculty as “too busy to bother,” while others see faculty as aloof or anti-social. They’re afraid to come in to office hours, and often hold back questions in class for fear of being rebuked or ignored.
There are numerous opportunities available at a university that do not present themselves in an obvious way, but require some initiative from the student. Whether it’s after-class discussions with faculty on a topic related to class, undergraduate research positions, or other part-time jobs, students should be more proactive in asking for what they want. Unfortunately, this tends to affect a disproportionally high portion of female students. For example, after working with numerous undergraduate researchers in my lab for the last eight-plus years, I still have yet to hire a female undergraduate researcher. It seems most female students tend to shy away from proactively asking (male) professors about research. Clearly, I also need to do more to encourage female undergraduates to explore research opportunities.
Poor time management
This is a common problem that goes way beyond college students, but it’s where it may have the greatest impact. Even the best and most well-prepared college students tend to underestimate the workload that comes with a rigorous academic schedule. This is especially true for some of the brightest students, who have often succeeded without good time-management skills, because they could rely on their natural ability to get work done quickly. Yet inevitably, they’ll hit classes whose workload demand good time management over a semester or quarter, and procrastination will be their downfall. I see this every year in my undergraduate operating systems class, which by necessity crams into a single quarter the theory and project load of a subject best taught over a semester. Some two- to three-week projects are difficult to finish even for students who start on Day 1. Those who procrastinate and wait till four to five days before due date are doomed to failure (and much pain along the process).
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