You have /5 articles left.
Sign up for a free account or log in.

A man with gray hair and glasses sits at a table with laptop and book open, holding a clipboard, with filled bookshelves behind him.

Although professors are experts in their field, they may not fully realize what the experience of their course is like for a student and may even have executive-function deficits themselves.

ljubaphoto/iStock/Getty Images Plus

Over the past year, I’ve received startlingly similar phone calls from families of college students: Their first- and second-year students across the United States are struggling with basic tasks and life-management skills—and they need help.

For some, the absence of a morning routine starts to make painfully clear the other gaps in life-management skills, such as showing up for class on time, managing the workload and prioritizing tasks effectively.

Exacerbating students’ sense of being overwhelmed are communication challenges with professors, some of whom seem to provide unclear expectations and nonlinear instruction. Meanwhile, the effects of the pandemic may have added to the struggles, for both students and college admissions offices. Although overall undergrad enrollment grew for the first time this fall since the beginning of the pandemic, freshman enrollment has declined by 3.6 percent, reversing 2022 gains.

It’s no secret that educators are concerned about “Generation P”—students who were forced into online schooling just months into their ninth-grade year. Studies have shown the direct impact of the pandemic on academic performance, particularly exemplified by gaps in math, reading and history learning, as well as the lowest ACT scores in more than 30 years.

How have we gotten here? Why are college students struggling more than before with executive function skills and what structures can we put in place to support them?

As I discuss in my recent book, Erasing the Finish Line: The New Blueprint for Success Beyond Grades and College Admission, a key failure in education overall is our hyper-focus on the entire process around college admission—including an emphasis on grades, test scores and extracurricular activities. We’ve collectively fallen prey to the misconception that admission to an elite university is a ticket to a successful life, and this faulty premise has blinded us to the foundational skills students so urgently need.

As an academic adviser who has spent over two decades in Silicon Valley working with thousands of teens on the college-application process, I have a front-row seat on how the fixation on certain colleges feeds a frenzy of achievement culture. Not only has this fixation been counterproductive, it also means that many students are arriving at college without developing critical executive function skills—the mental processes that enable us to plan, focus attention, remember and juggle multiple tasks.

In addition to disrupting learning, stress caused by the pandemic hurt efforts to develop these skills, as research has shown the direct impact that stress has on working memory, cognitive flexibility and task management. We all—educators included—got out of practice when it comes to basic life-management skills, and recalibrating can take longer than we might expect. Now is the time to give ourselves and each other grace, rather than expecting a quick fix.

How Can Higher Ed Assist Students?

  • Train faculty to spot these students.

We need to acknowledge that the transition to college is difficult for many students—and it’s (understandably) even more difficult for students today. We’ve required students to juggle more and more technological advances and haven’t provided proper coaching on how to navigate and streamline different forms of technology within their school experience. To support students with executive function deficits, we need to start by providing greater structure and training around these skills for faculty. Recently, I was talking to a tenured professor at a highly selective research university who admitted that his own executive function skills are terrible, and how that likely affected his teaching, especially when he was a member of the junior faculty. Although professors are experts in their field, they may not fully realize what the experience of their course is like for a student.

  • Provide clear, understandable syllabi.

A good syllabus can make a huge difference in promoting strong organizational skills and reducing stress. At one school I visited recently, students became adamant that they would rather take a more rigorous course with an organized instructor than an “easier” or less work-intensive course with an instructor who was “all over the place.” An effective syllabus means students should be able to easily find important deadlines, information about how their grade is calculated and opportunities for extra help. Additionally, professors should be trained on how to use their learning management system effectively to minimize confusion and make clear which resources are available. Given how quickly learning management systems tend to change, and the speed with which new technologies overtake previous ones, more effort should be put into making sure faculty are up to date with their understanding so students can have a more streamlined experience across courses.

  • Recognize the warning signs and suggest academic advising, counseling or other steps.

Although executive function deficits can often be masked through high school by well-meaning parents who pick up the slack—helping children with everything from meals, to laundry, to doctor’s appointments—they are often brought into stark relief in the first months of freshman year, when support systems largely fall away. Imposter syndrome is common and, soon, missed alarms become several weeks of skipping class, forgetting to do required reading and falling behind on major assignments. Students who find themselves floundering early in the semester might feel increasingly helpless without a daily “tutorial” period where they can seek out resources and identify steps to get back on track. Time and time again, I’ve seen this decline happen, often resulting in academic probation and occasionally a leave of absence from school while a student works to rebuild feelings of competence and self-efficacy. When professors or instructors recognize concerns early, and suggest on-campus counseling, academic advising or study groups, they can potentially prevent a greater academic downfall.

  • Create safety nets across campus.

Resident advisers, career counselors and academic advisers can all be additional avenues for structure and support, especially if each are provided with training to guide students across different spaces on campus. First-year orientation should offer all students the opportunity to build basic skills around organizing, planning and prioritizing, with older students providing practical advice and guidance. Creating opportunities for focused co-working, or working in public spaces, can help students who might be having a tough time with starting or completing basic tasks. Even a weekly drop-in “map out your week” hour in the academic advising center could be the time, structure and support that a student needs to stay on track.

Feeling organized decreases stress and boosts feelings of self-efficacy, which can make a huge difference in rates of college retention, overall persistence and graduation. At a time when we are rightfully concerned with the mental health of college students, recognizing the link between these skills and mental health and well-being can also create strategic incentives to prioritize this work across campus. In providing faculty with greater support in how they develop the workflow for their courses and providing more structures to students as part of their college experience, we can support greater well-being and successful futures for all.

An academic adviser and author of Erasing the Finish Line: The New Blueprint for Success Beyond Grades and College Admission, Ana Homayoun specializes in counseling students struggling with executive functioning skills.

Next Story

Written By

More from Views