Ideas in Practice: Letters of Advice from At-Risk Students to Freshmen

By Commander, Nannette Evans; Valeri-Gold, Maria | Journal of Developmental Education, Fall 2003 | Go to article overview

Ideas in Practice: Letters of Advice from At-Risk Students to Freshmen


Commander, Nannette Evans, Valeri-Gold, Maria, Journal of Developmental Education


As professors involved in an undergraduate studies program at a major urban Southeastern university, our teaching assignment includes Survival Skills for College, a learning strategies course required for students experiencing academic difficulties. Topics such as memory, concentration, note taking, test taking, textbook mastery, time management, reading comprehension, and writing skills are addressed in a didactic format along with small group experiential learning sessions. Although the course does not fulfill a program requirement, it does provide an opportunity to earn a letter grade that is calculated into their grade point average as students learn valuable information necessary for academic success. The students required to enroll in this class may be described as at-risk by virtue of their grade point average falling between 1.75 and 2.0 and carrying 16-60 hours of earned academic credit. Their academic standing also results in an interestingly anxious and unique perspective on the academic world. Many have experienced failure or at best disappointment over their academic performance. Yet, many are resolved to improve their grades and "turn things around." One goal of the course is to combat the isolation and alienation often experienced by at-risk students and to connect them to other students, faculty, and campus resources that may be helpful.

Another teaching assignment is New Student Orientation, a course for first-semester students to assist with the transition from high school to college. Topics include time management, learning strategies, diversity, community service, health and wellness, research skills, and technology. Students who elect to enroll in this class are often eager and enthusiastic as they begin their college experience, and, for the most part, they positively anticipate the academic challenges they are facing. This course also has the goal to combat isolation and alienation often experienced by new students and to connect them to other students, faculty, and campus resources that may be helpful.

Although each course is tailored to meet the needs of a distinct group, at-risk or first-semester students, the overall goal of both courses is to foster retention by providing personal and academic support. The authors of this article concur that at-risk students have a great deal of valuable experience and information that they could share with incoming freshmen. Certainly advice from peers may be more powerful than advice from faculty or administrators. The act of giving advice to others also often underlines what one should be doing for him or herself, as is evidenced by the old expression, "Do as I say, not as I do." Respecting confidentiality of the at-risk students has been a primary concern as we consider alternatives for connecting these two groups of students.

Letter writing from the at-risk students to the first-semester students offers several positive features as a means of communication. A letter-writing assignment is not too lengthy or intimidating, and it communicates to the at-risk students that their "voice" and experiences are valuable and still maintains anonymity. A letter-writing assignment to freshmen also focuses on process rather than skills. Writing about personal experiences encourages reflection on strengths and weaknesses and may actually increase awareness of academic behaviors that support or work against academic success. Letters also offer the at-risk students an "authentic audience," and, since letter writing connects these two groups, it may help with feelings of isolation. Freshmen can learn that they're not the only students who have experienced feelings of doubt, homesickness, and concern over meeting new people.

Many researchers praise the use of letter writing. Dittner (1991) calls the "language of letters... [is] perhaps the closest to natural speech and represents the casual spontaneity we associate with conversation." He believes this conversational quality makes letters "a good form of writing to use with reluctant and beginning writers" (p. …

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