The Unknown Unknowns

The Unknown Unknowns

Last month I wrote about helping first-year students begin to speak the “language of college,” and in that discussion I was reminded of the many things we take for granted that students must know when they arrive, but don’t. Before doctors can treat an illness, they must first diagnose it, just as before any of us can solve a problem, we must first identify it. At times this can be relatively easy: if a patient walks into a hospital with a broken leg, well, he’s probably going to need a cast. But other problems are not so easy to diagnose.

The most difficult situation, of course, is when we don’t know what we don’t know. These unknown unknowns prevent us from even understanding where to start problem-solving, and this is the reality many of my students find themselves facing when they first walk in my door. So one of the first questions I always ask is, “why do YOU think you have ended up on academic probation or warning?” The answer is usually the most obvious one: “my grades weren’t very good.” I see this response as a portal, an entryway into a discussion that can go quite deep as students explore the real, foundational causes of their academic troubles.

Take Bryce, a student I began working with after his disastrous first semester at school. Bryce had come in as a freshman business major with grades good enough not to have been immediately placed in the Success Coaching program. However, his fall semester grades had been dismal. So when we met, I asked him the question: “why do YOU think your fall grades were what they were?” Bryce punted at first, but eventually he got around to what I already knew from talking to some of his professors. “Well, he finally admitted, “I guess I missed a lot of classes.” That was an understatement. According to my informal investigation, Bryce had simply not gone to pretty much any of his classes. Ever. This, of course, got us closer to the issue, but there were still layers upon layers yet to discover. Why hadn’t he gone to class?

The reasons why students make the decisions they do, of course, are varied and complex. Sometimes they are not even fully aware of why they do what they do, for late adolescence is a veritable cornucopia of unknown unknowns. Thankfully with Bryce, we eventually got to the bottom of it. It turns out that he had decided to major in business because he thought that would be the most effective way to help his family out financially once he graduated, but once he got into business courses, he found them both painfully boring and not at all well-suited to his skill set and strengths. The fact that he hated the classes caused him to lose motivation, and in the vacuum left behind crept in the fear and the shameful thought, “what if I just can’t hack it even if I wanted to?” So he didn’t go to class. He couldn’t go. And once he had missed enough class, the reality of his failure made finding a way out seem impossible.

None of this, of course, Bryce realized consciously while it was happening. He was too consumed by bigger, scarier questions: “If not this, then what? If not the future I planned, then what kind of future will take its place, especially if I’m not cut out for college?” But once we got to the root of it, once we diagnosed the problem, we were in a position to start fixing it. Soon we were having discussions about what Bryce really liked to do. What was he good at? What interested him? It turns out he had never really considered the idea that he could match his skills and passions with a college major. By the next week, Bryce had changed his major, and seemed to waltz into my office like a great weight had been taken off of him. He liked his new courses (except for the prerequisite math class that I reminded him everyone was suffering through just as he was), and even felt like he could contribute in class. Did he still have a pretty big mountain to climb given his first semester grades? Yep. But now Bryce felt set up for success instead of failure. And better than that, he had started to learn to be self-reflective when confronted with a problem.

It is skills like these- the ability to diagnose your own problems and even start to recognize patterns of behavior- that will be essential to a student’s success during and far beyond their college days. As success coaches, our primary job is to help students’ graduate, but if we can help them cultivate the skills that will last them a lifetime…it’s not a bad day at the office.

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