Transitioning From K-12 Teaching to Higher Education

March 3, 2023

Teachers at all levels of education face many challenges throughout their jobs. But for teachers and other educational professionals transitioning from teaching at the K-12 level to the college level, key differences in the content, student body, and administration can cause unique challenges over a semester. Without the proper resources, educators who transition from the K-12 to the college level can find it difficult to adequately navigate these challenges and meet the needs of their students. 

Suppose you are an educator who is in the process of transitioning from teaching at the K-12 level to teaching at the university level. In that case, it’s important to understand some of the specific challenges and issues you may face during the process.

The Differences Between K-12 Students and College Students

One major difference between K-12 classrooms and higher education institutions is the makeup and general characteristics of the student body. The differences between K-12 students and college-level students are somewhat obvious. After all, college students are older and usually take more advanced and specialized coursework compared to students at the K-12 level. But other key differences exist as well. If you are an educator moving to higher education, you should be aware beforehand of specific differences that may affect how you engage with your classrooms, present material, and serve your student’s needs. 

This is not to say that students at the college level are “easier” or “harder” to teach than students at the K-12 level. Students of all ages, from preschoolers to graduate students, have complex and multifaceted needs that educators must be finely attuned to. Instructors at all levels must form a partnership with their students. 

Additionally, all students at all levels of education are unique in many respects. Educators will often need to respond to the specific needs of individual students. But a generalized understanding of student needs at a particular education level can go a long way to proactively preparing to meet these needs ahead of time. Though this list is far from exhaustive, the following are a few general differences between students at the K-12 level and students at the college level.

Mandatory presence vs. desired presence

At all levels of education, what brings students to a classroom can vary from student to student. In most cases, students at the K-12 level are required to be there. This is usually due to a combination of legal requirements and parental demands. On the other hand, college students are usually in a college classroom of their own volition. When teaching college-level students, you will likely find different motivations and attitudes among the student body. 

No laws exist requiring college-age adults to attend higher education. But you can also think about your student’s presence in the classroom in terms of more personal coercion. College students (usually) do not have parents or adult guardians waking them up in the morning and forcing them to go to class. When teaching an undergraduate or graduate-level course, all students who are present in your classroom are there because they took the initiative themselves to wake up on time, get dressed, and arrive in the classroom at the designated time. 

The issue of mandatory presence vs. desired presence can cause your students to engage with the material differently, especially when you teach more specialized elective classes at the university level. While undergraduate programs usually include required courses, undergraduates also have the freedom to choose electives in which they have a more personal interest. 

This is even more true if you teach students pursuing a master’s degree or Ph.D. In general, these students are not only present in a class of their own free will but are actively interested in the subject area of that particular course. 

Diversity in backgrounds, ethnicities, cultures, etc. 

Depending on the school, you may notice differences in the diversity of your student body when transitioning from the K-12 to the college level. If you taught at a public elementary or high school, your student body was likely determined by the ethnic, cultural, and racial demographics of the school district. Private K-12 schools also may present specific racial and cultural demographics, especially if it is a religious school or a school with expensive tuition. 

Colleges and universities, on the other hand, may offer more diverse student bodies. This is especially true in recent years when more colleges and universities actively seek to admit diverse student bodies. You may encounter a broader range of cultural and ethnic backgrounds among your students at the college level. A more diverse student body is often rewarding in and of itself, but it can also mean that you must be aware of your student’s cultural backgrounds to adequately meet their educational needs. 

Levels of parental involvement

Another thing to keep in mind is that educators at the college and university level are likely to experience much less parental involvement than at the K-12 level. Part of this is due to legal requirements. After all, students at the K-12 level are minors, and their parents or guardians have legal obligations. However, students in colleges and universities are legal adults whose parents no longer have legal obligations to their care and well-being, with the occasional exception.

This is not to say that educators in higher education institutions will not have to deal with “helicopter parents” who continue to engage with their children’s education at a high level. But, in general, your interactions with your university-level students will be centered on the students themselves and not their parents. 

Mental health risks

Students of all ages, at all levels of education, experience mental health issues. Your obligations to recognize and respond to mental health issues with your students do not change when you switch from the K-12 level to the college level. 

However, the college level does present some differences regarding the specific mental health issues and the mental health support structure you will work with. K-12 schools, especially public schools, tend to have comprehensive mental health systems in place that teachers in these schools can take advantage of when dealing with students who may be having mental health issues. Most K-12 schools have individual counseling, case management, and referral services. 

Additionally, teachers of K-12 students often have the cooperation of the student’s parents in identifying potential mental health issues and crafting a care plan. While these mental health services may be lacking in funding or resources, and some parents may not be as present or engaged with their children’s mental health, K-12 teachers can usually take greater advantage of in-school counseling services and parental supervision to assist students with potential mental health issues. 

However, the mental health landscape at colleges and universities tends to be somewhat different, as are the most common mental health issues faced by students. Students at a university, being newly-established adults, will often have to seek out mental health resources on their own. These students may face higher levels of stress than they experienced at the K-12 level and may not yet have adequate resources to handle them. Students may also face new mental health challenges, such as sexual assault trauma, anxiety, social isolation, and more serious psychological issues that appear in early adulthood. 

Because these students are legal adults, instructors at the college level are less likely to have the full cooperation and support of parents or legal guardians when helping students with mental health issues. While university counseling services can be well-funded and comprehensive, students may have trouble accessing them or knowing where to turn if they are experiencing a mental health crisis. 

Instructors and educators at the university level should recognize how the specific stresses of university life can affect college students and take a more proactive approach to their university’s mental health resources to get their students the help they need. 

Mixtures of learning styles

You may experience a more complex mixture of learning styles within your day-to-day teaching at the university level. As with other cases, students at all levels of education, from preschool to graduate school, represent a wide range of learning styles and needs. But educators at the K-12 level may face more constraints and specific requirements when it comes to meeting their students’ learning needs. 

When you teach at the university level, you, as the educator, may have more freedom to work with different teaching techniques and respond to your student’s learning styles more freely. University classrooms may be more diverse in other respects as well. 

For example, universities are often more likely to include international students, or students from different cultural backgrounds, who may have grown up with a different learning style than the majority culture in your area. You will have more learning styles in your classroom that you will need to respond to, but it also means that you have more opportunities to evolve and adapt your teaching methods. 

Changes in Teaching Environments

Universities often have distinct teaching environments compared to K-12 schools. Understanding the key differences in teaching environments can help you transition from a K-12 school to a college or university. 

Structure and guidance for lesson plans

At the college level, educators usually have less guidance from the administration in structuring lesson plans. That said, you will likely find yourself using tools and strategies from the lesson plan structures of your K-12 courses. For example, K-12 lesson plans usually require specific learning objectives to meet and specific learning outcomes to serve as guideposts. Though the subject matter is more advanced, a university-level lesson can also benefit from these tools. In general, it’s a good idea to keep hold of the lesson plan guidance that you received from your K-12 teaching days and work on adapting this guidance to the specific needs of your new student body. 

Test formats

Another notable difference in K-12 and university-level teaching environments is the format of tests and exams. As with all cases, the type of test used by educators at the K-12 level may vary from school district to school district. But, in general, college-level educators have more freedom in crafting test formats, depending upon their course’s subject matter and level. 

You may have the freedom to format tests as essay writing, research projects, collaborative presentations, oral reports, or any number of more creative assessments. 

Class sizes

Class size can vary much more widely in college classes compared to K-12 classes. Depending on your school district, your previous K-12 classes were usually more or less uniform across an entire grade. Of course, some school districts, especially those that face class overcrowding, may have larger classes than others. But an average K-12 classroom usually contains between 15 and 25 students. 

However, your class sizes may vary significantly at the university level depending on several factors. Mandatory core courses can include dozens or hundreds of students in a large lecture hall. More advanced courses and seminars may be much smaller, featuring a core group of dedicated students. As the educator, your relationship with these students will likewise change depending on the class size. 

When teaching large lectures, your role will usually involve much more direct lecturing with limited student engagement. In a smaller seminar, you may be able to facilitate more student discussions, ask questions, foster mutual learning, and so on. 

Competitive jobs

When transitioning from the K-12 level to the university level, you may also notice some differences in the job market status. K-12 jobs tend to have a different level of competitiveness compared to jobs in higher education. This is especially true in tenure-track faculty positions at universities, where the job market is usually aimed more at applicants with doctorates or other advanced degrees in highly-specialized fields. 

Other higher education positions, such as those of an adjunct professor, associate professor, or instructor at a community college, often draw from a less competitive applicant pool of those with graduate degrees — usually at least a master’s degree — in specific subjects. Still, these instructors must usually be regarded as experts to some extent in the given field. 

At the K-12 level, however, the applicant pool comprises all who have pursued higher education in the field of education and hold the mandated credentials under the laws of their particular state. When transitioning from K-12 education to university education, you will likely need to work through specific educational requirements and the relative competitiveness of the job market in your new field. 

K-12 Courses vs. College Courses

Coursework between the K-12 and college levels tends to differ in a few notable ways. Your relationship to your courses is always vital to any academic position, but knowing ahead of time what your courses will look like will go a long way in preparing for each semester. 

Many educators at the elementary level will teach a wide range of subjects, though some schools may have specialized instructors. High school educators tend to focus on a particular subject, such as English, history, or mathematics. But high school teachers should still be prepared to teach various courses to different grades and levels. 

However, college-level educational paths involve distinct course requirements that you should take note of while making the transition. 

Freedom in creating lesson plans and tests

As mentioned previously, colleges and universities tend to offer less guidance in creating lesson plans. But this means college educators like yourself will usually have more freedom in creating and administering lesson plans for your courses. The university level also presents a wider range of courses, from large-scale lectures to smaller and more intimate seminars and discussion groups. Depending on the kinds of classes you will be teaching and the makeup of your students, you may find yourself more creative in developing and structuring your lesson plans. 

This applies to testing as well. The tests that you create and administer at the college level can vary significantly depending on the course level, the subject matter, the size of the class, the makeup of the class, and many other factors. Depending upon your university, department, and experience level, you may be free to create more innovative and avant-garde exams or assessments for your students vs. standard multiple-choice or essay-based exams.

Subject complexity

The complexity of your subjects will change considerably at the university level compared to the K-12 level. But this greater complexity often affords you more freedom to engage with your students in new and creative ways. Complex subject matter is usually less “settled” than the more basic overviews that you will teach at the K-12 levels. Therefore, you may find yourself with the opportunity to engage in a learning process of your own alongside your students. 

Making the Transition to College Education Easier With Caduceus 

The transition from K-12 education to college education can present numerous challenges. If this is a transition that you are looking to make, it’s a good idea to get the best educational resources at hand to deal with these and other issues. Caduceus’s online educational resources can help you craft curricula, administer exams, and deal with the unique challenges you may face when teaching university-level students. 

Caduceus offers educators like yourself comprehensive exam proctoring, flexible delivery options, and exceptional customer support that can make the transition from K-12 classes to college classes as seamless as possible. So, if you are making the big jump from K-12 education to the college classroom, get in touch with Caduceus today to see how our resources can help you.

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