Book Reviews

Book by: David T. Conley
Review by: Tim McCoy
Academic Advising-Gateway Center
Office of Undergraduate Education
University of Washington, Seattle


To know where our undergraduate students are “coming from” we must know something of their educational history.  David Conley provides a fine example of how secondary education, specifically as it pertains to postsecondary preparation, can become more coherent and instill in students “habits of mind and ways of knowing” (p.39).

Conley makes it clear that he is attempting to provide tools for making this important transition more seamless for students.  He notes that the comprehensive high school is barely one hundred years old and as late as the 1920s only 5% of high school graduates went to college.  The two educational systems were, and still are, very different.  The areas where better articulation may be achieved are vestiges of the history of education in the United States.  Conley (p. xi) makes a clear distinction between college eligibility and college readiness.    

As academic advisors we are witness to the rapid increase in students arriving at our colleges and universities with AP or IB credit, or having taken classes in a variety of dual enrollment programs now in existence.  While these programs undoubtedly affect the level of preparation for students who take advantage of them, Conley’s book takes a hard look at how this preparation can be measured and used to the students’ advantage once they are in college.  Conley asserts that the IB program, which began in 1970, is coherent in large part because of the integration and reflection required of students (p. 57).

With much of the data for his book generated by the Center for Educational Policy Research at the University of Oregon, Conley often refers to work being done at the Center and services that are available to secondary teachers and administrators.  One service offered by the Center is the Alignment and Challenge audit.  This is a process in which data on various dimensions of courses offered by secondary schools is entered into a database, and is then coded.  The goal is to inform educators of existing gaps (p. 64).  The Center has also developed a set of standards known as Knowledge and Skills for University Success.

Knowing our students’ personal and academic backgrounds serves as part of the foundation for a successful advisor-student relationship.  It is not uncommon for advisors to encounter students who  unfortunately are several terms into their studies and say things like “I did really well in Chemistry in high school, why am I struggling so much here?”  Conley would argue that it is because most students leave high school with a certain level of content knowledge, but little understanding of how to apply this knowledge in novel situations.

Written for a wide audience, College Knowledge can be a useful tool for those who work with first and second year students.  Perhaps most useful for academic advisors is part II of this book, containing great material on what happens to students during their first year of college and what the students themselves, parents, faculty and advisors can do to help the students succeed.


College Knowledge: What it Really Takes for Students to Succeed and What We Can Do to Get Them Ready. (2005). Book by David T. Conley. Review by Tim McCoy. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. 384 pp. ISBN  0-7879-7397-1


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