Transitional Fossils

Gaining insight into college pathways by looking at how evolution has handled things.

Photo of Emma Scripps
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When prompted to look at the world of transitions, I thought about the natural world.  What can we learn about how to make the college transition more seamless from the way nature handles transitions? And then I asked myself - what about transitional organisms?

Transitional organisms are ones that show in-between qualities between its ancestral forms and that of its descendants. In other words, it sort of looks like stuff that came before it and sort of looks like stuff that will come after it.

Researching these transitional organisms briefly, I thought of three lessons we might learn from how good ol’ evolution has handled things:

  • Test stuff out before you go all the way. Organisms transitioning from sea to land had hundreds of years (or more) to see if leg-like things might be beneficial to reproduction and survival. In other words, transitional organisms had lots of time to test out new features. That's a good insight for us. How might we help students test out and try new experiences that might come about when entering postsecondary institutions earlier? What if we designed test-like experiences - like a weekend students spend away from home in a college-like environment - to help students better prepare and imagine themselves in college? 

  • Harmonize with the environment. Evolution comes about thanks to random genetic mutations that just so happen to work better within a particular context. But that last bit - that’s an insight. What are the unique characteristics and needs of each student - and how can we help to better match those unique needs to a postsecondary institution that’s right for them? How might we track students in a more nuanced way so that we can more effectively match them with postsecondary institutions that best fit their unique needs?  

  • Er, transitions are imperfect. It turns out, if you look at some of these transitional organisms closely, a lot of them were sort of stuck in a long (i.e. several millennia) awkward phase. So it goes with transitions. They’re kind of awkward, clunky, and difficult anyhow. So - let’s get more honest about the narrative of transitioning into college. Most students don’t graduate in four years. But that’s the dream that’s often sold to them. How might we become more honest about the realities of going to college with students so they're more prepared and ready for what it's actually like? 
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Photo of George Schneider

I really like this idea Emma. When working with my students on their transition from one chapter to the next I used a similar example; The transition of a snake shedding its skin. This is a useful metaphor because the snake actually goes blind for a little while and becomes irritable because of its vulnerability. Its previous skin because to small for it to allow for future growth or movement. The transition can be painful for the animal and it often requires a 'partner' to undergo a successful transition. I got the students to map their transition themselves based on the snakes anatomy. I didn't cover the three lessons you listed there, I really enjoyed reading them because they add a different perspective. Thank you

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