Learning from Students
I am a statistician, but I am impressed by the power of individuals' heartfelt stories. Throughout my book (Making the Most of College: Students Speak Their Minds), I use quotations from students' interviews to illustrate each point. Students who agreed to be interviewed were told that they might be quoted. Several actively urged me to include specific stories they thought would be helpful to future students. Many of those stories are here. I have edited the quotations a bit, omitting "ums" and "ahs," reducing repetition, and, with each student's permission, occasionally tightening the prose to make a point clear.
Where did all these stories come from? All findings in this book come from in-depth interviews. Early on, my colleagues and I decided that to learn what works best for students, we should ask them. So we did. More than sixteen hundred undergraduates have been interviewed during this effort, many of them more than once. Some were interviewed by faculty members: I myself interviewed four hundred. Other interviews were conducted by undergraduates, who were carefully trained and supervised by faculty members. Interviews ranged from one to three hours.
These personal interviews paint an entirely different picture from the kind of information that comes from a large-scale, check-box style of survey questionnaire. As a statistician, I know there are many circumstances in which questionnaires with check-box categories are a superb format for gathering evidence. In fact, I teach a course on this topic. Yet for this particular research, personal interviews offer a special depth and richness that no check-box questionnaire, however well designed, could easily tap.
One reason is that the personal interviews are loaded with details. It is one thing for a student to say that a particular class had a powerful impact on her thinking. It is far more useful to understand why this class had such power, how it was organized, and whether other faculty members and students can benefit in their own work from this success story. The more illustrations a student can offer to buttress a point, the better and more helpful that point is for other students.
For me, interviewing four hundred undergraduates was a special pleasure. Harvard undergraduates have strong views. They come here expecting a lot. Nearly all are enthusiastic and productive, and nearly all students also have suggestions for improving both academic and nonacademic aspects of college. They constantly question what we do, what they do, how to do it better, what they are getting and giving in this demanding community. Their convictions are changing the way I, and many of my colleagues, think about teaching and advising.
I hope students reading this book will find many of the results useful. Advice from fellow undergraduates, based on their own experiences both good and bad, should be helpful as students think about making decisions. What to look for when choosing classes, and the faculty members who teach them? How to interact most productively with advisors and mentors? What to consider when deciding about living arrangements? How to allocate time? The students we interviewed have suggestions about all these topics.
Some of what we have learned from students fits what we expected, but certain insights are surprising, at least to me. Let me preview nine of our findings here. And these are just the beginning.
First, I assumed that most important and memorable academic learning goes on inside the classroom, while outside activities provide a useful but modest supplement. The evidence shows that the opposite it true: learning outside of classes, especially in residential settings and extracurricular activities such as the arts, is vital. When we asked students to think of a specific, critical incident or moment that had changed them profoundly, four-fifths of them chose a situation or event outside the classroom.
Second, I expected students to prefer courses in which they could work at their own pace, courses with relatively few quizzes, exams, and papers until the end of the term. Wrong again. A large majority of students say they learn significantly more in courses that are highly structured, with relatively many quizzes and short assignments. Crucial to this preference is getting feedback from the professor--ideally with and opportunity to revise and make changes before receiving a final grade. In contrast, students are frustrated and disappointed with classes that require only a final paper. How can we ever improve our work, they ask, when the only feedback comes after a course is over, and when no revision is invited?
A third surprise has to do with homework. When I was in college years ago, nearly every professor announced that I should do my homework alone. Discussing problem sets or essay assignments with other students, I was told, would be considered cheating. Yet at many campuses today, professors increasingly are encouraging students to work together on homework assignments. Some faculty members are even creating small study groups in their courses, to help students work together outside of class.
A few students tell of professors who gave homework assignments that are so challenging or complex that the only way to get the work done is to collaborate. To complete such assignments, students have to work cooperatively, dividing up the readings and meeting outside of class to teach one another. Many undergraduates report that such homework assignments increase both their learning and their engagement with a class. This alteration in the format of homework is a genuine cultural change, one that is happening on campuses across the country.
A fourth finding: student after student brings up the importance of class size in his or her academic development. Not surprisingly, small-group tutorials, small seminars, and one-to-one supervision are, for many, their capstone experience. Yet what I find surprising is that some undergraduates, when asked to identify a particularly critical or profound experience at college, identify a mentored internship not done for academic credit. The word "mentor" is used in many ways, and undergraduates we interviewed are very clear about what constitutes effective mentoring. A key idea here is that students get to create their own project and then implement it under the supervision of a faculty member. Instead of following a professor's plan, they face the new challenge of developing their own plan and applying it to a topic they care about.
Fifth, for most students the impact of racial and ethnic diversity on their college experience is strong. An overwhelming majority of undergraduates characterize its effects as highly positive. Students can learn much from others who come from different backgrounds, whether ethnic, geographic, political, religious, or economic. Yet many point out that learning from people of different backgrounds does not always happen naturally. Campus atmosphere and especially residential living arrangements are crucial.
Ironically, even the happiest students are sharply critical of platitudes about the virtues of diversity. Most have experienced unpleasant moments, awkward encounters, and sometimes worse. They point out that only when certain preconditions are met does "the good stuff" actually happen. They also note the good news that those preconditions are factors that campus leaders can do something about. Campus leaders can do much to shape an environment in which diversity strengthens learning.
A sixth finding: students who get the most out of college, who grow the most academically, and who are happiest organize their time to include activities with faculty members, or with several other students, focused around accomplishing substantive academic work. For some students this is difficult. Interacting in depth with faculty members or even with fellow students around substantive work does not always come naturally. Yet most students at Harvard learn to do it with great success. Both advisors and other faculty members can help this process along.
A seventh finding: I was surprised by students' strong attitude toward writing. I would have guessed that they value good writing, but I didn't realize how deeply many of them care about it, or how strongly they hunger for specific suggestions about how to improve it.
Eighth, I would have expected a general feeling among students that good advising is important. Yet that is a platitude. It is the specifics that are striking. A large majority of graduates describe particular activities outside the classroom as profoundly affecting their academic performance. Some point to study techniques, such as working in small groups outside of class. Others tell of more personal exercises, such as formal time-logging.
Ninth, I expected many undergraduates to characterize work in foreign languages and literatures as merely a requirement to be gotten out of the way. In fact, hardly any do this. Students talk about language courses with special enthusiasm. Many rate them among the best of all their classes. Alumni agree, and strongly. When asked why, both groups point to the way these courses are organized and taught.
There is a clear lesson here. Students have thought a lot about what works well for them. We can learn much from their insights. Often their insights are far more helpful, and more subtle, than any vague conventional wisdom about what constitutes a valuable college education.
Do These Findings Generalize?
This is not just a Harvard story. My visits to other campuses have convinced me that the findings in this book apply broadly. At every college I visit, whether highly selective or not, private or public, large or small, national or regional, students are eager to share their experiences, to tell what works at their place. I am struck by how much of what Harvard students say.
Wherever I go, I ask faculty, students, and administrators whether the ideas and suggestions I present about teaching, advising, maximizing students' engagement, and capitalizing on diversity apply on their campus. On more than ninety campuses the response has been clear: "Yes, most of those ideas would work well here."
For example, I recently shared some findings from this book at a large public university on the West Coast. When I described the positive student reaction to meeting in small groups outside of classes to go over homework, readings, and problem sets, the reaction from both faculty and students was, "If it works at Harvard, it should be even more valuable here, where faculty resources are less plentiful." Enough other campuses have now implemented enough of the suggestions in this book that I believe it would be a shame to say, "Those findings are so Harvard." Maybe a select few won't generalize-for example, our findings about the importance of undergraduate residence halls apply only to residential colleges-but it is clear that most generalize quite well.
I know that enormous differences exist among American colleges. Yet at nearly all of them, administrators and faculty members share with students a wish to enhance learning, improve instruction, and organize their campuses so that racial and ethnic differences can make a positive contribution to everyone's experience. If the findings I present here help students and leaders on many campuses take a few steps toward achieving these outcomes, I will consider this book a great success.
Downloaded from Tomorrow’s Professor listserv, August 11, 2001. The excerpt is from: Making the Most of College: Students Speak Their Minds, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts. Copyright 2001. All rights reserved, Printed in the USA.
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