How College Works
A new book shows that college is a process, not a product.
“Good colleges have always been fundamentally human institutions.”
“The fundamental problem of higher education is no longer the availability of content, but rather the availability of motivation.”
Harvard University Press was kind enough to send me a copy of their recently released book, How College Works by Daniel F. Chambliss and Christopher G. Takacs, and I’ve spent a couple of days underlining things like the above.
“Human contact, especially face to face, seems to have an unusual influence on what students choose to do, on the directions their careers take, and on their experience of college. It has leverage, producing positive results far beyond the effort put into it.”
“When a professor sits down for a one-on-one writing conference, the student will concentrate more on her writing.”
It just so happens that I’m in the midst of one-on-one conferencing with my first-year writing students. The first assignment has been completed and assessed, and let’s just say, we’re all hoping for improvement. This is par for this course, as the transition from the kinds of discourse they were asked to practice in high school to writing in the academic conversation is inevitably bumpy.
In these conferences, I will say remarkably similar things to each student, sometimes to the point that I may feel like I’m going crazy. I have said all of these things in class when we are gathered together, in some cases multiple times, and yet somehow when I am in face-to-face conversation with my students and I say something simple like, “periods and commas go inside quotation marks” and I make them promise not to make the same error again, they will not make that error again.
The purpose of these conferences, as I’ve come to realize over time, is not in the conveyance of information or reinforcement of course content. When I have these conversations, what I am really saying to these students is:
I am paying attention.
I care and I would like you to care as well.
What we’re doing here really is important.
I now see that I am trying to bridge the motivation gap. Having once been an unmotivated student, I know how important this can be.
The conferences are time consuming, adding an additional eight hours onto the normal, already busy work week, but in my experience, they are an opportunity to have the “unusual influence” that Chambers and Takacs speak of.
How College Works is the product of more than a decade of research using the tools of applied social science in studying the “student experience” at Hamilton College in New York.
My neck was sore from nodding in agreement with their findings.
The book shares the narrative of the student experience, what happens to students as they move through their educations, all the way from arrival to graduation. This is an important distinction. They do not try to measure what students have learned, but what it is like to live through college, and what those experiences mean both during the time at school, as well as going forward.
Following this narrative, the authors offer ten “lessons learned,” including their last one:
“Isolated from the people who carry them out, programs, practices and pedagogies seem to have little impact. What matters instead is who meets whom and when. Programs succeed only when they bring the right people together. If the right people are involved, a variety of curricula can serve colleges well. If they aren’t, no curriculum will work.”
Their message to students is that they should choose teachers over curriculum, and the people you meet in college will be important to you for the rest of your lives. For faculty, we should be doing all we can to increase the face-to-face hours we spend with our students.
According to the authors, strategic planning is almost always a waste of time and resources when it tries to “microengineer human behavior” since human behavior is inherently messy. Higher ed is not a project for hardcore rationalists.
There’s no harm in pedagogical innovation, and new learning strategies can work, “when enthusiastically adopted. But for leaders trying to improve results, efforts both to change such practices as well as to improve individual professors teaching will often prove frustrating. Lots of time and money can be spent with little to show.”
And the detailed assessment that has come into vogue with the rise of data analytics is largely a waste of time. Their solution is simple and elegant, and to my mind, true: ten years after a freshman class enters the school, survey a random sample and ask them: What did you think of our college? What were the best things? What were the worst? How could we do better?
This allows students to remove themselves from the “trivial aggravations” of college and look at the entire experience. This makes perfect sense to me.
All of this reinforces for me what I believe to be a fundamental truth of education, that it is not a product, but a process.
We don’t earn a degree. We have experiences.
While much of How College Works is telling me things I already know, or at least suspected, it has sensitized me to how often the person-to-person relationships I develop with my students may have an impact on their lives. For example, just a week ago, a student from last semester felt comfortable enough asking me if I had time to talk about the possibility of choosing English as his major.
This week, I’ll write two recommendations for scholarships and another for transfer to another school. While any success on those endeavors will go entirely to the credit of the students themselves, if someone wasn’t there to write those recommendations, they wouldn’t even be allowed to put their hats in the ring.
The inevitable consequence of that vision is to close off what is most meaningful about education. It is throwing out baby, bathwater, and bathtub.
And every dollar we invest in that vision is a dollar we don’t have to spend on these things we know work, and work well.
How does Twitter work? Who knows?
 We should practice some caution and recognize that in a lot of ways, the research speaks to my particular choir and that, as the authors themselves emphasize, as a small, liberal arts college with a healthy endowment, Hamilton is not strictly typical. That said, the experiences jibe very much with my own having attended and taught at much larger public universities, and while the nature or volume of person to person interaction may be different at non-residential colleges that doesn’t negate the importance or impact of those interactions.
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