NEW YORK -- Why are some majors more popular than others with undergraduates? Is it the perception that they lead to good (well paying) jobs? Are certain fields naturally more attractive to new undergraduates? Will students respond to tuition incentives to pick (or bypass) some fields?
Maybe it’s much more simple: Undergraduates are significantly more likely to major in a field if they have an inspiring and caring faculty member in their introduction to the field. And they are equally likely to write off a field based on a single negative experience with a professor.
Those are the findings of a paper presented here during a session at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association by Christopher G. Takacs, a graduate student in sociology at the University of Chicago, and Daniel F. Chambliss, a professor of sociology at Hamilton College. The paper is one part of How College Works,  their forthcoming book from Harvard University Press.
In their study, they tracked the educational choices of about 100 students at a college that isn’t named but that sounds like Hamilton College. Students were interviewed about their original educational plans and why they either followed through on those plans or changed them, and they were tracked over their college careers and after graduation as well.
What they found challenges the views of many experts that choice of major is “fixed” by such factors as a desire for a lucrative career. And their findings also suggest that those policy makers who want to attract more students to science and technology fields need to focus on teaching quality in those fields, not just financial benefits.
Overwhelmingly, the authors write, students’ "taste formation" in choice of major is due to faculty members, although the influence can go either way. "Faculty determine students' taste for academic fields by acting as gatekeepers, either by welcoming them into an area of knowledge, encouraging and inspiring them to explore it, or by raising the costs of entry so high so as to effectively prohibit continuing in it," Takacs and Chambliss write. "Faculty can positively or negatively influence student taste for a field -- some compelling teachers can get students engaged in fields that they previously disliked, while other, more uncharismatic faculty can alienate students from entire bodies of knowledge, sometimes permanently."
The research found the role of the first faculty member is strong whether the student has an intended major or doesn’t. And the interviews -- up to four years after graduation -- found that students remembered the professors who inspired them and those who annoyed them, and attributed their decisions on majors to those faculty members.
In interviews here, both authors said that there are clear implications for colleges and departments that want to encourage students to major (or at least consider majoring) in certain fields. And the change may be more important in departments where senior faculty members may not want to teach freshmen.
"It’s important for department chairs and deans to recognize who their more skilled teachers are, and the teachers they can use to draw students into certain majors," Takacs said. College leaders need to go to departments and say “why don’t you get so-and-so to teach this introductory course.”
There is real danger in failing to do so, he added. Many of the students indicated that they made judgments not just on the professor or his or her discipline, but entire branches of disciplines -- with a bad course in any science field, for example, leading students to write off all science. The authors, based on their interviews, talk about the phenomenon of “majoring in a professor.”
Chambliss said that there may be some fields that so many freshmen want to study that a single bad experience may not be decisive. But for lesser-known fields, or subjects thought to be challenging, enrollments are going to fall.
"English and history can probably survive a bad course, but geology can’t," Chambliss said. Nor can subjects with sequential curriculum, where students must move from course to course in a pattern and can't skip over a course taught by someone with a bad teaching reputation. This is the case in many science fields.
"Once they leave, they don’t come back," he said. "It’s important to do better in your intro course than in your capstone courses."
Of course, as others here pointed out in questions to the authors during their presentation, many departments let their senior scholars focus on the senior seminars or graduate courses. And one sociologist here, while agreeing that the authors were correct, said she wondered about the “backlash” a chair or dean would get upon telling a senior faculty member who was a skilled teacher that his or her reward was going to be teaching the intro course.
But Chambliss said that this is in fact what they should do. He noted that departments spend a lot of time talking about how to make their overall curriculum more inviting, but that a “very small intervention” and one that doesn’t necessarily cost any money can be more transformative. At a large university, making sure the right person is teaching the intro course can affect the experience and future choices of 500 or more students each semester, he said. “If you put someone who is not as good, you have damaged a lot of students.” (Chambliss practices what he preaches. A senior member of Hamilton’s sociology department, he is also one of those who teaches the 101 course there.)
Chambliss and Takacs acknowledged that the impact of the first instructor may be different at some large universities, where students apply and enroll in divisions of a university focused on, for example, business or engineering or liberal arts. But they said that they suspect that within those divisions, one would find the same impact.
One of the arguments offered by proponents of massive open online courses is that they can expose students around the world to “the best professor” in a given field.
Chambliss is quick to say that this research does not back the idea that MOOCs will attract students to various fields. “Charisma alone is not the answer,” he said, noting that while part of the students’ judgments of their professors in the new study was based on the quality of lectures and presentations, far more was about the extent to which professors were engaged with students, took steps to get to know their students, were personally accessible, and so forth.
"This is about the caliber of the people you meet in the classroom," he said.