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Making the Most of College: Students Speak Their Minds

By Richard J. Light
Harvard UP
256 Pages
ISBN: 0-674-00478-7 (hardcover)

Reviewed by

Laura Hecht

Department of Sociology
CSU Bakersfield


I approached this book with enthusiastic ambivalence. Enthusiastic, because it presented a rigorous study of students' ideas of the factors they felt contributed positively to their college experiences, as well as meaningful suggestions of what might be changed. Ambivalent, because I wasn't sure how well the findings might be generalized to my own school, since on the face of it Harvard University couldn't be more different from the school at which I teach, CSU Bakersfield. As it turns out, enthusiasm won out over ambivalence. While not all findings--such as the sections on residential life--may be useful for guiding positive change in my own university, most were. And I am confident that all findings are relevant for our system, given the diversity of campuses across the CSU.

This book also helped me to think about assessment in a new way. As near as I can tell, assessment in my institution focuses on how well students master the content of programs, whether they be in the major or in general education themes. In contrast, Light reports on the results of an assessment study having a much more ambitious agenda: assessing students' college experience as a whole. Indeed, there is little discussion of mastery of subject areas but a good deal of exploration of the actual or potential intersections of different functional areas of the university as they affect students' intellectual and social growth and development.

The study began in 1986, when the author was invited by the president of Harvard University to bring colleagues together to design and implement research aimed at evaluating the university's effectiveness and to make recommendations for improvement. The working groups deliberately rejected an assessment of "what students know" in favor of a study of the effectiveness of innovations in teaching and advising. Thus, the group shifted the underlying question from a focus on product (What do students know?) to a focus on process (What are the conditions under which students learn best?). This, I think, is the major contribution of this work. The question drove the research methodology, and over 1,600 in-depth student interviews lasting from one to three hours were conducted by both faculty and trained undergraduate students. Analyses focused not only on uncovering recurring themes but also on teasing out the policy implications of those findings.

The number of important and interesting findings of this study is high, so I limit my discussion to a few which seem universally useful, regardless of the type of educational institution or program. One finding of special interest to me is that the interviews showed that students were highly motivated to improve their writing (a finding that surprised the author) and appeared to be more engaged in classes that required more rather than less writing. Students offered a variety of suggestions as to how faculty can help them to improve their writing, such as assigning a greater number of shorter papers to allow ongoing feedback rather than one extensive paper due at the end of the term. Another suggestion resonated deeply with me. Among seniors interviewed, there was near consensus on the recommendation that upper-division writing instruction be integrated within a substantive discipline. These results confirm my own experience. Last year, the Dean of Students made available to me an advanced graduate student in English to act as an adjunct in a course I taught in advanced research methodology, a course that is required of our undergraduate Sociology majors. The adjunct organized her instruction around the requirements of the term project, in which students conducted original empirical research and wrote their results in the format of a professional journal article. She presented a lecture introducing students to conceptual and organizational tools for writing an integrated, problem-oriented literature review and subsequently met with students weekly in small groups to mentor them through the writing process. The results were astonishing. The students that term were not particularly more talented than those I had taught previously in that course; however, the quality of their final papers was the best I have ever seen--or expect to see again without similar support.

Interestingly, the researchers also found that how students study and complete out-of-class assignments has a greater impact on their engagement with learning than how an instructor teaches. Students felt strongly that effective classes were those with clear, well-designed homework assignments, and they rated assignments that required them to work collaboratively as more valuable than those that required them to work alone. Students did not care for having a group grade, however, and felt strongly that grading should reflect the quality of their individual efforts. This finding lends support to the idea that good courses are assignment-centered, a current focus of faculty workshops offered by the teaching and learning center at my school.

The study also identified symptoms that may indicate that a student is having trouble in college as well as factors that may contribute to those struggles. These warning signs include feelings of isolation from the rest of the campus community and an unwillingness to seek help. Several key causes for these student difficulties were also identified. Among the most salient were poor time management, a tendency to organize their college work the same way that they did in high school, and difficulty in developing and refining critical thinking skills. Injudicious course selection also led to problems for some students. Most frequently, this occurred when students, hoping to get basic requirements out of the way quickly, ended up with a full schedule of large-lecture classes that often impeded engagement and increased the sense of isolation. These findings are particularly useful for faculty. As teachers we are in a position to notice warning signs (although this becomes more difficult as class sizes increase), and as advisors we are presented with the opportunity to help struggling students to overcome the sources of their difficulties. Indeed, one lesson of this research is that there is no substitute for good advising, and students both want and need advisors to do more than to provide counsel on courses and careers.

A third noteworthy contribution of this work is the analysis of the contribution of racial, ethnic, and religious diversity to students' college experiences. Students were asked to reflect on their experiences within classes, in extracurricular activities, and in residential life. Students' assessments of the impact of a diverse environment were overwhelmingly positive, comprising over two-thirds of students' accounts. They emphasized, however, that it was not the presence of a diverse student body that made the difference, but rather the presence of a culture of diversity, in which structural arrangements encouraged, and sometimes required, interaction across group boundaries. For example, with regard to extracurricular student groups, Harvard strongly recommends co-sponsorship between groups of campus activities such as invited lectures, performances, and social events, with the goal of not only fostering inclusion, but also giving students experience in working together to identify broader interests and to solve the problems that may arise from working with others having different experiences and perspectives.

This book provides insights on enhancing students' college experiences that make it a valuable reference for students, faculty, and perhaps in particular for university administrators. For those reasons alone, I strongly recommend this book. It is also of value in another respect, as a model for conducting rigorous assessment that goes beyond questions of what students learn and engages questions of how they best learn, and to what effect. With the proper resources, this model might be replicated in the CSU, whose institutions often grapple with challenges not as prevalent among selective private universities like Harvard. Light makes the point that students enter their first year at Harvard with high expectations about their college experience. Compared to those in the CSU, a far smaller proportion of students at Harvard are likely to be first-generation college students, and those who are first-generation have likely received a good deal of mentoring at the high school level to help to prepare them for life at a selective, residential college. In contrast, it seems that many students entering the CSU have ill-formed conceptions of what to expect, beyond a credential that will help them to earn a decent living. At Harvard, there are many activities for first-year students, both required and elective, to help them to adjust to, and succeed in, college life. However, many of our CSU students transfer after doing lower-division work at community colleges, making the problem of socialization and integration more difficult. We also have a higher proportion of students with complex lives, including heavy family and work responsibilities, again posing a challenge for maximizing the positive aspects of the college experiences. None of these problems are insurmountable, of course. However, in-depth assessment using the model developed by Light and his colleagues, which goes to the source--the students--to identify problems and solutions, may provide the most useful answers yet to help us to find better ways to enhance the learning of all of our students.

Posted July 29, 2002

All material appearing in this journal is subject to applicable copyright laws.
Publication in this journal in no way indicates the endorsement of the content by the California State University, the Institute for Teaching and Learning, or the Exchanges Editorial Board. ©2002 by Laura Hecht.

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