More Support Needed for Overachievers

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One of the growing trends in higher education is the increased number of students who choose to double major.  These overachievers tend to fill (overfill) their schedules in an attempt to maximize their undergraduate experience and increase their opportunities for career choices.

A recent study published by the Curb Center for Art, Enterprise and Public Policy at Vanderbilt University provided an enlightening perspective on these students, the value of double majoring and the attitudes towards this phenomenon by most colleges and universities.

Sociologists Richard Pitt and Steven Tepper analyzed survey results of 1,760 seventh semester students at nine institutions: Duke, Emory, Ohio State, Trinity, Vanderbilt, Texas (Austin campus), Dartmouth, Knox and Wooster.  The survey was conducted through the web and asked students to provide information about their “academic choices, motivations, and measures of creative thinking and achievement.”  Within the sample group, 19% were pursuing double majors.

The first important insight from this study is the delineation of types of double major combinations most commonly chosen by students. The first type is identified as “hyper-specialization” majors or “deepeners.”  These students pick two majors in the same or similar disciplines (e.g., two humanities, two social sciences) that complement each other and blend easily.  

The second type is called “hypo-specialization” majors or “spanners” or “Renaissance students.”  These students pick majors from very disparate disciplines (e.g., a hard science and the arts).  Their choices provide the greatest challenge (and opportunity) to “bridge the furthest intellectual distance.”

This study also concludes that these students learn and think differently. The authors conclude that as our society demands more and more graduates capable of innovative thinking and higher level problem-solving skills, the answer may be in encouraging more double majors.

These students are “better at integrating knowledge, tend to think differently, and approach learning more creatively.”  These characteristics are more evident in “spanners” because of the different orientations of their varied disciplines.

The study also poses and answers two important questions:

1)    Are these students over-extended?

2)    How should institutions better support these students?

I will share these results and my own thoughts and observations next week.

(As always, your comments and questions are welcome.)

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Guest Friday, 01 August 2014