The Key Influence on Choosing a Major

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There is a book that will not be released until next February that I am anxious to read. Entitled, How College Works, this book will provide insights on how colleges can provide the highest quality education even with limited budgets and modest increases in financial aid. The book promises to provide strategies to improve the educational experience of students that, according to the authors’ research, can be successful, but not terribly expensive.

The authors, Christopher Takacs and Daniel Chambliss, recently made a presentation at the American Sociological Association annual meeting and shared one of their key findings that will be included in the book. Simply said, their research supports the notion that a student’s decision about his/her major is significantly influenced by the first professor who teaches an introductory course. An inspiring and caring faculty member will lead to a positive decision to continue in that major. A single negative experience in this introductory course will often lead to a decision to look for another major.

The basis for this conclusion was a study of 100 students at a small college. The researchers tracked the educational choices of these students. Through interviews, these students shared their original educational plans and the reasons why they either continued with that major or changed to another major. Student interviews covered both the four years of college and post college years.

The results raise significant questions about the common belief that students choose majors because of the potential for financial success.   According to this research, “quality of teaching” and personal attention from faculty members is more important. The authors note that the attempts to attract students to STEM majors (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) typically include data about job opportunities and income levels. This research argues that who teaches these courses, especially at the introductory level, could very well be a more important recruiting tool.

The authors’ recommendations are logical and straightforward. If departments and majors want more students to study their disciplines, they need to have their best faculty members teach introductory courses. These are often courses in the general education curriculum where students are first exposed to various fields of study.

While this may seem logical, it is not the common practice. Most often the senior faculty in a department are assigned to upper level courses and/or allowed to spend part of their time in research or individual work with upper class majors. Many of these faculty members prefer not to teach introductory classes which can be larger in size and include students less serious about the discipline.

The authors make it clear that the affinity for the discipline is not simply related to the quality of lectures and classroom presentations. Student interest is more highly correlated to “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."

Freshmen will be arriving on our campuses in a matter of days. Decisions about field of studies and majors will be made in the coming months. Hopefully, their interests will be matched with the best professors we have!

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

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Guest Wednesday, 23 April 2014