The Overachievers … Continued

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Last week I introduced a study related to the growing number of students who choose to double major in college. I referred to these students as “overachievers.”  The study, “Double Majors: Influences, Identities and Impacts,“ authored by two sociologists at Vanderbilt University, classified them as either “deepeners” (double major in similar disciplines for a depth of study), “spanners,” or “Renaissance students” (double major in disparate disciplines for a breadth of study).

As I indicated last week, the study also poses and answers two important questions:

1)    Are these students over-extended?

2)    How should institutions better support these students?

For those who discourage students from double majoring, it is common for the concern to be over-extending, which will negatively impact performance. This study reaches a very different conclusion. This research indicates that students who double major “are classic ‘do more, do more’ students.”

These students are more involved in co-curricular activities than their single majoring counterparts; they more often assume leadership positions in clubs, organizations, SGA, athletic teams; are more involved in service programs and volunteerism; regularly attend outside activities like lectures, exhibits, discussion groups; and, are more likely to engage in research projects with faculty, independent study and research, and honors programs.

The concern raised by this study is that colleges and universities in general and faculty in particular do too little to encourage and support double majoring.  Since these students are often the best and the brightest, some faculty are parochial, preferring these students to remain within their discipline. The study found little evidence that advisors and faculty help these students to optimize their integrated learning and better connect the disciplines they choose to pursue.

My own belief is that we should encourage, not discourage, these interests. I applaud students who do their best to maximize their educational experience inside and outside of the classroom.  But I think it is important to do two things.

First, we need to help these students to better understand why they are choosing to double major.  If it is simply an attempt to build a transcript and a resume for future job viability, that would lead to a different choice than a genuine interest in learning and in liberal education.

Second, I think double majors need to have the opportunity to meet with an advisor who can help them to see the relationship between the various areas of study.  Understanding and appreciating the connection between art and science, history and math, science and philosophy require a depth of knowledge and an appreciation of learning that may not be readily present with undergraduate students.

So my advice regarding overachievers … teach them even more!

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

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Guest Friday, 18 April 2014