How College Works: First Appreciation

One of the most extreme extreme cases of an unfair division in attention to two different books dealing with the same subject is the difference between William Deresiewicz’ Excellent Sheep and Daniel Chambliss and Christopher Takacs’ How College Works.

The one thing you can say about the intense attention to Deresiewicz’ book is that it goes a long way towards verifying some of his argument. E.g., a critique of the most elite institutions for producing coddled, soulless meritocrats touches a lot of influential people in a sensitive spot, and thus clears the way for lots of column inches in the mainstream media as well as lots of social media chatter.

But Chambliss and Takacs have done a huge amount of sensitive, interesting, qualitative work on one hundred students at Hamilton College over nearly a decade. They don’t denounce anyone or run around talking about the falling skies. But neither do they just wave everyone away and say that all is well. If you were looking for an understanding of how higher education works but also an explanation of what isn’t working, or what could work better, this book is where you should start. It’s where the national conversation should be, not the least because the findings in the book should discomfort or surprise most of the stakeholders in higher education.

The book suggests that some of what faculty fervently worry about and spend time discussing around curricular planning and pedagogy is at least a waste of their time. It suggests that administrators who focus on enrollment levels may have much more of a legitimate philosophical point about both equity and quality of education than many faculty would like to credit. It politely but insistently documents that most of the assessment practices being pushed on colleges right now either measure the wrong units or are just plain empirically wrong from start to finish. Perhaps least sensationally but most importantly of all, the book suggests that most of what colleges do, they do well, even when they don’t themselves understand what it is that they’re doing right.

The following people should treat it as a must-read book:

Prospective college applicants and their parents.
First-year college students during their orientation.
Faculty, especially at small liberal-arts colleges.
Higher education administrators, especially at small liberal-arts colleges.
Consultants, policy-makers, foundation executives, accreditation executives or any other professional whose work is focused on higher education.

Let me pull out what I found to be the most startling or interesting findings in the book, some of which affirmed some views I have developed in the course of my career and others of which challenged or reinterpreted some of those views.

1) The biggest impact a professor can have on a student is through direct, personal conversation with that student in which that professor is perceived by the student to accurately understand that student’s capabilities, aspirations, motivations and needs. This conversation can be challenging, it can be critical or intense, it can be friendly or kind. The basic thing, it seems from their research, is that a student needs to feel that a faculty member really understands them personally. Just once! That’s what is so interesting–a single such experience seems to make a big difference in satisfaction and in educational outcomes for many students. The book mentions that there’s something of a power law involved as well–that a small handful of faculty account for a large proportion of these strongly positive experiences.

2) A professor can have almost as big an impact in such a conversation in which they grossly misunderstand or mischaracterize a student’s character, interests or aspirations. Except that in this case the impact can be intensely negative–this kind of interaction is sufficient to offset much of the rest of an educational experience. So there are risks here–a faculty member who has poor emotional intelligence, who relies on stereotypes, or who is just presumptuous can all by themselves do a tremendous amount of damage to what the institution overall is trying to do.

Chambliss and Takacs argue that the effects of these interactions are sufficiently pronounced that almost everything else that faculty incessantly fret over in teaching and curricular design are comparatively unimportant in their effects on students. I think they’re right that we pay almost no conscious attention to this kind of interaction. We just assume that it will happen as an outcome of small size and intense focus on academics. The closest we get to deliberate institutional attention at Swarthmore is with programs like the Rubin Scholars that aim to connect individual students with faculty. I suppose you could argue that faculty advising as a whole is intended to promote the good kind of these conversations but it is mostly a more modest part of the overall logistics of the curriculum.

2a) Bad or indifferent teaching in introductory courses not only has a negative impact on the perception of that discipline among students, it has a disproportionately negative impact on the overall educational experience of the students exposed to such a course. It’s not such a big deal in other kinds of courses (you get the sense that their research indicates that in every student’s life, a little bit of weak teaching is inevitable) as long as it doesn’t lead to the sort of negative personal discussion described earlier.

This makes me worry a lot about whether Swarthmore and institutions like it are systematically attentive to this issue. I suspect not.

3) “Most learning happens outside the classroom” turns out to be unambiguously true in a wide variety of ways. Not only does that finding underscore the suggestion of a few faculty visionaries that “courses” might not be the best default structure for higher education, it makes the contempt that faculty like Benjamin Ginsberg show towards “deanlets”, residential life administrators, and the idea of “learning outside the classroom” look very short-sighted. What’s particularly notable about How College Works in this respect is that the researchers found that the single most important predictor of whether a student will have good educational outcomes is whether they made friends in their first six months. If Chambliss and Takacs are right, this is an aspect of the educational experience of students that faculty have virtually no influence over or interest in other than incidentally providing one possible site for friendships to develop (e.g., courses).

4) Small classes are perhaps over-exalted by faculty. They may produce better educational outcomes on average (if nothing else, giving a faculty member a much higher probability of understanding individual students well enough to have one of those powerful moments of direct connection) but they are by nature inequitable. This for me was one of the oh-my-god-of-course-why-didn’t-I-see-that-before moments in the book. Chambliss and Takacs found to their surprise that the students they were speaking with often hadn’t had a small class experience even at a small college, or that they’d had very few. And then it dawned on them: small classes are small, e.g., very few students are in them. If you have three large classes with 50 students in them and ten small classes with 5 students in them (presuming for the moment they’re not the same students in both), then the three classes have 150 students total and the ten classes have only 50 total. Only 25% of that total population is having a “small class experience”. Chambliss and Takacs gently suggest that this observation (and some similar findings elsewhere in the book) mean that at least some of the way that administration (or faculty managers) try to be mindful of enrollments and resource distribution is necessary–and that an excessive prioritization of small class experiences can produce a hidden elitism. Their discussion of this is more subtle than this summary suggests, but even at this relatively simplified level it was an uncomfortable challenge to some of my own conventional wisdom.

There are a lot of other findings and observations of great interest–say, for example, about the impact of off-campus study, about the reasons why seniors are often disengaged from their studies, etc., but these points alone struck me as having immediate, powerful implications for how faculty (and others) think about achieving better educational outcomes.

I also think the book politely but insistently undercuts contemporary fads in assessment. That’s important enough that I’m going to devote a second post to it shortly.

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6 Responses to How College Works: First Appreciation

  1. Mark S. says:

    Very interesting. This is certainly on my (admittedly quite extensive) reading list.

    Within a single institution and major isn’t it likely that all or most students get the chance to have the small class experience? If there are 50 person classes and 5 person classes, aren’t we likely to see Seniors (let’s say) get 5 person classes in their majors while the gen ed classes taken by underclassman are going to have 50. Over a single college career this should even out even if at any one time it is uneven. And are there reasons to believe that only the privileged get 5 person classes? Hence the elitist claim. I can see privileged professors getting them but do only privileged students get them as well? I honestly don’t know.

    Also, I graduate from a SLAC and I can only remember one class that had as many as 50 people, an introduction to Micro-Economics. I also remember zero classes with fewer than 10 students outside of the “project” classes that I took where I did my archival research. I remember 10-25 students in every class and that was pretty standard across the board from Fresh seminar to Gen-eds to upper level classes in my major. Is that because I was a humanities major (history)? Is Hamilton different in this regard? I ask because it would appear that if my memory is correct then the elitist claim of the small classes would be severely mitigated.

  2. Bardiac says:

    The small class elitism is built in to our honors program, for example. It’s also built into some majors, whose instructors teach 15 person classes pretty much all the time.

    We’ve structurally built in some small classes to our English majors, but they don’t take them until they’re seniors.

  3. E says:

    You can be in a small class without having the type of experience the Hamilton professors/authors are advocating. It seems to me that the types of experiences making the difference occur outside the classroom. Small classes makes it easier to have these experiences but do not ensure such experiences.

  4. mch says:

    E says, “Small classes makes it easier to have these experiences but do not ensure such experiences.” Absolutely true. But might small classes make such experiences more likely?

    Of course, “small” is a relative term, depending not just on general type and level of course but also on field. For instance, foreign language teaching has limits on the number of students you can teach effectively that might astound a Bio 101 prof.

    Lots of apples and oranges here. Liberal arts should revel in apples and oranges? Yes.

  5. Timothy Burke says:

    Sure, they make such experiences more likely. But the point the authors are making is they make those experiences more likely on a very inequitable basis. If you have a department that’s getting hammered by enrollment pressure, the students in those much larger classes are thus less likely to have the high-impact experience that the authors say makes such a difference.

  6. mch says:

    Inequitable only under certain assumptions. Might more of the students in the much larger classes consider studying a foreign language seriously, or pursuing music beyond some general “appreciation” course, or taking Philosophy beyond the level of a one or two catchy introductory courses, or…? The list goes on.

    I get the numbers pressures. I played them for years, teaching — and reading papers in — courses of 90+ students, once in a course of 150 (Greek Myth), Bio 101 style, though I (in contrast to my Bio 101 colleagues, who co-taught and tested in ways that made everything zip by, by their own accounts) read (and commented extensively on, I hope, helpfully) every one of the several papers each student wrote, plus their finals.

    In the 70’s and 80’s, we in certain fields taught in large courses to “justify” teaching, say, 10 students in beginning Greek, five in an advanced course. (In practice, I doubt any of my colleagues in “high enrollment pressure” departments had the faintest idea how many hours it might take to prepare one advanced Greek course, class by class, whether with 5 or 10 or 50 — hah! — students.) Though I do prefer preparing for such an advanced Greek course to reading a hundred, or even just twenty, translation-course 101 papers. Another story.)

    Or, we could just have a college that offered nothing but Econ, Bio, History, and English. Why not? Enrollment and consumerism — YES!

    I know you do not want this, but it may result from some of your thinking, if we’re not careful. It WAS the result for a while! We’ve been this way before, after all — “go by the numbers” in the ’70’s and ’80’s. That approach created, and would create again, its own distortions, serious distortions. We should all proceed with care on this front. That’s all I am saying. I am not challenging the enrollment pressure problem for certain departments, or the authors’ arguments (which I have already referred to my colleagues for reading).

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