Sometimes Best Learning Bears No Credit Value

From the New York Times


Imagine you are Dean for a Day. What is one actionable change you would implement to enhance the college experience on campus?

I have asked students this question for years. The answers can be eye-opening. A few years ago, the responses began to move away from “tweak the history course” or “change the ways labs are structured.” A different commentary, about learning to live wisely, has emerged.

What does it mean to live a good life? What about a productive life? How about a happy life? How might I think about these ideas if the answers conflict with one another? And how do I use my time here at college to build on the answers to these tough questions?

A number of campuses have recently started to offer an opportunity for students to grapple with these questions. On my campus, Harvard, a small group of faculty members and deans created a noncredit seminar called “Reflecting on Your Life.” The format is simple: three 90-minute discussion sessions for groups of 12 first-year students, led by faculty members, advisers or deans. Well over 100 students participate each year.

Here are five exercises that students find particularly engaging. Each is designed to help freshmen identify their goals and reflect systematically about various aspects of their personal lives, and to connect what they discover to what they actually do at college.

  • For the first exercise, we ask students to make a list of how they want to spend their time at college. What matters to you? This might be going to class, studying, spending time with close friends, perhaps volunteering in the off-campus community or reading books not on any course’s required reading list. Then students make a list of how they actually spent their time, on average, each day over the past week and match the two lists.

Finally, we pose the question: How well do your commitments actually match your goals?
A few students find a strong overlap between the lists. The majority don’t. They are stunned and dismayed to discover they are spending much of their precious time on activities they don’t value highly. The challenge is how to align your time commitments to reflect your personal convictions.

  • Deciding on a major can be amazingly difficult. One student in our group was having a hard time choosing between government and science. How was she spending her spare time? She described being active in the Institute of Politics, running the Model U.N. and writing regularly for The Political Review. The discussion leader noted that she hadn’t mentioned the word “lab” in her summary. “Labs?” replied the student, looking incredulous. “Why would I mention labs when talking about my spare time?” Half an hour after the session, the group leader got an email thanking him for posing the question.
  • I call this the Broad vs. Deep Exercise. If you could become extraordinarily good at one thing versus being pretty good at many things, which approach would you choose? We invite students to think about how to organize their college life to follow their chosen path in a purposeful way.
  • In the Core Values Exercise, students are presented with a sheet of paper with about 25 words on it. The words include “dignity,” “love,” “fame,” “family,” “excellence,” “wealth” and “wisdom.” They are told to circle the five words that best describe their core values. Now, we ask, how might you deal with a situation where your core values come into conflict with one another? Students find this question particularly difficult. One student brought up his own personal dilemma: He wants to be a surgeon, and he also wants to have a large family. So his core values included the words “useful” and “family.” He said he worries a lot whether he could be a successful surgeon while also being a devoted father. Students couldn’t stop talking about this example, as many saw themselves facing a similar challenge.
  • This exercise presents a parable of a happy fisherman living a simple life on a small island. The fellow goes fishing for a few hours every day. He catches a few fish, sells them to his friends, and enjoys spending the rest of the day with his wife and children, and napping. He couldn’t imagine changing a thing in his relaxed and easy life.
    A recent M.B.A. visits this island and quickly sees how this fisherman could become rich. He could catch more fish, start up a business, market the fish, open a cannery, maybe even issue an I.P.O. Ultimately he would become truly successful. He could donate some of his fish to hungry children worldwide and might even save lives. “And then what?” asks the fisherman. “Then you could spend lots of time with your family,” replies the visitor. “Yet you would have made a difference in the world. You would have used your talents, and fed some poor children, instead of just lying around all day.” We ask students to apply this parable to their own lives. Is it more important to you to have little, accomplish little, yet be relaxed and happy and spend time with family? Or is it more important to you to work hard, use your talents, perhaps start a business, maybe even make the world a better place along the way? Typically, this simple parable leads to substantial disagreement. These discussions encourage first-year undergraduates to think about what really matters to them, and what each of us feels we might owe, or not owe, to the broader community — ideas that our students can capitalize on throughout their time at college.

At the end of our sessions, I say to my group: “Tell me one thing you have changed your mind about this year,” and many responses reflect a remarkable level of introspection. Three years later, when we check in with participants, nearly all report that the discussions had been valuable, a step toward turning college into the transformational experience it is meant to be.

Part of the Gender Gap in Majors May Lie in Intro Courses (Sort Of)

The following describes an interesting morphing of memes on the web and something that might be especially relevant to me and my colleagues at Mills College in our role as advisors.

Harvard Economist Cladia Goldin posted a piece back when Janet Yellen was first nominated to head the Federal Reserve. She wondered whether this new “role model” might increase the number of women who major in economics. She wrote about some of her own research as well as that of others relevant to the question. In particular she discussed some work in which she discovered that
Women who thought they would major in economics often become discouraged when they don’t get sufficiently high grades in introductory courses. Men are far less likely to be discouraged by similar grades. In other words, the gradient of major choice with respect to grades in the “gateway” courses is steeper for women than for men.
In other other words, on average (assuming lots of things are equal) women may take a stronger “you can’t do this” signal from not getting an A in intro courses than do men. Evidence shows it happens in economics and some STEM fields too.
This does NOT, of course, imply we should pursue gender equity through grade inflation, but it does suggest that those of use who teach and mentor young women might focus on this particular point of leverage. Not unrelated is research by Chambliss and Takacs on how important intro courses are for influencing college major and career decisions. We should, perhaps, stop focusing our energy on distribution requirements and instead focus on what goes on in intro courses and in the first year advising context that surrounds them. It’s not unrelated to the message of a graduation speech I gave a few years back.

One can imagine that similar effects might exist in connection with other demographic differences.
The internet meme part is that the blog post was picked up the other day by a Washington Post writer, Catherine Rampell, and mixed in with some other research (finding that disciplines with lower grades had higher career payoffs) in a piece titled “Women should embrace the B’s in college to make more later.” On Slate the headline read “Women May Be Underrepresented in STEM Because They’re Too Concerned With Grades” but the article went in the direction of saying maybe it’s not all about wanting to find a major where one can do well grade-wise but rather a rational assessment of the likelihood of career success in various fields.  I’m sure a little googling will turn up even more morphs.

Will more of our daughters grow up to be economists?

Likelihood of Continuing in Major by Intro Grade and Sex

Claudia Goldin: Bloomberg View
Published: October 17, 2013 – 07:13 PM

Cambridge, Mass.: The nomination of Janet Yellen to head the Federal Reserve is an important milestone. But will her appointment as the central bank’s first female chief draw more undergraduate women to the field of economics?
Yellen’s emphasis on the human toll of recessions, along with her humanity, brilliance and intellect, could spur a greater number of women to become economists. But if history is any guide, there still is a long slog ahead.
Economics is an extremely popular major — for men. Ten percent to 20 percent of all male undergraduates concentrate in the field at the top 100 universities and top 100 liberal arts colleges as ranked by U.S. News and World Report.
Nationwide, however, for every female undergraduate in the major, there are three males in the major, adjusted for relative numbers of bachelor’s degrees by sex. Among the top 100 liberal arts colleges, there are 2.6 males for every female economics major; there are 2.5 males for every female at the top 100 research universities.
Worse, these differences have widened over the last two decades.
Students often realize too late in their undergraduate studies that an understanding of economic concepts, modeling, statistics and econometrics is a helpful career and life tool. Many initially believe economics is only valuable for those who want to work in the financial and corporate sectors. (This year’s winners of the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences are Eugene F. Fama, Robert J. Shiller and Lars Peter Hansen, men whose work focuses on financial markets.)
Many young women don’t seem to understand that economics is also for those who have broad intellectual interests and for those with research and policy interests in health, education, poverty, inequality, crime, obesity, the environment, terrorism or infectious disease. All students should be aware of the broad applications of economics when considering an undergraduate major.


Read the Rest at Bloomberg View

See Also

Takacs and Chambliss on "Systemic Advising"

Chris Takacs and Dan Chambliss are the authors of the forthcoming How College Works (Harvard, February 2014).  Their work is based on an eight year long, social science based assessment study. Among other points, here they suggest research-based reasons why having a broad selection of really good intro courses is important.  

More generally they suggest making sure any course that students have to take is high quality, not least because there’s no “voting with your feet” to give us feedback on these courses. This advice will, alas, fall on deaf ears because we are uncomfortable with the idea that any of our courses are not high quality. But the idea of deploying teachers strategically where they can do the best job is smart. 

See also (reposted from early November on this blog)…

Inside Higher Ed piece discussing Chambliss and Takacs’s finding, in How College Works, that an inspiring encounter with a faculty member strongly influences a student’s choice of major

An Information System We Could Use

Like most colleges, ours invests on an ongoing basis in administrative software for tracking students from admissions, academics and finances. New tools are invented to help administrators track course enrollments or for the registrar to get students registered for classes. Only exceptionally are innovations driven by our core business: teaching and advising undergraduates.

What if we had a system that students and their advisors could use to sketch out long term curricular possibilities. A sociology adviser, for example, might sit with a student and talk about how she could do a sociology major with a focus on things urban along with doing the pre-requisites for admission to the MBA program after graduation. The system would actually have built in a number of faculty-thought-through templates that would describe coherent constellations of courses built around different themes or emphases, but she’d be free to mix and match according to her interests.

The system would then query the database as to when various courses were currently expected to be offered over the semesters the student has left at the college and suggests her scheduling options.

Either based on the initial expression of interest or in response to a tentative checking off in the scheduling options, the system records the interest so that instructors and department heads have a prospective pre-pre-enrollment count. This information can be used to project staffing and/or to develop PR strategies (e.g., no one seems to be thinking about taking economics next year — maybe we should talk it up, advertise, put our best teacher in the intro class).

Additional features would be links from course listings to commentary from past/present students, curricular maps of alums along with descriptions of what they are doing now and perhaps commentary from them about how they wish they’d structured things, commentary from advisers as to WHY various constellations of courses make sense, and so on.

The specs for a system like this grow out of the real experience of teachers and advisers rather than the needs of administrators so it will probably never be built. Like most systems, though, just thinking through how it might work is a useful organizational exercise.