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Making the Most of College

Students Speak Their Minds, Confirm the Obvious

By Izzat Jarudi

staff writer

Written by Richard Light

Published by Harvard University Press


As a professor of statistics at Harvard, Richard Light spent a decade researching what makes college an academically and personally successful time for some students but not others. He interviewed over 1600 Harvard undergraduates and visited 90 other campuses to ensure that the results at his college could be generalized to virtually any undergraduate experience. After all that time and effort, he reaches some pretty obvious conclusions in his book, Making the Most of College. For example, he concludes that students are more enthusiastic about learning in courses that have some relevance to their personal lives or interests outside the classroom, instead of just fulfilling a graduation requirement.

Yet his study’s findings still have value because they make sure that students, administrators, and professors know and believe what is obvious often in hindsight only. For example, another finding that Light stresses after hearing it stressed over and over again in his personal interviews is that students learn more when they collaborate on challenging homework. Now that seems obvious to MIT students because it is such a common and effective way to cope with the heavy workload here; however, I am not sure I would have worked together with my classmates as much, if at all, had it not been repeatedly encouraged by nearly every professor I have encountered at MIT.

Light makes a similar point when he reflects back upon his undergraduate years and describes a very different atmosphere: “When I was in college years ago, nearly every professor announced that I should do homework alone. Discussing problem sets or essay assignments with other students, I was told would be considered cheating.” Attitudes among professors and students have drastically changed over the years. What was obvious back then -- that homework, even if difficult, is meant to be done alone -- is no longer what is obvious today: that difficult homework is meant to be done in groups.

By suggesting how to accelerate that evolution in other areas like academic advising, Light’s book is aimed not only at educating students but also at convincing those professors and administrators whose views and practices still need to change if undergraduate education is to continue to improve. For example, building on the finding that a significant amount of academic learning happens as part of dorm life and extracurricular activities, professors can better engage their students if they supplement a rigorous curriculum with connections to their students’ personal lives, values and experiences. On the other hand, administrators can realize the positive potential of diversity if they also treat dorms as another center of education besides the classroom and encourage students of different backgrounds to learn from each other by living together.

By supporting these recommendations with concrete examples and anecdotes from student interviews that fill up half the book, Light avoids the traps which other college guides fall into with seemingly good advice that is too vague to implement. Sometimes the interview excerpts are so long and numerous that it is hard to tell whether it is him or a student that is giving the advice. As a professor and academic advisor himself, Light also offers practical suggestions to others in his position by outlining the methods that have worked with his students.

Although it is a credit to a genre that is generally trite and vague, Light’s book still has its shortcomings besides an awkward writing style that overuses stock phrases and sentence fragments in attempts at emphasis. The most important to an MIT reader is that despite Light’s conviction that “these answers apply to most campuses across America, including many that are very different from my own,” many of his study’s findings only seem to generalize to other liberal arts colleges.

Perhaps the most blatant example is writing. According to Light, interviews with 365 Harvard undergraduates suggest that the more writing there is in a course, the more time the student spends on it and the harder and more interesting he finds it to be. Now, it is plausible that at MIT HASS courses are often the most difficult for students. Good writing is a struggle for everyone from English majors at Harvard to Course 6 majors at MIT; however, it is hard to believe that MIT students find HASS classes to be more “engaging” with respect to time or interest than science and engineering classes. Indeed, it seems it would take another decade-long study to convince people of the counterintuitive claim that writing shares the same treasured place in the hearts of Harvard and MIT students.