"Most students need only two or three good friends, and one or two great professors, to have a rewarding experience in college."---excerpt from How College Works
Joan Brunwasser: Welcome to OpEdNews, Dan. I recently heard you give a talk* about your book and its findings and it was fascinating. I'm sure many of our readers are basically unfamiliar with you, the book, and how it came about. Would you care to get us started?
Dan Chambliss: Sure. I'm a college professor who has spent almost forty years studying organizations of all kinds, including hospitals (I wrote a book on hospitals and ethical crises in nursing), athletic teams (wrote another book, about Olympic swimmers), and now, for the past 18 years, colleges and universities (How College Works). In all these cases I'm looking for how people learn to work collaboratively in pursuit of different kinds of excellence.
My research on colleges began when the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation in New York City offered one-year planning grants to several liberal arts colleges to study student learning outcomes at such schools. Hamilton received one of those grants, and I was the project director. We eventually turned that into a series of four major grants that ran for 11 years, costing nearly a million dollars. We did a comprehensive, longitudinal, multi-method study, involving two dozen Hamilton faculty researchers, about 60 student assistants, several statistics consultants, around 30 faculty from other institutions. We wanted to know not only what students gained from going to college, but -- probably more importantly -- what features of college are really valuable, or really make learning happen.
Or as we said in the title, how does college actually work -- what does a college do that reliably produces good outcomes of all sorts?
"What really matters in college is who meets whom, and when." ---excerpt from How College Works
JB: What a huge project! I'd like to know more about this "multi-method study". How did you go about tackling this? And with so many cooks, was it hard to develop a consensus on how you evaluated your findings?
DC: It was huge indeed, for sure. I was project director throughout, though, and everyone had clearly defined roles. We began with a one-year interview study of 100 randomly selected alumni of Hamilton College, graduates of either 5 or 10 years before; our faculty researchers each called three or four of them on the phone and talked for an hour or so. What the alums said hit us hard: intro classes had been crucial; study abroad was transformative; social life was profoundly important. Then we went on, with support from Mellon, to do a longitudinal study of 100 entering students, following them for eight years -- all their records, annual interviews all through college, papers they wrote, etc. Some of the research was on their objective performance: for instance, we collected over 2,000 papers written for classes from high school senior year all the way through college. We removed the names, then had outside readers grade them. It turns out the students' writing clearly improved over the first four of those five years.
We did qualitative and quantitative, objective and subjective studies both. We analyzed seven years of our senior surveys on thousands of graduates, and pulled in data from several other major national studies (the Wabash National Study of Liberal Arts, the Gallup-Purdue Index, the NECASL Project, and others) as well.
Chris Takacs (my former student, and co-author on the book) and I did many of the analyses ourselves, and brought together all the findings. Every year, we hosted a small (20 or so people) conference with scholars from around the nation, where we shared the latest findings and fielded all sorts of critiques. I was also presenting findings at other conferences and institutions, again taking in all the feedback to improve our work.
By the time we sat down to write the book, we felt very confident about our conclusions.
JB: You've set the stage admirably, Dan. So, now, please share some of those findings with us. What did all that time and effort produce?
DC: First, we realized that many things that institutions spend their efforts on don't seem to really matter much: curriculum redesign, how majors are set up, the improvement of already-decent facilities, all the assessment and testing projects of the past twenty years. There's a lot of showy stuff that costs money, and gets attention, that seems to have a minimal impact on how much students actually learn. It's not exactly wasted -- some of these efforts do, for instance, attract good students to a college -- but it doesn't seem to help in students' education, even in a broad sense.
On the other hand, one thing clearly mattered tremendously: the personal relationships students had, both with other students and with teachers. [Check this out.]
Relationships matter far more than, for instance, what your major is -- and yet the public is barraged with news stories about how important a college major is, but little about how to find good relationships in college.