College: It’s What We Make It

I went to the Big Ten’s little school. With 6,500 undergrads, it was twice the size of my daughter’s high school. Yet it felt pretty cozy, despite our having to share classes, the library, and a student union with some 12,000 grad students. For me, the trick was choosing classes that by design or topic ensured I would not get lost in the crowd.

STUDY VENUES Online learning may be at least as engaging and intellectually stimulating as attending college at an ivy-and-quadrangle institution, a new survey finds. alvarez / iStockphoto

For instance, my entering year just three of us freshmen (all women, I might add) declared ourselves as astronomy majors. So we got to know our profs very well. Most of my lit and history classes had no more than 10 students (admittedly, they could be a bit obscure, like Socialization and Colonialization in East Africa). But I can’t remember having more than 10 classes with as many as 25 students. The more normal size: just eight to 15 of us.

My roommates, by contrast, tended to take legions of big lecture-hall classes, with 40 to 250 in attendance. So although they might get to know a teaching assistant, here or there, they could often pass their professors in the halls without drawing a hint of recognition.

It didn’t take me long to realize that I learned more — not to mention developed a stronger rapport with professors — in my smaller classes. Without them, I would have had a very different college experience.

And that assessment correlates well with results of the 2008 National Survey of Student Engagement, which came out this week. It reports finding that 90 percent of the variation between measures of what students put into and got out of classes occur within a school, not between competing institutions. In other words, my experiences at Northwestern were probably more akin to those of tiny-science-class attendees at Emory, Harvard, or Texas A&M than to those of my roommates in other fields, with other class sizes, and different professors.

The new survey findings reflect responses from 380,000 randomly selected freshmen and seniors (who were attending 722 four-year colleges). What may come as a bit of a surprise to those impressed by these brick-and-mortar — or should I say ivy-and-quadrangle — institutions is that students often appeared to derive more involvement and enlightenment from online educators than from profs who require that we get dressed and shuffle off to join them in some shared classroom.

For instance, the new survey finds students who take most of their classes online reported greater engagement with their topics. They were also more likely to say they participated “very often” in “intellectually challenging” class-related activities than did peers in conventional classrooms.

“Critics of distance education assume that face-to-face classes have inherent advantages as learning environments. But these results indicate that those who teach classes online may be making special efforts to engage their students,” says Alexander C. McCormick of Indiana University, who oversaw the new survey. Then again, he speculates, online classes may “appeal more to students who are more academically motivated and self-directed.”

Among the new survey’s other findings:

— students reported carrying out more analysis, synthesis, and integration of ideas from different sources in courses that required intellectually challenging writing assignments. Students in these classes also reported learning more as a result of having to complete such demanding assignments.
— in general, freshmen churned out only about two-thirds as many pages of written assignments as did seniors. And students in the arts and humanities wrote considerably more than did those majoring in the physical and biological sciences.
— transfer students seemed to have a difficult time adjusting, as a rule. They talked less with their profs about their future plans, more frequently worked alone on assignments (as opposed to in study groups), and took on fewer extracurricular activities.
— and nearly 25 percent of freshmen and 20 percent of seniors “frequently” came to class without having finished their homework or assigned readings

The last observation concerns Thomas F. Nelson Laird of IU’s Center for Postsecondary Research — and the project manager for the faculty survey on student engagement. The new survey data indicate students only do about half as much preparation for class as college faculty expect of them. “With ongoing concerns about grade inflation, these findings suggest that we in the higher education community need to examine whether we are truly holding students accountable for their side of the educational equation,” Laird says. 

Yeah, like are they ensuring that their students actually read, and don’t just rely on class lectures to provide the whole story?

The new report’s take-home message: The quality of a college education appears to depend more on what opportunities students avail themselves of at any institution than on which college or university will emblazon its name atop their diplomas.

And make no mistake, there are plenty of opportunities out there, as my daughter can attest. Just an undergraduate, she’s the lead author on a research poster that will be presented at a major scientific conference next week. It stems from a summer of chemistry experiments on phytoremediation of cadmium (cleaning up toxic contaminants using plants — in her case, sunflowers). There’s a good chance she’ll have at least one journal article published before she graduates.

The summer before, she was part of a research team at the University of Florida studying the potential thyroid-hormone effects of perchlorate (a component of solid rocket fuel) from space shuttle launches on alligators at Cape Canaveral.

Throughout the nation, plenty of other students are similarly engaged in research — not just learning about some subject, but contributing valuable new data to the research enterprise. Some do this at research-heavy institutions like MIT and Stanford. Others at even tiny liberal arts institutions, like my daughter’s 600-student college in Pittsburgh.

Janet Raloff

Janet Raloff is the Editor, Digital of Science News Explores, a daily online magazine for middle school students. She started at Science News in 1977 as the environment and policy writer, specializing in toxicology. To her never-ending surprise, her daughter became a toxicologist.

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