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Book Review: How College Works

Great teachers are more important than the course, and even two or three good friends make a significant difference academically as well as socially.
BY BrainGain Magazine Staff Writer |   03-12-2018

How College Works, by Daniel F Chambliss and Christopher G Takacs, published by Harvard University Press.

Author Daniel F Chambliss
Author Daniel F Chambliss, is an sociologist at Hamilton College, New York

After a decade of research, Daniel F Chambliss, an organizational sociologist at Hamilton College, and Christopher G Takacs, a PhD candidate in sociology at the University of Chicago, believe they know what most determines how students feel about their time at college. Their findings chronicled in “How College Works” are a must-read for college administrators and students.

The book reveals the surprisingly decisive role that personal relationships play in determining a student’s collegiate success.  

At Hamilton, a small, selective, expensive liberal arts college in upstate New York, the authors followed a cluster of nearly one hundred students over a span of eight years. The curricular and technological innovations beloved by administrators mattered much less than the professors and peers whom students met, especially early on.

“What really matters in college is who meets whom, and when. It’s the people, not the programs, that make a difference,” write the authors.

So what should students do to get more out of college? The authors believe that as a freshman, you should live in one of the “old-fashioned dorms with the long hallways, multiple roommates and communal bathroom, where you’ll have to bump into a lot of different people every day.” Apartment dorms look appealing, but they’re “isolating and disastrous” for freshmen.

It makes sense as students have to try to get to know a lot of people in the first year, when everyone is looking for friends. If you can’t make friends in class it helps to join a large high-contact activity, like a sports team or club, where people see each other at least twice a week.

College Students

“We found that it only takes two or three close friends and one or two great professors to have a fulfilling college experience,” say the authors.

In choosing classes, pick the teacher over the topic. Over and over, we found that contact with one great professor sent students in a new direction.

The “New York Times” asked Chambliss what colleges should do to make students’ experiences better. His answer was illuminating.

“They should be looking for things that give the biggest payoff for the least effort. One hospital study found that patients reported a better experience if a nurse had offered them a warm blanket while they were on the gurney waiting for surgery,” the author told the newspaper.

“There are all kinds of “warm blankets” colleges can offer. Students who had a single dinner at a professor’s house were significantly more likely to say they would choose the college again. In learning to write, it made a lasting difference if students had at least one experience of sitting down with a professor to go over their work, paragraph by paragraph; for the students it was someone serious saying their writing was important.”

Ultimately, great teachers help students grow up healthy, happy, having choices in life and being prepared and set up to succeed in those choices. For most students, college works best when it provides the daily motivation to learn in a positive environment where they have positive relationships with teachers, mentors, and classmates.

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