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How College Works (book recommendation)

Chambliss and Takacs identify some important and not always obvious factors that contribute to positive higher education experiences.

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This richly researched book (How College Works by Daniel F. Chambliss and Christopher G. Takacs) describes a number of factors - not statistical factors but things that people do or things that can be fostered or made more likely to happen - that characterize positive experiences in residential higher education. Some will wave these away because the research was done at an elite private liberal arts college, but keep an open mind - these things may be easier or harder to accomplish depending on resources and student situation, but they might also be important across the board.

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Social scientist teaching research methods, design thinking, mathematical modeling, and phenomenology. At Mills College, Oakland, CA since 1998. Director InnovationLab@Mills. Iovine Young Academy for Arts, Technology, and the Business of Innovation 2014-15. Founder TheCityRoom@ISPS at Yale way back when.

What is a provocation or insight that might inspire others during this challenge?

Sometimes we need to ask not "what would work?" but "what does work?"

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Photo of Colin

Dan, I also enjoyed this book. I took four things away from it that I think will stick with me:

(1) Universities/colleges are more similar than they are diverse. I'm at a large state school, but the envy students (and faculty) reported when passing the well endowed science labs on their hill at the college mimic the attitudes that many feel toward engineering here.

(2) Innovations that work can be mundane and unpublishable. Although high impact practices work, if you're a dean with the pressing problem that you have a curmudgeonly, misogynist professor nearing retirement, the thing to do is to give him an 8am class to teach and hope no one turns up.

(3) The unit of analysis should be the student, not institutional units. It doesn't matter what proportion of a university's classes are small (well, it does to USN&WR), but it really matters what proportion of classes are small that an average student takes. These numbers can be very different.

(4) MOOCs have been around for centuries. They were called books. A HS student today could buy a used calculus text for a couple of bucks, and learn everything that Newton discovered in a couple of months. But the average student doesn't, and that won't change with online materials. What college provides that self-directed reading/viewing does not, is structure/discipline and curation.

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Photo of Kate Rushton

Hi Dan!

Thank you for another excellent post! The book is on my 'to read' list. I have found this in the review section on Amazon from Anson Cassel Mills:

"The authors elaborate the following basic ideas in remarkably lucid prose: 
1. crucial student decisions are often “shaped by minor contingencies of scheduling, availability, and happenstance.” (156) 2. early college experiences are often the most decisive. 3. students need to find friends among their peers quickly, and old-fashioned, long-halled dormitories are one way to encourage them to do just that. 4. students need to encounter good teachers early in their college career. 5. most students need to find a faculty mentor—not to be confused with their academic advisor, who is often just a cipher. 6. small gestures on the part of faculty (even simply learning student names) can have a profound impact on student development. 7. a few professors often have a vastly disproportionate influence over a large numbers of students. 8. the benefits of a residential college include learning how to engage in appropriate social relationships and how to develop sound habits of work and thought. 9. because education demands personal relationships, people themselves are more important than strategic planning, student learning assessments, or technological innovation. One anecdote: a decade ago I interviewed many older alumni of my school for the college archives. When I asked what aspect of the institution they thought had changed for the worse since their attendance, many mentioned the elimination of family style meals at which attendance had been required and seating had been assigned and then rotated. What seemed curious to me at the time now makes perfect sense. By assigning and rotating dining common seats, the college had limited the influence of cliques, indefinitely prolonged what today is a comparatively limited window of opportunity to make new friends, and better encouraged the identification of individuals with the entire college community."

Is this a fair summary of the contents of the book for our community members that are short on time?

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Photo of Andrea Zelenak

Reading that above, I think about the post Perspective of a High School Junior  by Emma or College Time by Jordan, high school students don't know all of these things when entering high school including what to expect or even how to be successful. I remember really only one of my teachers in high school prepared me for college, helping me prepare to read and study on my own and with friends. I think high school is such a different playing field than college, it would be interesting to dig deeper on this transition!