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Q&A with Dan Chambliss: A successful college education can come down to a single conversation

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Dan Chambliss (Photo by Nick Pandolfo)

How does someone succeed in college? It’s the $64,000 question—or, these days, more like the $150,000 question—whose answer has been sought by countless policymakers, researchers and universities over the years.

In a new attempt to provide insight into the discussion, sociologists Dan Chambliss of Hamilton College and Christopher Takacs of the University of Chicago took the long road to an answer. In 2001, they started conducting what would turn into a 10-year study of Hamilton College students in an attempt to learn what had the greatest effects on their college experiences. What were the turning points? What mattered most? What didn’t?

The Hechinger Report sat down with Dan Chambliss recently to discuss the results of the study, which will be included in a forthcoming book titled How College Works, and what implications the results might have for U.S. higher education.

Q: Tell me more about the study.

A: In 2001, we started tracking a cohort of students as they went through the college. We took 100 people, randomly selected, and we interviewed them every year they were in college and every year after they got out. In addition to that, we collected a lot of information about these people. We collected papers they wrote while they were in college and papers from high school. And we basically tried to learn what were the important turning points—what kind of things made a big difference, and what things didn’t. The goal of this was to find how colleges or universities could have relatively resource-neutral, reliably effective interventions that really help students in a big way. In other words, how can you do stuff that you know you can do, that you know will make a positive difference, but you don’t have to turn the world upside down or have a big capital campaign and spend a lot of money.

So what were they?

It’s all about people, not programs. Colleges spend a huge amount of time and effort worrying will they have writing-intensive programs or a freshman seminar program or if a major is set up right or if their curriculum is done this way or that—all the kind of stuff about the content and information for kids and students. That’s not where it’s at. The problem is not access to information. The problem is motivation. And student motivation goes up and down a lot. And the key to motivation is face-to-face contact with another human being. That’s what really works. And it doesn’t take that much of it to have a big impact on a student’s career.

So, for instance, having a great intro. teacher is incredibly important and schools don’t spend much time on that at all. Yet it’s very, very doable. A single department chair can impact thousands of students’ educational careers just by moving one professor. Because if they have a great experience in an intro. class, that paves the whole way throughout academia. If they have a bad experience—Bam! The door slams shut. So getting the right people together at the right time is key. And that goes for faculty contact with students but also with students meeting other students. These apartment-style dormitories that are now coming up—it’s a terrible idea. Students think they want it, but what happens is they don’t make any friends. They’re isolated. It’s much better to be in a dorm they don’t like that has long hallways and shared bathrooms …

When you interview the students, a lot of times they’ll say that the crucial thing for them was sitting down for a one-on-one with a professor. One time in their college career! It was this thing about a single conversation that really struck us. And it’s not technical information. It’s literally just the idea of taking it seriously and saying, “Let’s look at this,” and then the kid starts working on it with someone sitting there and they think “I can do better,” and they have this revelation.

Hamilton is a particular environment. It’s a small, selective and expensive (about $55,000 a year) private college. What implications do your findings have for community colleges or state schools that aren’t as selective and have a lot more non-traditional students?

Part A is we don’t know because we haven’t done that research. Second, I think we would say—I have a co-author—the processes probably work in somewhat the same way in other places, too. In some places, like a big university, you’re never going to have that kind of personal contact with faculty. But a little bit goes a long, long way. That’s part of the message. Even in a place like that, people would be as appreciative of literally a single meeting with a professor.

We did this one thing at Hamilton, and I think the logic transfers. We do these senior surveys and we keep all this data in databases. And the sheer fact of ever having been a guest in a faculty member’s home has this big impact on a student’s reaction to their entire college experience. Talking to alumni who graduated 30 years ago, they’ll bring up, “I went to Professor So and So’s.” What is this? One time? Are you kidding me? But it works. I don’t know why. But a little bit of contact with the right person at the right time seems to have this disproportionate impact. I would wager [with] you that that same effect would occur anywhere. It’s a low cost kind of intervention.

The quality of intro. faculty, that’s going to work anywhere. If you’ve got 500 kids in an intro. history class, it’s all the more important that you’ve got a good person teaching it. You can see this if you ride the subway in New York: there are all these ads for all kinds of schools. All the time they have a picture of this kindly professor looking over the kid’s shoulder. They always advertise, “You’ll work with real professors,” this kind of stuff. They’re trying to sell that kind of contact because it’s what a lot of students really want.

It’s clear from your study that face-to-face meetings are critical. How does the growth of online education in universities factor in?

I think there are a lot of things you cannot do online. Online is great for, let’s say, certain kinds of information exchange, for training people [to do] kind of predictable tasks, things like that. What can’t be conveyed well at all is attitudes about things, the right way to think about a topic … There’s just a level of expertise past which you cannot go unless you’re talking with another human being.

Based on your research, if I were a senior in high school and the first person in my family to go to college, what advice would you give me?

First, you want to have contact with a good number of people—dozens of people—early on. And it needs to be regular contact. So either live in a dorm or join the choir or play on the football team, or something where you have a lot of ongoing contact with a significant number of peers.

Second, ask around who the good teachers are. Try to get into courses with teachers who are exciting and fun and make it challenging. In other words, pick your teachers and not your courses.

Third, it’s who you hang around with. So if you’re struggling after a year, look around and see who you are spending time with. It matters.

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L. Kantrowitz

Every word is a truism and I speak from personal experience.
Loved your column and want more.
Thanks

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