Lost in the current obsession to get into The Best U is something most adults readily admit, at least in hindsight: It doesn't matter so much where you go to college, but what you make of the experience
So how to make the most of it?
In 1986, Derek Bok, then the president of Harvard, summoned a professor at the Graduate School of Education and asked him to evaluate how well the university educated its students and ways it might improve. Why, Dr. Bok wanted to know, did some students have a great experience while others did not?
The professor, Richard J. Light, a statistician by training, gathered colleagues and deans from 24 other institutions to examine the question and come up with a scientific method to find the answer.
Over 10 years researchers interviewed 1,600 Harvard students, asking a range of questions about everything from what they did in their spare time to the quality of teaching and advising. They looked for patterns - say, what made certain courses effective. They also correlated students' academic and personal choices with their grades and how happy and intellectually engaged they said they were. The goal was to determine which factors were more likely to improve learning and overall happiness. A factor always linked to success would be rated 1; one with a significant relationship to success would be 0.50; and one with no effect would be 0. (Not every factor got a rating because of inconsistencies in how questions were asked.
Fifteen years later, Harvard has made policy changes based on the study, like assigning students homework to do in groups and scheduling some classes later in the day so discussions can continue over dinner.
"It turns out there are a whole range of concrete ways students can improve their experience," said Professor Light, who teaches at the John F. Kennedy School of Government as well as at the education school. Professor Light has gathered the best ideas in a book, "Making the Most of College" (Harvard University Press, 2001). The suggestions are often simple. Still, he said, "It's amazing how little thought people give to these decisions.
The most satisfied students in the Harvard interviews sought detailed feedback and asked specific questions of professors and advisers - not "Why didn't I get a better grade?" but "Point out the paragraphs in this essay where my argument faltered."
And don't try to hide academic problems. The researchers working for Professor Light interviewed a sample of 40 students who stumbled academically in their first year. The 20 who asked for help improved their grades, the 20 who did not spiraled downward - isolated, failing and unhappy.
The trouble is, introductory courses range across so much material they often fail to offer students anything to sink their teeth into. So when it comes time to choose a major, students don't know what really interests them. By senior year, when taking courses that stimulate them, they are wondering why they didn't take more courses in Japanese/medieval social history/statistics earlier. Those who treat the early years like a shopping excursion, taking not only required classes but also ones that pique their interest, feel more engaged and happier with their major.
"The less satisfied students were the ones who said, `My tack was to get all the requirements out of the way,'" Professor Light said. "The successful students do the exact opposite."
The corollary to this recommendation: Take small classes, which encourages faculty interaction and a feeling of connectedness. Taking classes with 15 or fewer students had a 0.52 correlation with overall engagement and a 0.24 correlation with good grades - both considered significant.
And the more writing, the better. In all of Professor Light's research, no factor was more important to engagement and good grades than the amount of writing a student did. Students in the study recommended taking courses with a lot of writing in the last two years, when you have adjusted to the challenges of being in college and are preparing to write a long senior thesis.
Students who have worked hard to get into college, Professor Light said, tend to arrive and say, "Academic work is my priority, and doing other things will hurt that." In fact, the Harvard research found otherwise.
"What goes on in situations outside of class is just as important, and in some situations, it turns out to be a bigger deal than what happens in class," he said. "Very often an experience outside of class can have a profound effect on the courses students choose and even what they want to do with their lives."
The study found that students who worked long hours at a job had the same grades as those who worked a few hours or not at all. Students who volunteered actually had higher grades and reported being happier. The only students whose outside activities hurt their grades were intercollegiate athletes. Still, Professor Light said, they are the happiest students on campus.
Copyright 2001 The New York Times Company
April 8, 2001
The Harvard Guide to Happiness