Intro As A “Weed Out” Course

A few weeks ago, two sociologists — Christopher G. Takacs and Daniel F. Chambliss — presented a paper at the American Sociological Association on factors that influence students’ chosen majors in college (a part of a larger project, How College Works).  They tracked the educational decisions and subsequent careers of 100 students.  The lucrative appeal of some majors and the careers for which they prepare students was an obvious factor that influenced majors.  But, the teaching quality of courses also proves quite influential:

Overwhelmingly, the authors write, students’ “taste formation” in choice of major is due to faculty members, although the influence can go either way. “Faculty determine students’ taste for academic fields by acting as gatekeepers, either by welcoming them into an area of knowledge, encouraging and inspiring them to explore it, or by raising the costs of entry so high so as to effectively prohibit continuing in it,” Takacs and Chambliss write. “Faculty can positively or negatively influence student taste for a field — some compelling teachers can get students engaged in fields that they previously disliked, while other, more uncharismatic faculty can alienate students from entire bodies of knowledge, sometimes permanently.”

The research found the role of the first faculty member is strong whether the student has an intended major or doesn’t. And the interviews — up to four years after graduation — found that students remembered the professors who inspired them and those who annoyed them, and attributed their decisions on majors to those faculty members.

For certain, lesser-known fields, the chances are higher that a single negative experience with a professor can deter students from the major.  The “so what?” of these findings probably won’t be to place all introductory courses in the hands of the department’s strongest teachers.  But, it does call for placing greater emphasis on making the department more inciting and inviting at lower level courses (i.e., the entry point into the field).

But Chambliss said that this is in fact what they should do. He noted that departments spend a lot of time talking about how to make their overall curriculum more inviting, but that a “very small intervention” and one that doesn’t necessarily cost any money can be more transformative. At a large university, making sure the right person is teaching the intro course can affect the experience and future choices of 500 or more students each semester, he said. “If you put someone who is not as good, you have damaged a lot of students.”

5 thoughts on “Intro As A “Weed Out” Course

  1. Reblogged this on Undergraduate Research Blog and commented:
    Make sure that the right faculty member — s/he who encourages and inspires students — is teaching your intro classes, and this small but crucial investment is at least as important as concerns over how the broader curriculum should be shaped … seems obvious, but, at some places, perhaps a bit too hidden-in-plain-sight. Still, worth a quick review.

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  2. The dilemma with the assertions made in this brief recitation of the scholarly study is its one dimensional, superficiality. Only in an academic utopia completely divorced from reality can departments invest the type of resources necessary to effectuate the changes advocated here; the socioeconomics of contemporary higher education at most institutions necessitate the use of (underpaid) adjuncts and other off-tenure track faculty. What incentive would people with 3/3 (or gods forbid) 4/4 loads have to adopt the time consuming pedagogical practices advocated here, when their own institutions hold them in such low regard and view them as nothing more than expendable labor? One could make the argument that it’s a matter of professionalism. Yet that argument is one that is premised upon a very specific type of luxury where one has the free time to indulge in such lofty (and time consuming) self-reflexive assessments. Such pronouncements almost always originate from the lips of those either on the tenure track or those with tenure (both demographics who are in the minority of today’s academic professionals). Moreover, not a single statement is made about class sizes. These idealized objectives utterly fail to account for the ways in which class size contributes to class dynamics, and thus student choice. Student choice has many variables, not the least of which is the degree of personal attention (or their perception of it) and how that influences their decision to remain in a class or not (much less whether to adopt the major). This is not to say that the conclusions that the study’s authors draw are wrong; I completely believe in their conclusions. However, it is hardly the entire story and to present it as if it were, is wrong and smacks of elitism, out of touch with the demographic changes in contemporary academia’s workforce composition.Today’s increasingly corporatized universities demand a wide array of concessions from overworked and underpaid, part time academicians and this article does little to interrogate those demands or their socioeconomic origins to the detriment of its readers.

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    • Thanks for covering this! I think it is SO important to have a great faculty member (adjunct or TT) teaching Intro classes! I’m teaching our Intro class this semester and I love being able to make sociology exciting for my students.

      Michael raises a couple interesting points about class size and university economics, but I don’t agree that these necessarily stand in the way of having great Intro classes. I’m at a public, 2nd-tier school where my teaching load is 3/3. I have no problem prepping for and teaching an Intro class that involves the students in exciting ways. And I am able to complete my equal parts research and service along with that. We also have adjuncts who teach Intro, and I’ve evaluated their classes before, and they’re doing a fantastic job. Actually, I think having great Into class is necessary for Soc Depts as we’re all in a financial crunch, and our student GPAs and retention rates matter so much more in how we’re evaluated. Using Intro as a place to “catch” students and socialize them into the department and discipline is just wise. And it doesn’t take a lot of time. Class size doesn’t matter either– there are fantastic Intro classes (although not at our schools) that are 200+ students with break out discussion sections lead by skilled TAs.

      Teaching intro IS an important service to the discipline. Not everyone is going to be great at doing it, but assigning good profs to Intro, evaluating their classes, and valuing the work they do, makes a lot of sense.

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      • Thanks, Jan! I am inclined to agree, as well. The increasing corporatization of universities, and the growing reliance on adjuncts to teach courses, is a problem — but, they should not serve as an excuse for universities and departments to change. If the goal is merely to get courses taught, than that is what you get. And, you miss out on potential majors and minors!

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    • Michael — I appreciate your comment and concern. I do NOT appreciate being accused of elitism or told that my argument is superficial. To respond, I am not certain which major changes to which you are referring. I have provided some food for thought for departments — not individual professors and instructors — to invest a little more energy into making lower-level classes inviting, sparking subsequent interest — hopefully to minor or even major. Others have already written more in-depth about the findings of this book, hence my rather brief comments. (Three of the five paragraphs I wrote were quoting directly from another article.)

      That said, please do consider writing a guest blog post about these issues! https://conditionallyaccepted.com/contribute/

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