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.”