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Discussing ‘How College Works,’ Chapter 6

Daniel F. Chambliss and Christopher G. Takacs, the authors of our current book, How College Works, have agreed to guide our discussion.

The discussion will take place on Twitter (#ChronBooks, @DanFChambliss, @ChrisGTakacs). Our other featured participants are listed at the right.

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From Dan Chambliss:

“Aha!” says our reader. “At last the academic stuff!”

The deepest learning occurs not from simply piling up isolated technical skills but in the immersion and acculturation of students in a community of students and teachers: think of monasteries, military academies, or perhaps elite sports teams or musical ensembles. Members gain knowledge and skills, yes, but also absorb attitudes and values that can pervade everyday life.

The desire to “fit in” with such a community can be immensely powerful, and in our research such desire produced academic improvements (in writing, first) noticeable within weeks of students’ enrolling. If writing—to take our lead example—is obviously valued in the community, students’ skill improvement is quick and sure. Similarly, living and working in a science lab, or for that matter in a foreign country, has the potential at least to induce drastic change in skills, but in far more than skills as well.

Critical thinking, in particular, is best understood not as an isolated skill but rather as a daily habit or even personality trait, probably learnable only within a context where intellectual courage is encouraged and rewarded. It’s hard to get that from a book, studying by oneself.

Academia, then, is not merely a collection of solo practitioners, each grinding away in a little library carrel or office. It’s an entire world of thinkers, connected to one another, caring deeply what their various audiences are thinking and doing. If students feel connected, they learn more and better.

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From Chris Takacs:

From the start of the project, we were very interested in understanding how STEM students develop—particularly, how they had become STEM students in the first place. Our interest in the question formed, in part, because of the increasing attention being paid to the sciences and quantitative skills. Part of our answer to how students select their major is found in Chapter 3, but we also devote a section in Chapter 6 to the sciences and, particularly, what makes a “science student.”

One of the most interesting things we found in talking to science students was how their beliefs about their quantitative abilities had changed over time. Indeed, for most of the students who identified themselves as “science students,” their beliefs didn’t really change at college. They entered college confident in their quantitative and scientific abilities, and remained that way. But the current debate about STEM fields isn’t really about those students; it’s about the students who aren’t science majors. The process through which a student who isn’t committed to a STEM field actually becomes a STEM major is, therefore, central to the debate about STEM fields.

Transforming a student into a STEM major depends in large part on having a good initial experience in a STEM field. Incidentally, this is true for all fields of study. But introductory classes matter even more in the sciences, where students are much more inclined to view themselves as not having sufficient quantitative skills to progress—they self-select out of the major, usually for good. Providing students with an early, interesting, engaging experience in a scientific field can override their perceptions about their ability (and interest) in the sciences and can produce a STEM major where there wasn’t one before.

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