Workshop Explores Keeping Students On Track To A College Degree

UC faculty, advisors and staff on the front lines of student services got an insightful account of how students are speaking their minds when it comes to their college experience. Harvard professor and author Richard J. Light shared the research from a study on Harvard students that led to the acclaimed book, Making the Most of College: Students Speak Their Minds.

The March 6 retention workshop was sponsored by the UC Faculty Senate, Office of the Provost for Baccalaureate and Graduate Education and Office of the Vice President for Student Affairs and Services.

Light described how in 1986 he was first charged with developing a committee to examine Harvard's successes as well as where the university needed some work. Light described how his president asked him to gather faculty, student affairs representatives and students to figure out where to begin.

It was decided that the best results would come from one-on-one interviews with undergraduate students, exploring questions such as the most helpful advice they had received in college as well as what they found to be the most unhelpful advice. Students were also asked which course had made a big impact on their life, as well as how the course was organized.

Light says that information from 1,600 interviews by 30 different interviewers led to a new approach in advising. First-year Harvard students are now advised to make the effort to get to know at least one faculty member per semester. Light says students were told, "If you're willing to make that effort throughout your college career, then by spring of graduation you'll have three or four faculty members who know you, who can write letters of recommendation, who can network for you."

Graduating seniors were asked to rate their experience on a scale of 1-10, with 10 being the best. The researchers found that students who were most disappointed with their college experience said that when they first started choosing courses, they would "get the requirements out of the way and then take the good stuff." So now, first year students are advised to stretch and take some electives, and parents are encouraged to advise children in that direction as well.

In collaborating with MIT, the University of Massachusetts, the University of Connecticut and other public and private institutions in the region, Light says his colleagues all found they had something in common. "Some kids transition smoothly from high school to college while another student with similar SAT scores and similar grades doesn't do as well academically." A total of eight different college campuses in that area decided to explore that issue further by interviewing 30 students as they began their sophomore year. The group was broken into 15 students who had a successful first year in college and 15 students who had some struggles. "One word differentiated the students who had a good first year: time." Light says the successful students were very aware of how much they needed to plan and organize time around school, work and campus activities.

As a result, Light says 10 percent of the Harvard freshman class was asked to spend two weeks really reflecting on how they spent their time. Advisors and faculty then debriefed the students at the end of the two weeks. For students who felt they weren't using their time wisely, they were asked to examine how to change their habits and chart their success.

Light added that when 158 of those students were called the next year and asked whether they felt the exercise was a benefit for them, "55 percent said, 'That was the single most important thing I did during my entire first year at Harvard.'"

More examination found that studying in groups resulted in better student retention in the sciences. Light says that a decade ago, only half of the Harvard faculty encouraged the practice. "Now, all of us encourage students to study in groups outside of class. Retention increased in the sciences from 55 percent 10 years ago to 75 percent today."

Anthony J. Perzigian, Senior Vice President and Provost for Baccalaureate and Undergraduate Education said of the presentation, "Professor Light made his book come alive for us. He provided powerful pointers for better serving our students both inside and outside of the classroom. He showed us the way, and we must now act."

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