Making the Most of College: Students Speak Their Minds

Article excerpt

Making the Most of College: Students Speak Their Minds

Richard J. Light. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2001


It is a pleasure these days to find a book about teaching and learning that makes no reference to technology and does not suggest that faceto-face contact with students is best avoided in favor of some version of distance learning. Richard Light's Making the Most of College uses the words of students themselves to advise other students, faculty, and administrators how to "make the most of college." Much of what is said is familiar to experienced faculty members-- small classes, study groups, one-on-one contacts for research projects, student participation in and outside of the classroom help students learn. What is new is that many of the insights are backed up by in-depth interviews with some 1,600 students, many at Harvard University, but some from institutions of all types.

The essence of Light's message to students and faculty is that what students need is to make links between the academic and the personal, but above all, they need to get involved. For an undergraduate contemplating medical school, such a link could be experience working in a hospital; for a political science student, it could be organizing a renovation effort for a housing project, only to see it fail through union opposition. Light argues that engaging in extracurricular activities can lead to better academic performance and a more satisfactory college experience even if the activities are not connected to the student's academic interests. He cites the experience of a shy Pacific Islander who became the drum carrier (a nonplaying role) in the Harvard band, and points out that there are 168 hours in a week, none of which needs to be devoted to being a couch potato. But there are limits to how much time can be devoted to nonacademic pursuits, as he acknowledges in reference to intercollegiate athletes. Moreover, his subject population appears to consist almost entirely of students going directly from high school to full-time collegiate study. Not for him the single mother balancing a full-time job, child care, and a near full-time academic load!

The immediate reaction to what Light says is to assume that what works in the ratified atmosphere of Harvard may have little universal relevance. He repeats, more often than necessary, that the advice given by the students he interviewed has broad application in higher education. That is true of much of what they say, but the fact remains that for sheer ability and commitment to intellectual exploration, most students are not equal to those with whom Light has worked most closely. And most faculty do not have as much time as they would like to put into practice his proposed means of helping students make the most of their time at their institutions. For example, he speaks of meeting one on one with students at the beginning of each year to explore in depth their backgrounds and aspirations. But what if twenty or more students were depending on him each term for advice and guidance? And what about the faculty member who has two or three classes of more than a hundred students each semester, plus maybe, just maybe, the treasured small seminar so productive for student learning? …