A college version of 'stop and smell the roses'

How can students make the most of their four years of college?

Richard Light, a Harvard University professor, has been studying that question ever since a phone call in 1986 changed his life and set him on a 15-year quest.

On the other end of the line was Derek Bok, then-president of Harvard. As Dr. Light recalls, Dr. Bok immediately got to the point: "Who is systematically looking at what we do well here [at Harvard] - and at what we don't do so well?"

The question caught Light flat-footed. Would he like to try to find out? Bok asked. The request had an imperative ring to it.

Thus began Light's search for the secrets of successful students - and what role colleges can play in fostering that success. He wanted to know, for instance, why some freshmen do academic belly-flops while others with similar high school credentials soar. How can faculty advisers do a better job? What makes a course stand out? What makes some students happy with their college years, others regretful?

Compiling student advice

At first, Light, a statistician in the Graduate School of Education, spoke to tweedy professorial types from schools large and small. But he soon knew the key was to ask students themselves what worked in their college experience, what did not, and why.

Over the years he carefully categorized the responses from in-depth interviews (one to three hours each) with 1,600 Harvard students - interviewing more than 400 of them himself. He also disseminated his findings to other Harvard colleagues to help the school improve.

Recently he collected his results in a book - "Making the Most of College: Students Speak Their Minds." To his great surprise, it has been a hit in the college community, recently ranked the No. 12 bestseller on Amazon.com's list of education books. A number of colleges are buying the book in bulk for incoming freshmen. His phone is ringing off the hook with offers to speak.

"I think the reason people are so interested is precisely because the book is not about what Richard Light says - it's about what the students said, and it is based on the data, the research," he says.

Much of his book sounds like common sense, spiced with anecdotes. Time management, for instance, turns out to be a critical skill to master the avalanche of college work and activities.

But other findings are counterintuitive. Take, for instance, the common wisdom parents often impart to children as they leave for college: "Get your required courses out of the way first."

It turns out that many students with regrets about their four years did precisely that. Meanwhile, those who said they loved their time at college did the opposite, taking at least one offbeat course each semester - thereby engaging their minds in a deeper way from the start.

Students seek faculty input

Not all of Light's contrarian advice applies to students. Much of it is advice that colleges small and large can follow without breaking their budgets. For instance: take a more active role in advising students - a sharp contrast with the approach many institutions take.

"Most colleges and the people that run them tend to think: Let's admit the best students we can, and then get out of their way," he says. In fact, Light recalls a speech by one high-ranking official of another prestigious school who told his audience that's what his institution did.

"I was horrified," he says. "Students told us that in order to make the most of college, we - the faculty, their advisers - need to get in their way. They wanted us to get in their way."

So Light does precisely that. When he counsels a new student, he always asks the same question: "What do you see as your job for this term?"

Usually the student says something like, "to work hard and get good grades." Unsurprisingly, that answer doesn't fly.

After they struggle a bit, he shares with them "the single biggest factor" in being successful and happy - getting to know at least one faculty member each semester fairly well.

He didn't just make up this tidbit. Hundreds of college seniors told him that such relationships with professors were among the most rewarding aspects of their college experience. Other bits of Harvardian advice include:

• Encourage doing homework in groups. The most lonely and unhappy students spent most of their time grinding away at their studies in monastic isolation. What was once considered cheating is now considered one of the best ways to learn. Happy and successful students reported working together.

• Write a lot. Many students said learning to write well was rewarding. They recommended courses that require writing numerous smaller papers, rather than one big term paper. The smaller papers call for more time and effort, but result in more feedback, and students reported that such courses allowed them to bounce back from a weak first effort.

• Take advantage of diversity by getting roommates with backgrounds and interests different from your own.

The "happiest students on campus," Light says, are those who find a way to connect in-class learning with their extracurricular activities. One political-science major ran into legal issues while volunteering with inner-city children. It fired up interests that led to a law degree.

One young woman told her adviser of feeling isolated in her studies, Light says. The adviser suggested she join the band. But she didn't play an instrument

"Don't worry about that," the adviser told her. "You can hold the drum." She did - citing it later as the impetus for getting involved and meeting new people - a balance with academics that made for a great college experience.

Send e-mail to claytonm@csps.com.

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