Head of the Class

How to teach psychology well

Studying and Engagement: Consider a Sense of Place as Well as Pace

Look deeper than soundbite summaries of surveys on educational issues.

Results from the recent National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE, pronounced "Nessie") made the news recently in many venues with variations on the headline "Engineering Majors Study More than Business Majors Do." The not-so-subtle message that comes through such bullet-point pronouncements is that engineering is hard ("well, we got to the moon, didn't we?") and that business is soft ("recent recession easily explained, eh?"), that students who select these respective majors are (in polite terms) "smart and hardworking" and "less driven and less studious." Stereotypes of wonky, geeky engineering nerds with pocket protectors and avaricious, would-be masters of the universe who want wealth with little work and even less ethics wait to rush in from the wings of readers' minds. Sigh.

And what happens to the poor psychology students (and all the others clumped under the heading "social sciences") in this quick and dirty data summary? According to the Cliff Notes-ish summaries of the NSSE, they fare fair to middling: Although they are less engaged than the engineers, physical and biological sciences, and the arts and humanities (take that critics of history, art, and music-POW!), they do study more than students in business and education. Oh, happy day.

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A more careful read reveals a bit more complexity. Complementary (alas, not complimentary) data from other sources (notably the sobering book Academically Adrift—read it with a stiff eggnog chaser or the ghosts of our collective Christmas Futures may keep you up at night) reveals that business majors do less writing than many other majors. (As I've written before, I think that's something to be concerned about). But—and there is always a "but"—we also need to consider (as the NSSE reveals) that business majors are apt to be somewhat older than the average undergraduate and that they are often working to support their families while in school. At least part of that part about "less engagement" and "less hours hitting the books" may be due to other compelling commitments (earning money to feed the family, pay the bills). What's sauce for the cooked goose (business) is also sauce for the gander: Education majors also tend to be somewhat older and similarly entangled with real life . . .

So, a bit more critical delving into the details is called for when unpacking matters of engagement, time on the task of studying, and so on. In fact, I think it's worth considering an oft-overlooked factor: The type of college or university the students attend. Besides thinking about the behaviors associated with major areas of study, why not think about the environments within which the studying occurs (or doesn't)? The United States is fairly bristling with all sorts of educational institutions, from elite household-name places (just imagine how many Harvard sweatshirts are not owned by alums-VERITAS, indeed) to major research universities to liberal arts colleges to comprehensive colleges and universities to two-year colleges. Some institutions are PUIs ("primarily undergraduate institutions") and others are doctoral granting schools where graduate study is the emphasis-and don't forget all of the specialized schools that emphasize one big thing (art, music, design, engineering, and yes, even business). The bulk of these schools are "traditional" (which in newspeak means "not for profit") and some newer ones are "for profit." And I've not even touched on all the variations—American higher education is in some ways more varied (nuttier?) than a holiday fruitcake.

So, all I'm saying here is that when we try to parse or parcel out what sorts of students are doing (or not doing) what sorts of things, we need to consider the institutional sense of place. (Note to parents of soon-to-be-college bound kids—you really need to think about sense of place and not just the bottom line.) Size matters. So does mission, scope, and purpose. So does price. Some schools focus on commuter populations; that is, they are not residential. People come and go to learn at all hours of the day. Others require that students reside on campus so that they are part of a college community.

Admittedly, this is a personal hobbyhorse that I ride proudly. I teach at a liberal arts college. My classes are small, I know my students by name, and I do all my own grading of tests and papers (sigh). I have no graduate students because liberal arts colleges are about the business of teaching first, scholarship second. According to the same NSSE survey, students at liberal arts colleges (on average) have a significantly greater and more challenging workload than universities that have graduate programs. This usually translates into assignments calling for critical thing, longer reading assignments and longer papers (and no doubt more of them), more hours of study, and so on. In short, what should translate to greater amounts of engagement, which is just the ticket, right?

Am I arguing that liberal arts colleges for everyone? Certainly not—although I spent 9 years of my life at two major research universities and loved (almost, almost) every minute---that's not my point. Education is multiply determined. Far too much emphasis (and I know this will be seen as heretical in some quarters-I may be burned on a stake of holly) is put on the major. Students, parents, and some of us in higher education need to reflect carefully and perhaps passionately on other things that matter in shaping of a person's education. I think a sense of place and not just the pace of what is done there is an important one to consider—admittedly not the only one—but one that gets overlooked, especially now when concerns about the cost of a college degree are riding high.

Let's look and think more deeply, shall we?

Dana S. Dunn, Ph.D., is Professor of Psychology at Moravian College, a liberal arts college in Bethlehem, PA.

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