The Journal of Higher Education 73.4 (2002) 545-547
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Making the Most of College:
Students Speak Their Minds
Making the Most of College: Students Speak Their Minds, by Richard J. Light. Harvard University Press, 2001. 242 pp. $24.95
In the past decade over 17,000 copies of the Harvard Assessment Seminars I and II have been distributed free of charge to educators interested in improving undergraduate education. Thus, the recent publication of Light's Making the Most of College comes as a welcome addition to the scholarship on teaching, learning, and college life in general. The project, initiated at Harvard in 1986, involved over 24 colleges and universities. From it emerged strong findings from a series of highly structured student interviews investigating various features of campus life. The interviews, lasting two to three hours, often targeted specific student populations, such as successful and unsuccessful students, with questions designed to provide rich qualitative data. Because the interviews followed a highly structured protocol, trained faculty and student interviewers became equally adept at capturing data. [End Page 545]
Policymakers in particular will want to put Light's work in the broader context of other longitudinal studies, most notably Pascarella and Terenzini's How College Affects Students (1991) and Astin's What Matters in College (1993). Reassuringly, many of their findings, such as the power of the peer group, are convergent. Yet, Light's qualitative approach could prove unpalatable to researchers, similar to a character in a recent Dilbert cartoon who declared, "If it isn't quantifiable, then it must not be necessary." However, Light's approach avoids the information overload Astin references in his preface (1993, p. xiv), and it provides a source of rich anecdotes that make the book appealing to a range of readers, including parents and students. Furthermore, Light's purpose was not to capture national data on undergraduate education. It was to investigate within a limited arena, "innovation in teaching, in curriculum, and in advising" (p. 217). From the beginning, the author's pragmatic focus sought to guide educational policy decisions so that "professors, advisors, staff members or students [could] do their work better" (p. 218).
Light provides compelling evidence that as a result of deliberate policies and practices things are indeed getting better. For example, because of specific practices intended "to shape an environment in which diversity strengthens learning" (p. 10), over 75% of seniors had, during their stay at Harvard, opted to share living arrangements with at least one person who was ethnically different (p. 181). These policies and practices include: designing first-year living accommodations to mix diverse students; bringing 20 diverse students early-on into faculty-led discussions about six thought-provoking essays by ethnically diverse authors; and encouraging campus leaders of ethnic, racial, and religious groups to open their membership to all students and to collaborate on sponsoring guest speakers and coordinating other projects.
The innovations made in academic advising underscore the low cost of many of these changes. Not surprisingly, Light and his colleagues encourage students to get involved in "a campus organization or group that will give them social and personal support" (p. 98). Students during interviews also identified critical advice that Light now offers: Get to know several faculty members well—target one a semester—so that you will have professors who can serve as mentors and advocates, particularly for letters of recommendation (p. 86). Because successful students repeatedly emphasized the importance of effective time management, Light now encourages his advisees to keep a two-week time log that will serve as a basis for evaluation, analysis, and change, if needed.
Academically, the book provides a rich source of findings. Just as Astin concluded earlier (1993, p. 425), Light also finds that "students who get the most out of college, who grow the most academically, and who are happiest organize their time to include activities with faculty members, or with several other students, focused around accomplishing substantive academic work" (p. 10). Thus, faculty, particularly in the sciences, should encourage peer study groups (pp...