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Pedagogy 2.1 (2001) 124-129

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How Students Make Choices, See Connections, and Diversify the College Experience

Mary Theresa Hall

Making the Most of College: Students Speak Their Minds. By Richard J. Light. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2001.

In 1986, at the invitation of Derek Bok, president of Harvard University, Richard J. Light assembled a group of colleagues to engage in a long-term program that would evaluate the university's effectiveness and devise ways to improve it. The findings of their study, based on ten years of in-depth personal interviews with more than sixteen hundred undergraduates, are compiled in this compact, resourceful handbook, Making the Most of College.

Light, who conducted four hundred of the interviews himself, visited over ninety colleges and universities and more than sixty faculty members from some twenty colleges and universities, to design ways to answer questions about the choices students make as they attempt to get the most out of college and about the ways that faculty members and campus leaders attempt "to translate good intentions into practice" (2-3). Grounded in the principle that all of the work for the project was conducted as "first-class science" (218), this assessment treats students' responses with integrity, respect, and rigor; the interviewers' findings have been synthesized and analyzed from the perspective of their "real-world policy implications" (219), not strictly in the jargon [End Page 124] of researchers and statisticians but in language that is accessible to students, faculty, parents and guardians, administrators, and campus leaders. Readers inclined to assume that the findings in this book reflect solely the views of Harvard constituencies need only skim through it and read the questions that Light uses to elucidate and underscore his purpose: to determine how the experiences of most college students are shaped by the social environment both inside and outside the classroom. That Light's project proved the feasibility, viability, and success rate of intentionally engaging students, class sizes notwithstanding, in some type of interpersonal relationship or communal experience--be it with a faculty adviser, residence hall staff, or a mentor--quickly dismisses the notion that this handbook is for a selective readership or a small college. Light provides practical ways for student services staff, faculty, and campus leaders to elicit collaborative principles in the classroom as well as in extracurricular activities and residence halls so as to strengthen the social environment on college and university campuses.

Light relies on quotes and anecdotes from the interviews to provide illustration. Though a statistician, Light admits that this type of response conveys an entirely different picture from data that might be obtained by a survey questionnaire. By using the words of students themselves, he reinforces his subtext of enabling students to speak their minds; he even dedicates chapter 3 to "suggestions from students" (23-44). Light's practicality and wisdom are further reinforced by his reminder that creating a climate that engages students in collaborative learning may include failures as well as successes, but, like all long-term strategies that work toward steady improvement, it also helps students see the connection between what they are learning and how they are learning. I particularly appreciate that Light does not capitalize on the "student-as-consumer" corporate model. He provides excellent balance in portraying the roles of students, faculty, and campus leaders as collaborators in achieving optimal conditions for learning both inside and outside the classroom.

Bok asked Light and his colleagues to consider the following questions:

1. How well do we teach now, and what changes will make it better?

2. How well do we advise students now, and what changes will make it better?

3. Do our students write enough? How do we know? Can we improve this?

4. Do we demand enough of our students?

5. Do our faculty members help students become more effective students? How can we do this even better? [End Page 125]

The introduction provides an overview of the project and the impetus, methodology, and plan of the book.

Chapter 2, "Powerful Connections," describes how "students who make...


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