Wednesday, December 09, 2015



This one is an unapologetic attempt to steal ideas.

For the educators out there: what does your college do with students who don’t know what they want to major in?

At many four-year schools, it’s standard practice not to declare a major until the sophomore year at the earliest.  But at most community colleges that I know, students have to declare upon matriculation.  (Non-matriculated students don’t, for obvious reasons.)  

In some fields, that makes good sense.  A student who wants Auto Tech or Culinary pretty much knows it from day one, and both programs get specific very quickly.  It’s relatively rare for a history major to take the “transmissions” class as an elective and fall in love with it.  Even in the more traditionally academic areas, some students arrive with a pretty clear sense of what they want.

But many -- perhaps most -- don’t.  

Most community colleges that I’ve seen put students who don’t know what they want in the generic gen ed/transfer program.  The idea -- which isn’t wrong as far as it goes -- is that gen ed classes transfer to just about any major, so the student can hone her writing and analytical skills while buying time for lightning to strike.  And that can happen.

But that only works if the student has a strong sense of forward momentum.  Without a goal, she’s likely to wander off when things get difficult.  Students without goals tend to have more fragile motivation; being put in an academic holding tank isn’t likely to help.

One way to handle it is to try to move the “goal identification” point earlier, and we’re on that.  Career interest inventories make the most sense at new student orientation, or even earlier.  Meta-majors can help, since they ask for only a vague initial sense, rather than a specific choice.  

But are there other approaches that work on the ground?  If the student gets through orientation still without much idea of what she wants, has anyone found a productive way to help her figure it out?  

When I was an entering college freshman I knew what I wanted to major in, but was worried that someone would tell me that I couldn't do it -that it would be too hard, so I told no one. It was Biology. I eventually did decide on another major. I think asking the student "If you could have any career you wanted, what would it be?", then listen to her answer and put her in that major. If I had said Biology, I might be a Pathologist today instead of an English teacher. I love teaching, so it was good that I didn't decide at first, but Science might have lost an excellent Pathologist instead of having another excellent English teacher.
The big problem with the general transfer curriculum is that it is designed only for humanities and social sciences—it is a disaster for students who want to transfer into STEM fields, because they have nowhere near enough lower-division math and science when they transfer. Furthermore, they need to take only technical courses in their 4-year college, which leads to overload (there is much less credit inflation in STEM courses than in gen-ed courses).

What we recommend to first-year students at our research university is that if they are thinking, even vaguely, of possibly doing a science or engineering major, they should start in it. We'll still love them if they change their minds later, but it is a hell of a lot easier to switch majors away from engineering than towards engineering.
100% agree with gasstationwithoutpumps. I am a physcist who participates every year in an "ask a physicist" program for high schoolers. That puts me in a position to do a little informal "academic advising." This is what I always tell them.

My husband did not pick his physics major until his sophomore year, and took six years to graduate. I picked mine as an entering freshman, despite not being very confident of my decision. I had to keep telling myself that if it looked like I was going to start failing classes, it was okay to withdraw from those classes, and okay to pick a different major. I didn't, and because I started the sequence my fist semester, I graduated in four years. That's how STEM majors go. That's what I tell those high school kids.

Institutionally, is there some way you can lower the barriers to switching majors? People are probably more likely to just pick one and give it a try if you tell them "it's okay, you can always change your mind later."
The craziest thing I see is when a student wants to be a computer science major and has never taken a college-level programming class of any kind. Incomprehensible, but there is no way to force them to try it before they transfer.

Ditto on what GSwoP said above, and that is (potentially) the best net gain from having meta majors. The reason is that the problem is math more than the science classes, because you can't take chemistry until you pass college algebra and you can't take biology (at most places) until you have chemistry and you can't take physics until you take calculus. There is a similar problem for business, by the way, but it is easier to build a summer-plus-2nd-year track through business calculus than it is to build one through three semesters of calculus if your next class is college algebra.

I'd be interested to know if MKS's husband got hung up because of math.

Our meta major is mainly targeted at math sequences and avoiding the wrong gen-ed classes (a problem for some liberal arts majors), although it still has flaws for the sciences. There are vast differences between "tech" majors, biological science majors, and the physical sciences.

BTW, we force students to pick a metamajor (and identify transfer school, but allow undecided for a transfer major) by their second semester, using a freshman "welcome to college" course to get them to do a career inventory, etc, as part of the process. What we don't do is tailor/link those classes to students who already have a particular metamajor or none at all.
Guttman CC gave a great presentation on this at the last Complete College America meeting in October. They have students enroll in an ethnographies of work class. They have some impressive results, including a 1st to 2nd year retention rate hovering around 70% and a 3-year grad rate for their pilot of 49%.
If I were in charge of planning majors at a CC, this is what I would do. I would have a generic physical sciences AS, biological sciences AS, social sciences AA and Humanities AA. I would enroll students in the hardest major they were interested in first - Physical Science > Bio Sci > Social Sci > Humanities. I would explain to students that they need to start with the toughest major but if they don't like it, they can step over to the next choice on the list. The classes they would take as a physical science student would transfer to any of the other majors but the Humanities group has the least applicable group of courses for science and should be the last choice for anyone with an inkling that they might want STEM. The science majors would typically be in math + science + college writing + 1 GE the first semester and math + 2 science and one GE the second semester. This gives the scientists a chance to "taste test" the social science and humanities courses if they end up exiting that route. No one gives students this advice but I think it would really help them.
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