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VINE VOICEon March 6, 2014
A colleague purchased a few copies of How College Works for administrators in academic affairs to read and share around. In the past several years, I've read a number of books that delve into how colleges and universities function, what students really get out of their college experience, and so on. How College Works, because of its mix of longitudinal data, interview extracts, well-reasoned analysis, and engaging writing style is one of the best. In presenting their findings and conclusions, co-authors Daniel Chambliss and Christopher Takacs take on the sacred cows of assessment, emphasis on programs, and strategic planning, and really bring the college experience home: it's all about the people and personal contact. A must-read for college faculty and administrators, and a potentially eye-opening book for parents of future college students.
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on January 2, 2015
There is nothing earthshaking about the findings of this decade-long, social science study of student experience at Hamilton College in upstate New York; but I am gratified that so many of the authors’ assessments line up with common-sense notions that I’ve reached on my own during more than forty years of college teaching. One reason I think the authors have it right is that I teach at a conservative religious college with open admissions, seemingly at opposite poles from the authors’ own secular, highly selective institution.

The authors elaborate the following basic ideas in remarkably lucid prose:
1. crucial student decisions are often “shaped by minor contingencies of scheduling, availability, and happenstance.” (156)
2. early college experiences are often the most decisive.
3. students need to find friends among their peers quickly, and old-fashioned, long-halled dormitories are one way to encourage them to do just that.
4. students need to encounter good teachers early in their college career.
5. most students need to find a faculty mentor—not to be confused with their academic advisor, who is often just a cipher.
6. small gestures on the part of faculty (even simply learning student names) can have a profound impact on student development.
7. a few professors often have a vastly disproportionate influence over a large numbers of students.
8. the benefits of a residential college include learning how to engage in appropriate social relationships and how to develop sound habits of work and thought.
9. because education demands personal relationships, people themselves are more important than strategic planning, student learning assessments, or technological innovation.

One anecdote: a decade ago I interviewed many older alumni of my school for the college archives. When I asked what aspect of the institution they thought had changed for the worse since their attendance, many mentioned the elimination of family style meals at which attendance had been required and seating had been assigned and then rotated. What seemed curious to me at the time now makes perfect sense. By assigning and rotating dining common seats, the college had limited the influence of cliques, indefinitely prolonged what today is a comparatively limited window of opportunity to make new friends, and better encouraged the identification of individuals with the entire college community.
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on March 12, 2014
If you are a parent, a student, or a professor, make How College Works next on your reading list. It is guaranteed to change your perspective on what makes a successful college career. Students who read it prior to attending college will get more out of their college experience than they would have otherwise. Parents who read it will be able to help their children prepare for a college experience that will last a lifetime. Professors as well will find an enormous amount to think about here, particularly relating to their continued interactions with students outside of the classroom.

If you read one book on how to succeed in the college environment today, make sure it is this one.
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on November 30, 2014
As college approaches for my daughter, I began to question its value. This book is well-researched contrast to the"Adrift" series (which could be known as, How College Doesn't Work). The organization and writing style were clear and useful. The authors explained how dorm life and extracurricular activities form, or don't form, a supportive social network. It's not clear to me if the authors think the extraordinary teaching at Hamilton College - the full page typed feedback and one on one counseling - is unusual. As a parent, this description of liberal arts instruction helped me understand what might be provided at some colleges. The criticism of science instruction was spot on. After years in the sciences, I have come to appreciate that only a few people have actually learned to think like scientists. My only criticism is the obvious one. The study was limited to an elite institution in the western tradition. This limitation may be particularly obvious in the short analysis of study abroad. This book is well worth reading.
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on October 22, 2015
"How College Works" is a surprisingly readable and thorough work of social science. The authors exhaustively collected data from students at Hamilton College, an elite liberal arts college in New York State. What makes their work important is that they keep their eyes carefully on the students themselves, rather than institutional assessment, programs, or career outcomes. They want to learn what students' actual experiences are. Importantly, they also ask alumni many years later to reflect back on their experience, so the analysis is not just about what students think is going on in the moment, but also what they make of their college experience with the wisdom of a few years of maturity and experience. Their central conclusion is that the most important factors in student experience are not programs, nice dormitory spaces, good food or fancy gyms, but rather individual personal interactions. The relationships that students create with peers and with faculty and staff are often pivotal in their development and tend to make the difference between good and poor outcomes.

As the authors proceed, they challenge a few assumptions in higher education. Small classes are not necessarily better overall. Old-fashioned dormitories are preferable to "apartment-style" housing. Just one intimate faculty mentor can make a huge difference for a student. Data show even just being invited to dinner with a faculty member can have a huge impact on the student's experience.

As a professor in a similar setting, the author's analysis certainly resonates with my own experience. The book itself is a quick read. There is a fair amount of repetition of ideas, which some might find a bit too much. The authors do make sure to note that their work does not address issues like minority or international students and may well be limited to the liberal arts setting, per se. They make no claim that their work is necessarily directly applicable to the experience at a large state school. Those looking for a critique of student behavior or moral claims should look elsewhere. Stylistically, the writing is crisp and clear. I found at least one place where a sense of humor sneaked in. When they finally address what to do with "bad professors" their answer is to assign them classes at 8AM and hope no one shows up!

If you work in a liberal arts setting, have a child considering a liberal arts college, or are starting your own experience as a student at a liberal arts college, you will find this a quick, revealing read.
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on April 28, 2014
A fresh and insightful look at the institution of college. A great read for parents of high school students as they lead their children through the college search process. Every guidance counselor should read this, as should college advisers and mentors.
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on November 8, 2015
Excellent book the describes why college is such a powerful change for people. Good science and good descriptions.
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on January 19, 2015
As per the description great item. I would purchase this item again.
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on July 1, 2014
This book should be read by anyone who cares about or who is responsible for student success in college, especially provosts and deans.
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VINE VOICEon July 22, 2014
Four 5-star reviews? Not a dissenting view in sight? Good grief!

I have no idea what my fellow readers read between the lines of this book that I missed. Having hewed to the lines myself, I cannot fathom the gushing praise this book received from any readers let alone all four of my fellow travelers. How College Works is one long (thankfully quick-reading) statement of the obvious (and redundant restatement of the obvious, presumably lest glassy-eyed readers fail to absorb its wisdom early on; also, perhaps, to boost its page count). I realize I'm being snarky in the extreme, and I feel a twinge of conscience for being so. After all, the authors' hearts are obviously in the right place, and the cause to which they've committed their research energies -- improving the experiences and personal outcomes of college students -- is a fine one. It's just that they fail, over the span of an entire book (the capstone of years' of study and hundreds of interviews) to make one novel observation (OK, I'm being hyperbolic; but there really are precious few interesting points in this book), nor to venture any novel hypotheses or to make any compelling proposals (I'm no longer being hyperbolic). Oh, and they thread dozens of entirely superfluous student quotes throughout the text -- pure padding. If my review seems mean-spirited, it's because books like this -- and this book, in particular, at the moment -- make me angry as a reader: angry for the opportunity cost I incurred reading this book (namely, other books I might have read instead); angry for what books like this say about publishing standards (HUPress!? Recipient of their book award!?); angry that such a trivial book can pass for scholarship (it's not inaccurate, I grant, just insipid).

The authors of this book are quite right to cast a critical eye on certain fashions in higher education, such as strategic plans (that never materialize) and assessments (done poorly). And they are also quite right to note the importance of micro-interventions in helping shape an effective broad-based learning environment. But there's micro and there's micro. Informing higher ed admin colleagues that one sort of useful intervention would be to schedule great teachers' teaching hours at times and in spaces that will maximize their contact with students (who, in their felicitous phrase, will gather to them like "cats to cream") and, conversely, to schedule lousy teachers' teaching hours at times students are likely to avoid is...well...a rather sophomoric sort of recommendation to make in a purportedly serious social science critique. And thus I thought to myself, again and again, as I read observation after observation, suggestion after mind-numbingly trifling suggestion...

OK, I'll leave off here. If I haven't managed to convince you that regardless of who you are (parent, kid, college student, professor, administrator, ...) your reading time would be better spent elsewhere, then have at. But don't say that someone on this page didn't speak truth to mediocrity.
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