Power of Experience in Higher Education

While some students come to college with complete certainty about their major, many others are less than totally committed to their declared major or they are clearly undecided. For all those students who have yet to completely settle on their choice of major, the experience they have in interaction with an individual faculty member is the most powerful factor in determining whether a student will decide to choose or reject a particular major.

According to an article “Majoring in a Professor” over at Inside Higher Ed, the findings of a paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association by Christopher G. Takacs, a graduate student in sociology at the University of Chicago, and Daniel F. Chambliss, a professor of sociology at Hamilton College, indicate that a student’s choice of major is largely influenced by the first faculty member he or she encounters in the major. However, the influence can be positive or negative, either encouraging a student to commit to that discipline or causing them to reject it for another option. Takacs and Chamliss stated:

Faculty determine students’ taste for academic fields by acting as gatekeepers, either by welcoming them into an area of knowledge, encouraging and inspiring them to explore it, or by raising the costs of entry so high so as to effectively prohibit continuing in it. Faculty can positively or negatively influence student taste for a field — some compelling teachers can get students engaged in fields that they previously disliked, while other, more uncharismatic faculty can alienate students from entire bodies of knowledge, sometimes permanently.

The message from this research to faculty is clear. If they want their discipline to have a future they need to deliver their most engaging course experience in order to draw new students into the discipline. In other words, faculty are responsible for generating their discipline’s next generation of passionate users. While there are faculty who no doubt have the capacity for deeply engaging students in an immersive learning experience, others may want to take the idea of designing a great learning experience more seriously.

The article goes on to debate whether assigning senior faculty to teach introductory courses – an assignment they typically avoid – in the best way to give new students the best possible learning experience. The point of the research would appear to be less about seniority and more about who is a dynamic, caring, engaging instructor that will instill passion for the subject matter in new students. Some faculty would even suggest that what happens in the first moments of the first class can have an impact on the student’s overall experience in that discipline.

Perhaps enough cannot be said about the importance of leveraging that first opportunity you have to engage someone to turn it into a truly memorable experience. Whether it’s the first course, the first class or the first visit to the library, it’s our chance to make a difference in someone’s life. This study’s findings may suggest this is even more important with impressionable college students who are experiencing many things for the first time.

If one faculty member can make that kind of difference, then just imagine what a positive or negative experience with a librarian can accomplish. It should be a reminder to librarians that when they engage with students, be it at a service desk, in an instruction room, in a virtual chat, at a lecture or a campus information fair, they will always want to treat each encounter as an opportunity to put students on the path to becoming passionate library users. That’s the power of the experience in higher education.

Designing The Campus Tour

Academic libraries make a great stop on the campus tour for prospective students. If nothing else it gives the student tour leaders an opportunity to throw some challenges out to the prospective students and their parents. “Guess how many books there are here?” is a pretty common one. Whatever the tour leaders say about the library it’s usually enough to make most librarians within hearing range cringe with fear. As might be expected, most academic librarians have a student tour story to tell, be it humorous or just plain ugly.

There are good reasons to include the library on the campus tour. For one thing it reminds us academic librarians that the admissions office still considers the library an important place for prospective students to visit. What we need to understand about the campus tour is that increasingly it is the outcome of a design process where little is random or left to chance. In fact, more institutions are paying consulting firms to design the campus tour and media related to the tour. This shift in campus tour design was profiled in a Washington Monthly article titled “Campus Tours Go Disney“. It relates how more institutions are moving away from a drab, walk-a-bout the campus affair, and doing more to add sizzle to the tour:

Many colleges have turned the traditional tour into a more intimate, more elaborate event. Some colleges have full-time “visit coordinators” who preside over tours with personalized touches, quirky diversions, choreographed “signature moments,” and even souvenirs—the stuff of theme parks. Such changes have made tours more fun and engaging, and families tend to get multiple options for who to meet and what to see during their visits… when prospective students visit colleges, they’re not just seeking information about outcomes; they want to know what it would be like to eat, sleep, and socialize at a school for four or more years. So tours designed to convey that “experience” provide something consumers want.

The article profiles Jeff Kallay, a pioneer of campus tour design who “encourages colleges to tell stories that will distinguish them from competitors, to engineer an experience that will stick in consumers’ minds.” Kallay is taking cues from masters of user experience design, such as Disney theme parks, and helping colleges and universities apply the concepts to wow prospective students and their parents – to create something different and much more memorable than other tours they’ll take. One piece of advice that Kallay gives institutions that resonates with me – and which makes me feel vindicated about something I’ve been telling admissions folks for years – is the importance of emphasizing stories and human interaction during the tour:

Listening and eye contact matter more than climbing walls and glitzy dorms, he told his clients. He encouraged security guards to wave, secretaries to smile, and tour guides to ask open-ended questions (and to stop walking backward). In presentations, he has even suggested that tours should deemphasize their facilities, even if it means skipping the library. “Everyone’s got one,” he says.

I’ve advised those who plan the campus tour to stop having student guides regurgitate canned talks about the number of books, the number of databases, and that the library can get any book you need when you need it. As Kallay points out, students probably hear this at every library they visit. Instead, as I’ve recommended, have the students relate a personal success story about using the library for their research and to try to weave into that story the difference an academic librarian makes. According to Kallay, those personalized stories have far greater impact than just talking about the facility and content. Nor would it hurt to have an actual librarian say a few words to tour groups – even if it’s just a “hello – we’re here to help you” statement. If more academic librarians sought to create change in the traditional library tour, perhaps we wouldn’t be having Kallay advising his clients to take the library off the tour because it’s so mundane that it adds nothing unique to the tour experience.

I recommend this article to those who want to better understand why designing a user experience is important in higher education institutions, be it the campus tour or the library experience. If our institutions are bringing in consultants to design a better campus tour, why wouldn’t we want to demonstrate how we are working to design a better library experience for students and faculty. And after you finish reading it – share the link with your campus tour coordinator, and add a note that reads “Let’s talk about the library tour”.