In fact, they just might. It was shown in a recent paper by Christopher Takacs, a graduate student in sociology at University of Chicago, and Daniel Chambliss, a professor of sociology at Hamilton College. The study tracked 100 college students who were interviewed about their original educational plans and then followed over the course of their education through graduation to find out if they pursued those plans.
The results, soon be a section of their new book, How College Works, provide a challenge to the standard thinking that students often follow income or passion, rather than their college experience. Essentially, the study finds that students who were welcomed into a field and encouraged to learn about something interesting were much more likely than those who were not or who were discouraged by cost or faculty.
Going one step further, the first professor a student has often had the largest impact, regardless of whether the student had already declared a major or not, in guiding their education. Takacs explained it this way, “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.”
This point is extremely important for universities to understand. If freshman level courses can determine how your students will graduate, it would make sense to ensure your best, most popular and engaging professors are teaching them instead of a teacher’s assistant or an inexperienced professor. Additionally, if it is the first course in sequential curriculum, a single professor could engage or disgust students before they are truly emerged in that path of study.
Now this idea does not mean that courses should be easy, overly relaxed, or completely rewritten. In fact, many believe a tough teacher can have a big impact on helping students reach their goals. What is important is that the study shows how small steps can make a big difference. Scheduling the right professor, ensuring the students stay engaged, or simply offering a helping hand during tough assignments can keep them positive and moving forward.
When I found out about this, it made perfect sense to me. I switched majors, twice, in my freshman year following courses I hated. It makes me wonder how many other students switched degrees because of a poor first professor. Probably more than I had originally expected.