Undergraduates are significantly more likely to major in a field if they have an inspiring and caring faculty member in their introduction to the field. And they are equally likely to write off a field based on a single negative experience with a professor.
Those are the findings of a paper presentedat 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. The paper is one part of How College Works, their forthcoming book from Harvard University Press.
In their study, they tracked the educational choices of about 100 students. The students were interviewed about their original educational plans and why they either followed through on those plans or changed them, and they were tracked over their college careers and after graduation as well.
What they found challenges the views of many experts that choice of major is “fixed” by such factors as a desire for a lucrative career. Overwhelmingly, the authors write, students’ "taste formation" in choice of major is due to faculty members, although the influence can go either way. "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," Takacs and Chambliss write. "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 research found the role of the first faculty member is strong whether the student has an intended major or doesn’t. And the interviews -- up to four years after graduation -- found that students remembered the professors who inspired them and those who annoyed them, and attributed their decisions on majors to those faculty members.