That Freshman Class Professor Is Deciding Your Major For You

A new study finds that undergraduates select majors based on their first classroom experiences

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The very first experiences college freshmen have with professors greatly influence their choice of a major, according to a new study.

The study, Inside Higher Ed reports, found that engaging professors inspire students to continue pursuing a subject, while negative experiences quickly turn students away from that field.

Authors Christopher G. Takacs, a graduate student at the University of Chicago, and Daniel F. Chambliss, a sociology professor at Hamilton College, observed how about 100 students at an unnamed college chose their majors, analyzing students’ initial plans, whether those plans changed over their four years at school — as well as after graduation — and why.

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While the likelihood of a lucrative career does play a role in students’ choices, how students experience their first class in a subject can significantly sway their path. Undergraduates, the researchers said, are often actually “majoring in a professor.”

“It’s important for department chairs and deans to recognize who their more skilled teachers are, and the teachers they can use to draw students into certain majors,” Takacs said, emphasizing the importance of assigning talented professors to introductory courses. This is most important for lesser-known fields or particularly challenging ones. While subjects like history or English may always attract students, majors like geology or accounting could benefit from influential professors teaching freshmen courses. 

But while the study contends this emphasis on using good teachers in introductory classes could have a profound effect, it acknowledges it’s more difficult to scale at larger universities, where students are separated into different sub-schools such as business or engineering.

In interviews conducted up to four years after graduation, former students remembered both negative and positive experiences affecting their decisions on a major. And negative experiences led to judgements on entire fields of study.

The students’ assessments were based on the quality of lectures and classroom experiences, as well as engagement with students and professor accessibility — meaning the results have limited relevance in the realm of increasingly popular, so-called massive open online courses (MOOCs).

The paper, published by the American Sociological Association, is a part of is forthcoming book, How College Works.

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