Richard Light on making the most of college.

Bill Petkanas, Department of Communication

Richard Light's book, Making the Most of College  has become a popular read for high school seniors and their parents. Several universities assign the book to incoming first-year students in the hopes that they will make use of the lessons available to them and avoid some pitfalls.  His visit to WestConn provoked a great deal of thought about what we do and what students think about what we do.

Light has been part of an on-going assessment project at Harvard where a group of faculty have conducted many hundreds of depth interviews with students. The results of this study form the basis of the book. If you haven't read it, I recommend that you do; if you have read it and it's been a while, you might want to give it an occasional going over. Either way, below I highlight some of the major points Light makes.


Students who make connections between the classroom and outside world report a more satisfying experience with college. Some examples:

  • A student interested in medical school takes a summer job in a hospital.

  • A Political Science student contemplating law school works in an inner city program.

  • A long time ballet dancer in Bio Chem studies dance injuries and decides on a career in orthopedic surgery.

Light found that the most successful students were the ones who could find a way to combine school and life. This takes a keen awareness of our students' interests and of the possibilities for outside experiences.


Light found that students were very much aware of time management, or lack thereof. Some results:

  • Students who learn to manage time do better.

  • Extracurricular activities up to 20 hours/week have no effect on grades but correlate with higher levels of satisfaction with college.

  • Work has no effect on grades (most students 7-12 hours/week).

  • Volunteering (most students 3-6 hours/week) has no effect on grades but correlates with higher levels of satisfaction with college.

  • Arts activities are beneficial: students report they help them relate to class, allow them to interact with different types of other students, help interdisciplinary thinking.

  • Athletes have slightly lower grades than average but report significantly higher satisfaction with college.

Problems -- why students do poorly

  • Sense of isolation from college life and an unwillingness to seek help.

  • Poor study habits – studying in short bursts (10-15 minutes), or late at night, after other activities when students are tired.

  • Continuing with high school habits, "giving back facts," instead of integrating, critical thinking.

  • Studying alone.


In living conditions, students report a large positive effect from living in dorms with students very different from themselves (in race, nationality, ethnicity, religion, and geographic origin).


Students report that the most effective classes – the classes students remember -- rate highest for intellectual challenge and learning, and most satisfying had a number of these characteristics:

  • Small classes (15 or fewer).

  • Opportunities to learn from each other.

  • The more feedback from professor, the more highly rated the class.

  • Classes organized around a controversy.

  • Ability to do homework or projects in groups outside of class.


Students had a great deal to say about classes which included a substantial amount of writing. When much writing is required, students:

  • spend more time thinking/working on these classes.

  • Rate them as more intellectually challenging.

  • Work more when given frequent shorter assignments (e.g., four five page papers rather than one twenty page paper).

  • Enjoy writing organized around substantive context (not for sake of writing).

  • are stimulated when asked to write for each other.

And, report wanting more writing assignments and writing classes in their Junior and Senior years, when they have developed more proficiency in writing.


Light says that this is one of the most useful tools to get instant, continuous feedback from a class. At the end of each class session, students are asked to answer (anonymously) these two questions:

  • What was the big point, the main idea, that you learned in class today.

  • What is the main unanswered question you leave class with today? What is the muddiest point?

Going through these responses tells the instructor how closely the students' perceptions match the teachers. If you use it regularly, it has the added benefit of focusing the students during class since they are aware that they will be asked these questions.

Advising & Mentoring

Good advising is ranked as the number one challenge by students and faculty at over 90 colleges. Light tells first-year students that their job is to get to know one faculty member well each semester. Many students report that this was the best piece of advice they received.

From interviews with highly successful students, good advisors:

  • Get them to thinking about the relationship of their academic work to their personal lives.

  • Talk about the bigger idea; why the student wants to do something rather than just advice on how to do it.

  • Ask students to keep personal time logs for a while, to help with time and activity management.

  • Engage in one-to-one mentoring, especially in a research projects.

  • Help direct students to activities, groups, organizations of interest.

  • Are willing to learn from students (especially graduate students).


How do faculty make a real difference? Graduating seniors were asked to talk about a faculty member who had a strong influence on their thinking; 89% quickly named one, many named more than one. The characteristics they mentioned as having the most influence were:

  • Teaching precision in use of language – how to articulate their ideas well.

  • Sharing intellectual responsibility – planning and running projects, reading lists.

  • Connecting academic ideas with students' lives – relating to their own values, ideas.

  • [for large classes] creating in-class exercises where students must be active learners.

  • Teaching students to think like professionals – convey the worldview of the field.

  • Encouraging students to disagree with the professor.

  • Teaching the use of evidence for the field – what constitutes evidence.

  • Being unpredictable.

  • Integrating ideas from other disciplines.


Light has a lot to say in his book about diversity on campus. Students had a tremendous about of appreciation for their experiences with diversity. In his visit to campus, he talked about talking diversity more seriously by having students read and write about it and hold discussions on diversity issues.

There are many more topics of interest in Light's book, and a CELT forum a week following his talk on campus led to many ideas on what we can do here at WestConn to learn more about our students and how to become better teachers.


Light, R. (2001) Making the most of college: Students speak their minds. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

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