The Random Act of Choosing a College Major

The title of this post is identical to the title of an article by Andrew Van Dam in the 30 March 2019 issue of the Washington Post. This post provides a neat follow up to the immediately preceding post “Missing Healthymemory Themes.” The article begins by stating that this potentially life altering decision is often made based on something as trivial as what time of day you took a particular class, or what you happened to be studying when the deadline for picking a major arrived. Even when students are doing well in a course, perhaps even in Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematic (STEM) discipline, they will switch majors to be with others who share genre or background. This has been suggested as a possible explanation for lower participation of females in these disciplines.

Economists like to study U.S. Military Academy Cadets because they are assigned schedules, and some classes at random creating a data set that allows them to answer questions such as what’s causing a student to pick one major over another. The author writes, “The answer, it turns out, is dumb luck. Students who happen to be assigned classes in one of four required subjects during the semester when they’re supposed to pick a major are twice as likely to major in the assigned subject, according to University of Maryland economist Nolan Pope, and Richard Patterson and Aaron Feudo of the U.S. Military Academy. This held true regardless of how well a student performed or how much they liked the course according to the analysis of class data from 2001 to 2015. Their database included grades, class times and students opinion about the course. Pope said, “Small and seemingly unimportant things can really have a large impact. Often students cite a specific class or teacher for a choice of major.”

Carnegie Mellon University professor Karem Haggag, showed students are about 10% less likely to major in a subject if they took a class at 7:30 a.m. Likewise. as students grown more fatigued during the day they grow about 10% less likely to major in the subject covered by each successive class.

Given these data it is not surprising that 37% of students eventually switch according to a paper from University of Memphis economists Carmen Astorne-Fiagari and Jamin D. Speer. These economists conducted a long-running survey of almost 9,000 students born between 1980 and 1984. Not surprisingly, students with lower GPAs are more likely to leave their major. But women of all ability levels are likely to change majors. However, men are more likely to drop out instead of trying a different major according to a study by Astorne-Figari and Speer.

Students doing poorly tend to switch majors, which makes perfect sense. Business, social sciences and economics tend to gain the most from students major switching, while biology, computer science and medicine (medical and health services) lost the most.

About a third of the men and a fifth of the women start out in STEM, and about 30% of those men and 43% of those women switch out of the subject area. Women who leave STEM tend to go to majors that cover similar subjects but are less competitive and less male, such as nursing. Speer said, “There are a lot of women who are very competent in math and science. They typically go to other fields that use science or other fields that use science but are less dominated by men.

Just because one has difficulty with a subject, does not necessarily mean that one cannot be successful in that area. The case of Barbara Oakley is instructive here.
Her father was in the military and she moved constantly doing her childhood. Her father wanted her to attend college and study math and science. Unfortunately, the only thing she was certain about was that she did not like math and science and did not think that she had any aptitude in math and science. However, she did like studying languages so she began studying French and German. At the time there were no available college loans so she enlisted in the military where she could get paid to study a language. So she studied Russian and learned the language.
When she got out of the army, she could not find any interest in her Russian skills. The jobs were in engineering and science and required advanced mathematical skills. So she moved into a new area for which she thought she had no aptitude. However, she found through diligent work that she was able to learn these subjects, and as she became proficient in these subjects, she found that she enjoyed them. So today she is a professor of engineering, firmly planted in the world of math and science. Along with Terrence Sejnowski, the Francis Crick Professor at the Salk Institute, she teaches the most popular online course in the world—“Learning How to Learn”—for Coursera/UC San Diego.

There are several posts on Dr. Oakley. She has also written a book “MIndshift.”
She writes that a “mindshift” is a deep change in life that occurs thanks to learning, and that is what this book is about. She relates true and inspirational stories of how people change themselves through learning—and who bring seemingly obsolete extraneous knowledge with them that has enabled our world to grow in fantastically creative and uplifting ways.

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