Successful students are motivated and engaged students; unfortunately, on many campuses, motivation is lacking.

The book "Academically Adrift" cites a nationwide sampling of 2,300 students who took the Collegiate Learning Assessment (CLA): more than 45% found no improvement or declines in critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing skills during their undergraduate years. Worse, the Wabash National Study of Liberal Arts Education surveyed 2,000 students enrolled in 17 national public and private small and large colleges: about 65% of seniors said their motivation had stagnated or declined during their college careers.

What could be at the core of these engagement and motivational failures?

According to Daniel Chambliss, a professor of sociology at Hamilton College, and Christopher Takucs, his former student and now a PhD candidate in sociology at the University of Chicago, student motivation can hinge on a single conversation with the right person at the right time.

Their book, "How College Works," examines their 10-year longitudinal study of 100 randomly selected students from Hamilton College in upstate New York. Through interviews, surveys, and even the examination of academic writing samples from high school and college, the tandem explored factors that made differences in college lives.

Chambliss and Takucs discovered that relationships, with a faculty member, another student, alumnae — anyone —can be the spark for student motivation. According to Chambliss, “Colleges and universities are like a museum. They’re filled with all this beautiful art, but someone has to turn on the light. If no one turns on the light, nothing else matters.”

To encounter that right person, or people, to switch on the lights, such variables as the design of a dormitory, the classes taken, professors, friends, and extracurricular activities all come into play.

Though the new apartments with individual entries and living spaces might seem appealing, living in the older dormitories with the long hallways, communal bathrooms, and multiple roommates are more conducive to succeeding in college. The new apartments isolate. The old dormitories bring a wide range of students together in a daily bustle of casual conversations across an array of ideas and interests — the very matter essential in successful college experiences. These dormitories are much like building 20 at MIT, in which numerous accidental meetings among a mish mash of students from a range of departments encouraged limitless informal conversations — the best generators of friends, new ideas, and different perspectives.

In choosing classes, pick the professor before you pick the topic. Find the best, most engaging professors and classes and attend them. What Chambliss found, and probably intuitively knew as he has been a professor at Hamilton for three decades, is that contact with one superb professor can send students in completely new directions.

Chambliss recommends departments use their top teaching talent in introductory courses. That is where the greatest impact is made.

Lelia Glass, who arrived at the University of Chicago from Washington DC anticipating majoring in economics, exemplifies the importance of introductory classes. During her first year, taking a linguistics class within the Humanities Core, she became fascinated with the subject. After her final, she was invited to the Linguistic Society’s barbecue; after some conversations with a handful of professors, she was encouraged to take more classes within the department, eventually taking linguistic classes in Chicago’s graduate school and writing her BA thesis on the theory of adjectives. She is now attending Stanford’s PhD program in linguistics. A spark from a serendipitous exposure to an introductory linguistics class ignited Lelia.

Join activities that include all sorts of people such as a sports team, a singing group or a drama club. The more opportunities to encounter more people the better. Having friends is important.

Students need meaningful encounters with the right person at the right time but it needn’t be too often. A simple dinner at a professor’s home is rarely forgotten. Colleges are the perfect setting to make these seemingly small yet life-altering and highly-motivating contacts. As Chambliss further notes, “Good colleges have always been fundamentally human institutions.”

Ralph Becker, founder of Ivy College Prep, LLC and a resident of Long Beach, has been counseling students for the last 8 years. A former Yale Alumni interviewer, he holds a certificate in college counseling from UCLA Extension, and has published SAT* Vocab 800 Books A, B, C, & D. rbecker@ivycollegeprep.net.

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