Students look forward to the opportunity to choose their academic plans and classes (Smith, Feldwisch, & Abell, 2006, p. 4). According to the enhanced cognitive engagement theory, allowing students to choose which classes they enroll in increases motivation and independence which in turn increases a student’s cognitive processing and performance (Flowerday & Schraw, 2003, p. 214); however, the task of course selection is very complex with multiple considerations, most of which overlap with one another. Students are influenced by the different academic portions of the class such as the value of the content, the structure, and the workload. They also have to decide what is important to them with regards to their interests, personal academic goals, and their schedule. But students do not make these decisions alone because they do occasionally seek advice from their family, faculty, and/or friends.
Not all of the different considerations of a course are as influential as others, but it is important to know what students want from their classes, what they expect of themselves, and who they will listen to. Educators and schools need to know this information, especially those of elective courses so they can meet the needs of students and have them continue to enroll in their class. More importantly though, if teachers can adapt their classes to better meet the needs of students the students will be more engaged which will increase their comprehension and excitement for the curriculum, which should be any teacher’s ultimate goal (Flowerday & Schraw, 2003, p. 214).
The following paper provides further analysis on the most current research based on influential factors of course enrollment. The first section deals with the academic considerations such as, value and execution, teacher, and workload. The student must also take into consideration their own personal preferences of their interests, capabilities, gender, and their schedule, which is explained throughout the second section. The third component deals with the influential sources a student may listen to including their family, peers, and the faculty at their school. Finally, the gaps and limitations of the research are discussed along with the need of further research.
According to the research, an “ideal class” that meets all of a student’s academic needs consists of a skilled instructor, a light workload, and the chance to gain “a lot” of knowledge (Babad & Tayeb, 2003, p. 389). Although, not all classes meet each of these three needs, but they are still factors that students consider when deciding on their enrollment of classes. Compromises sometimes need to be made regarding the different academic considerations of a class. The research below indicates where a student’s priorities lay in regards to course value, instructor, and workload.
Course value. The quality of a course can have a large affect on whether a student chooses to enroll in a class because it covers a wide variety of factors. One of the only factors that has a greater influence on course enrollment than the quality of the education a student can receive is that of the student’s personal interest in the content (Beggs, Bantham, & Taylor, 2008, p. 387). A course topic can be interesting to a student but the class needs to be well executed for the content to actually be understood and beneficial. Research has found that the majority of students will choose classes based on its high quality of learning rather than the deciding based on the instructor and/or the ease of the class (Babad & Tayeb, 2003, p. 391; Wilhelm, 2004, p. 23). In fact, according to Wilhelm (p. 24), students are four times more likely to choose a class where they have the opportunity to learn a “great deal” of knowledge even if the class requires a lot of readings and assignments. Students want to know how they will be assessed throughout a class and if aspects like effort and improvement will play a role in that assessment (Ferrer-Caja & Weiss, 2002, p. 53). Therefore, classes with set expectations and the ability to actually meet those expectations are very likely to positively influence a student’s choice in enrolling in a course (Curran & Rosen, 2006, p. 146).
The knowledge a student gains in a class can be beneficial and desired by a student because they simply want to gain knowledge; however, students may also prefer quality of education because of the relevancy and perceived value it can have on their life once they graduate, including their search for employment. According to Nagy, Trautwein, Baumert, Koller, and Garrett (2006, p. 339), high school students are likely to enroll in advanced courses that will pertain to what they want to study in college. Students in college are then greatly influenced by the potential for career opportunities and advancement; therefore, the more valuable a course is to a future career, the greater the likelihood a student will enroll in it (Ackerman & Gross, 2006, p. 75; Anderson, Lankshear, Timms, & Courtney, 2006, p. 1312; Malgwi, Howe, & Burnaby, 2005, p. 277). Students’ enrollment of courses based on its relevancy to their future career aspirations becomes even more predominate as the students get closer to graduation and they begin to search for jobs (Wilhelm, 2004, p. 25).
Instructor. Although, the above research has indicated that students have a larger preference for the knowledge that they can receive from a class rather than the instructor, it is the instructor who has a significant impact on how useful the course can be (Wilhelm, 2004, p.25). Also, the preference of an instructor’s lecturing style is very close to being as important as the quality of the value of the content (Babad & Taybe, 2003, p. 384). A student’s attitude about an instructor has a large impact on their attitude toward a class (Curran & Rosen, 2006, p. 142). Students prefer courses that are taught by teachers who are enthusiastic, well spoken, knowledgeable, caring, and helpful as opposed to instructors who are dry, inflexible, and unclear (Babad & Taybe, p.378; Curran & Rosen, p. 142). If instructors are inflexible and unclear, they are much more likely to be difficult to learn from, which is a major concern for students (Smith et al., 2006, p. 5). If students are concerned about a professor they are less likely to enroll in that class, and vice versa, according to the research done by Wilhelm (p.23).
Difficulty of class. The perceived difficulty of a class is based on aspects such as the grading leniency, assignments, attendance policy, and exam format (Babad & Taybe, 2003, p. 378). Although the difficulty of a class is not necessarily the number one priority of a student in regards to choosing a course, students do tend to have a higher preference for classes that are easy or moderate and avoid the difficult ones (Babad & Taybe, p. 389). In college student interviews conducted by Beggs et al. (2008, p. 385), they were surprised to find a lack of concern involving the need to maintain a good GPA and the ease of a particular class. On the other hand, the greatest areas of academic worry for high school students all deal with the difficulty of the teacher and class and having too much homework to do (Smith et al., 2006, p. 5).
Workload and difficulty of a class may not be as large of a factor as instructor and quality of course because one student’s schedule can vary greatly compared to other students, giving them different criterion that needs to be met. For example, based on research done on different majors within a college of business, course workload had no significant influence on course selection for marketing majors in comparison to the other business majors (Wilhelm, 2004, p. 24). Marketing majors may be less likely to choose a course based on the difficulty level, whereas difficulty can have a much larger emphasis for others like business management majors. Therefore, workload needs can vary depending on what a person is studying and/or what they are use to. Also, students may be willing to take a class where they will have “a lot” of work if that means they will also gain “a lot” of knowledge, but sometimes students are forced to pick an easier class due to time restraints of having to work rather than completing homework and/or studying (Babad & Taybe, 2003, p. 375). Workload and difficulty are both components of a class that affect a student’s perception of that course, therefore affecting their likelihood of enrollment (Babad & Taybe, p. 389; Beggs et al., 2008, p. 390; Smith et al., 2006, p. 5). However, a student’s personal considerations can have a large impact on the emphasis students put on aspects such as workload, as well as the impact a variety of other personal considerations have on course enrollment.
Each individual student can perceive things differently depending on their own personal views. A student’s own self and life can impact their decisions on course enrollment, as they consider aspects like their own personal needs and interest, pressures of their life, stereotypes, and their own goals, motivations, and beliefs of their education (Babad & Taybe, 2003, p. 375). Some of the most well known theories on development, including Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and Bandura’s social cognitive theory and self-efficacy, can help determine some of the undermining themes of the decisions students make in regards to their academics.
Interest in curriculum. Interest in a course topic or subject is often the driving force behind students’ enrollment in classes (e.g. Anderson et al., 2006, p.1311; Curran & Rosen, 2006, p. 145; Malgwi et al., 2005, p. 278; Smith et al., 2006, p. 4). A student’s perceived interest in a course is based on factors such as subject matter, topics, and major readings (Babad & Taybe, 2003, p. 391). According to the research done by Gregorian (as cited by Ackerman & Gross, 2006, p. 72), interest in a course is one of the biggest factors of a student’s enrollment because when they are given the opportunity to choose a class they will choose one that they find interesting. Students are also likely to choose classes they are interested in because the more choices they have that interest them, the less stressed they will be over their decisions, which is a desired feeling (Ackerman & Gross, 2006, p. 75). Enjoyment is another factor that influences the interest of a class. Students are attracted to classes that they think they will enjoy, and they are more likely to enjoy classes that they find interesting (Ferrer-Caja & Weiss, 2002, p. 13). As indicated by the above research, interest has a large influence on a student’s choice to enroll in a class.
Gender. The gender of a student can often affect their enrollment in a class. Men and women can have different values, and there are also certain standards or expectations that vary between genders. Gender differences are especially apparent in high school aged students. Females are less likely to enroll in science and math classes compared to men, but more likely to enroll in English classes (Riegle-Crumb, Farkas, & Miller, p. 214; Tenenbaum, 2008, p. 454). One reason for this could be the different perceptions men and women have in regards to their ability and competency in those certain classes because students are more likely to enroll in classes where they think they can excel (Nagy et al., 2006, p. 335). Interestingly though, according to Riegle-Crumb et al. (p. 214), females often score better in science despite the fact that men often think they are better in that subject. This could be explained because females often expect more from their education than men do and therefore put forth more effort and have high levels of school engagement (Grebennikon & Skaines, 2009, p. 77; Riegle-Crumb et al., p. 214). But despite the scores indicating that girls are capable, the gender gap still exists in classes like science and math. A main reason for this could be that, according to Tenenbaum (p. 456), parents use double the amount of discouraging comments towards daughters than they do sons when it comes to the courses their children take, which only enforces the stereotypes that already exist about gender differences leading females to feel less secure in certain subjects and opting to take other classes.
However, as students go from high school to college, they often become more alike in the choices they make in regards to what they study (Malgwi et al., 2005, p. 279). Interest in the subject is still one of the main factors of enrollment regardless of gender (Malgiw et al., p. 278). However, females find more importance in a course that has clear assessment requirements, provides constructive feedback, and has a fair amount of work throughout the semester (Grebennikon & Skaines, 2009, p. 75). But despite some differences, research has indicated that the gender gap is closing between college males and females’ perception of their abilities. Zhao, Carini, and Kuh (2005, p. 515) have found that women in science, math, engineering and technology classes (SMET) are becoming either equal to or more satisfied with their college experience than males which leads to their greater academic success and the continuous closing of the gender gap in certain course enrollment.
Self-concept. Interest may be one of the main driving forces for a student in their decision-making process, but it is the psychological idea of the self-concept that plays a larger role, including the ability to dictate a student’s interest. A person’s self concept refers to the “representation and evaluation of individuals’ abilities”, which plays a major role in how people make their decisions (Dickhauser, Reuter, & Hilling, 2005, p. 674). The idea of a person’s self-concept can be further explained by the idea of self-efficacy with Bandura’s very prominent social cognitive theory. Self-efficacy is a person’s belief of what they are capable of, and it can regulated people’s decisions, aspirations, self-hindering thoughts, their perseverance, and the amount of stress they feel (Bandura, 1991, p. 257). According to a study by Collins (as cited in Bandura, p. 258), interest has been a main influential factor in course enrollment, and the interest they have for that subject is regulated by their self-efficacy rather than actual ability. Therefore, students are more likely to enroll in a class where they have a high self-concept because they believe themselves to be competent in the subject matter rather than when they are not as confident about their abilities (Dickhuaser et al., p. 684). The power of self-concept is strong and cannot only impact the classes students do enroll in, but it can also impact the classes where they choose not to enroll. According to Nagy et al. (p. 337), students are less likely to enroll in a science class if they have high self-concepts of their math abilities, because they want to be in a class they believe they will do well in and not take a chance on other classes.
Student’s schedule. Occasionally, interest, instructor, relevancy, and all of the other considerations do not play a role in the student’s decision making process because they do not have that luxury of choice. Students may have to pick the classes that fit into their schedule due to other commitments and time pressures (Babad & Tayeb, 2003, p. 389). A student’s timetable may not be as a predominate influence as others, but students have made decisions to take a course, or to not take a course, based on the fact of whether or not it fits into their schedule (Anderson et al., 2006, p. 1311).
Furthermore, even if students do not have a hectic time schedule to work around, the times the class is offered can still play a role in course selection because students may just have certain time preferences. For instance, some students prefer mornings whereas others prefer night. Regardless of the preference of night or day, according to Maslow’s well known theory of the hierarchy of needs, students need to have their physiological needs met first before they can reach higher levels of the hierarchy which include their intelligence, memory, creativity, and problem solving (Maslow, 1943, ¶ 18-26). However, due to class schedules clashing with student’s preference of time, sleep deprivation often occurs with students (Lima, Medeiro, & Araugo, 2002, p. 1376). As students get older their time of day preference usually moves from morning to night, with the major shift occurring when students begin high school (Kim, Dueker, Hasher, & Goldsten, 2002, p. 1088). Students who prefer evening classes do not adapt well to morning classes, increasing the likelihood of sleep deprivation and the decrease of sleep quality (Lima et al., p. 1376). Therefore, students who refer to themselves as “night owls” are more likely to enroll in classes that start later in the day; however, students who prefer the morning are more flexible with their classes in regards to start times because they have the option to do other activities before their classes start in order to meet their time preferences needs (Lima et al., p. 1376).
Outside Sources of Information to Consider
Students need to know information about a course before they know if they will be interested in it, if they will like the professor, or if it will benefit them in the long run (Beggs, 2008, p. 392). Therefore, students will seek information and advice on classes that can often sway a student’s decision in course enrollment either directly or indirectly. Comments from family, peers, and faculty generally tend to be the main sources of information that have an impact on students (Beggs, p. 388). Students are more likely to enroll in classes that will be supported by their social network; however the need for support is less important to a student compared to the personal and academic considerations (Beggs, p. 387).
Peers. Students want to fit in and be accepted by their peers (Maslow, 1943, p. 371). Therefore, there is the possibility that students will succumb to the views and opinions of their peers and make their decisions based on others rather than their own thoughts. Students are more likely to listen to their peers before they listen to their teachers and advisors or family members (Malgwi et al., 2005, p. 278). According to Smith et al. (2006, p. 4), students look forward to the opportunity in school to not only make new friends but to also be around older students. Older students are more likely to have already taken classes that younger students can, and therefore are able to give them more direct advice that can influence their decisions. Along with younger students, females are more susceptible to peer influences in their course enrollment decisions. Females who have mostly all female friends are more likely to enroll in higher level, advanced classes, especially when their friends are in those classes as well (Riegle-Crumb et al., 2006, p. 217). This could be because they have a lower view of their self-concept and therefore need to seek out that support system and utilize it when it is found (Nagy et al., 2006, p. 335). However, the impact peers have on other peers becomes more prominent in getting students to enroll in classes compared to persuading students not to enroll in certain classes. According to Anderson et al. (2008, p. 1315-1316), when students did not enroll in a certain class, the students fear of what their friends would think and/or the receiving of discouraging comments from their friends had no significant impact on the students’ decision.
Parents. Parents are more likely to influence students’ decisions than guidance counselors or teachers (Malgwi et al., 2005, p. 278). Students are likely to enroll in more classes if they talk with their parents first, which implies that parents do have an affect on their child’s decisions (Tenenbaum, 2008, p. 454). Parents look forward to their children having new teachers and classes with the end result of them getting good grades (Smith et al., 2006, p. 4). Therefore, parents will encourage their students to take a variety of classes where they think they can excel. However, fathers are more likely to discourage their children from taking certain difficult classes, especially with daughters (Tenenbaum, p. 455).
Faculty. Advisors and teachers are in the schools to provide assistance and guidance to their students, yet the research indicates that they are not as influential as family or peers in a student’s choice of courses (Malgwi et al., 2005, p. 277). With that being said, teachers do have more influence over a student’s decision than guidance counselors (Malgwi et al., p. 278). Either way, teachers and guidance counselors are not likely to discourage students from enrolling in classes, but to encourage the enrollment in certain classes (Anderson et al., 2008, p. 1316).
What Should You Do?
To summarize, the factors that influence students’ course enrollment are very complex. Students need to consider both their personal views as well as the academic components of a course before they make a choice on enrollment. Also, their social network can provide some insight on classes, but the final decision does lay with the student alone.
Although the review of literature does provide a lot of insight, there are still some gaps within the research. Most of the research dealt with college classes; however, high school students also make decisions on what courses to enroll in, and they are probably more influential because they are not yet as autonomous as college students. Plus, most of the classes that were researched were required classes, often for a specific major, but students could be influenced by completely different factors when it comes to elective classes. There is a lot of research about math, science, and business classes, but none on family and consumer science classes or other predominantly elective courses.
Having the freedom of choice for which classes to enroll in provide opportunities for the students and the instructors, and if they are utilized properly they can make the classroom much more effective. In light of the research, instructors need to know what students’ needs and wants are so they can match it with the course execution, which will increase students’ retention and enjoyment of the course. The more students learn from a class and the more they enjoy it, the more likely they will encourage other students to take it and the more beneficial it will be for everyone.
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