College students’ interest in their major
The goal of the present study was to assess college students’ interest in their major and to determine whether interest played a role in why they selected that major. The sample included 144 education majors and 151 business majors at a small liberal arts college. Students were asked about their general interest in their major and also their interest for learning education and business vocabulary words. All measures demonstrated converging evidence that students had interest in their own major and that they were interested in learning their own majors’ vocabulary. Even first year students who had declared their majors reported greater interest and favored learning words from their own majors over another major. Students in both areas rated interest as one of the top three reasons they selected their major.
Anyone who has taught college students has fielded the “is this on the exam?” question. Often faculty wonder: Are college students really interested in their major? One could argue that declaring a college major may not necessarily reflect a college student’s interest in the area. Perhaps students choose college majors for other reasons (e.g., money) rather than interest in the subject area. Moreover, many colleges force students to declare a major earlier in their academic career than some students would prefer to do so. The present study examined the level of interest students who were majoring in education, business, economics, and accounting had in their college majors, and whether that interest varied as a function of their year in school.
Whether or not students are interested in their major is not a moot point because interest plays an important role in the acquisition of knowledge. Bergin (1999) claims there is “a reciprocal relation between knowledge of a domain and interest in the domain” (p. 92) and explains that interest may drive knowledge acquisition which then continues to fuel interest. Hidi and Anderson (1992) suggest that individuals who have more interest in an area probably pay more attention to information that is to be learned.
There are different types of interest, some of which may be more important for knowledge acquisition. For example, Hidi (1990) differentiated personal, individual interest from situational interest. Whereas personal, individual interest takes a longer time to develop and affects a person’s knowledge and values over time, situational interest appears more suddenly and as a result of something in the environment. Situational interest is thought to have only short-term impact, whereas personal interest is believed to fuel one’s pursuit of knowledge toward the development of expertise. The present study involved students’ personal interest rather than situational interest.
Alexander (1997) proposed a Model of Domain Learning (MDL) to explain the nature of academic learning. The MDL suggests that there are three stages of learning during which the interrelations of knowledge, memory, and interest change. According to Alexander, Kulikowich, and Schulze (1994) as the individual progresses through the three stages of knowledge (i.e., the acclimation period, the competency stage, and the expert stage), interest becomes less situational, and domain knowledge becomes more highly structured and cohesive. Alexander (1997) claimed that situational interest was the primary motivator during the acclimation stage, but that with increasing expertise situational interest becomes less important and personal interest takes on a greater role.
This model would suggest that there would be a significant difference between students’ stated level of interest in their major depending on whether students were in the initial stages of course preparation for their major, or they were in the later stages. As they pursue their major, students complete a number of courses, so that by their senior year they would have progressed to the expert stage of knowledge. Alexander’s model would indicate that seniors should have higher levels of personal interest in their majors. However, Alexander’s model may be less applicable in the college setting where students are compelled to declare a major. Specifically, at the small, liberal arts college where the present study was conducted, students are not required to declare their major until the end of their sophomore year. Thus, if a student declares his/her major before being required to do so, this may be an indication of that students’ personal, individual interest in that area. Thus, these freshmen and sophomores may not have lower levels of personal interest in their majors than do the juniors and seniors.
A survey of interest in majors offered at a small liberal arts college helped to establish the level of interest students had in an education or business major and whether interest in their stated major was significantly higher than their interest in the other major. There were three types of questions about students’ interest that were the focus of the present study. One question directly asked students to rate their level of interest in their major. A second question asked students how interested they would be in learning a list of words from their major. This second question was included to further clarify the potential effect of interest on classroom performance. A third type of question asked students to rate how important each of a list of reasons (including interest) was in their decision to major to education/business.
Surveys were sent to professors who taught every education, business, economics, and accounting class at small, liberal arts college at the beginning of the spring semester. All but one professor in the education department and two professors and one adjunct professor in the business, economics, or accounting department distributed and returned the surveys. Business, economics and accounting were housed within the same department at the college, and all of these majors had the same initial required classes. Based upon enrollments in all classes obtained from the college registrar, it was estimated that 80% of the students taking education classes and 60% of the students taking business, economics, or accounting classes returned the surveys. Thus, the completion rates were quite high.
Students self-reported their majors. Because students could be taking more than one class in education or business, they were asked to place their names on the surveys. They were assured confidentiality, were told the reason their names were needed, and were promised their names would later be cut off the surveys before they were tallied. They also learned that a drawing would be conducted with the names, and one student would win $10.00. If students completed more than one survey, only one of their response forms was selected randomly for inclusion.
A total of 465 students’ surveys were collected for the study. Only the 155 students who claimed to be business, economics, or accounting majors (referred to as “business majors,” hereafter) and the 150 students who claimed to be education majors were included for data analysis. Nine of these students were excluded from the analyses: 2 transfer students, 1 exchange student, and 6 post-Baccalaureate students. Thus, 296 students (approximately 25% of the student population of the entire college) comprised the final sample. Of these students, 44 were freshmen, 86 were sophomores, 86 were juniors, and 80 were seniors.
Every college instructor teaching classes in education, business, economics, or accounting received a packet of surveys for each class they taught. Packets contained instructions with an explanation of how important it was to administer the survey during their first class session of the semester. Figures from the Registrar of class size (plus three extra) determined the number of surveys placed in each packet.
A one page (front and back) survey included demographics questions and questions about students’ interest in the two majors, reasons students chose their major, how interested they would be in learning lists of words from education or business, and which college courses they had completed in education, business, economics, and accounting. Specifically, students were asked “What is your current level of interest in the major you stated above?” Response alternatives were (a) a lot of interest in my major, (b) some interest in my major, (c) little interest in my major, and (d) I am not interested in my major.
Participants were also asked about their interest in learning material in the education and business fields. Specifically, each question stated, “Suppose I gave you a list of education (business) words to study. How interested would you be in learning these words?” Students chose from (a) very interested, (b) somewhat interested and (c) not interested. Finally, the students were provided a list of possible reasons for choosing a particular major (see Table 3). Students rated how important each reason was in their selection of that major. Response alternatives were: (1) definitely not important, (2) probably not important, (3) neither important nor unimportant, (4) probably important, and (5) definitely important.
The first noteworthy finding was that no student checked “I am not interested in my major.” Only one sophomore in business checked “I have little interest in my major,” which was coded “2.” Nearly all (86.7%) of the education majors and nearly three fourths (74.7%) of the business majors indicated that they had a lot of interest in their major. The remaining education (13.3%) and business (24.7%) majors responded that they had some interest in their major.
A 2 (major: Education or Business) X 4 (year in college) ANOVA was performed on the students’ self-reported level of interest. This analysis revealed no significant main effect of major or year, but there was a significant interaction between major and year, F (3,287) = 4.13, p < .01. Follow-up AVOVAs were computed within each major and within each year of college and are displayed in Table 1. First year education majors rated their interest in the major significantly lower than education majors who had more college years (Bonferroni statistic p <05), but there were no significant differences by year for business majors. Thus, for the education majors there was some evidence that personal interest increases with stage of knowledge.
Next, we examined how interested students were in learning a list of education and business words. A 2 (major) X 4 (year in school) X 2 (list of words: education or business) ANOVA, with repeated measures on list, was computed on students’ reported interest in learning education or business words. The significant main effect of major, F (1,287) = 6.51, p < .05, revealed that business majors reported more interest in learning words overall than education majors did. The main effect of year in school was nonsignificant. The interaction between major and list was significant, F (1,287) = 490.85, p <.0001. As expected, education majors were more interested in learning education words, and business majors were more interested in learning business words. Table 2 displays students' reported interest in learning education versus business words by major and year. Follow-up ANOVAs were computed within each major and year, and the results also are displayed there. Students preferred learning words within their own major. In fact, within every year of college, students' interest for learning words from their own major significantly exceeded their reported interest in learning words from the other college major (all ps < .001). Thus, students differentiated interest in majors and learning within the major from their first year.
Finally, we examined students’ ratings of the importance of interest in the subject area for their selection of their major. The mean importance rating for interest was in the top three for both education (M = 4.71) and Business (M = 4.41) majors. The other reasons in the top three were: for education majors, to help others and because of liking children, and, for business majors, wanting a career in the area and because they enjoyed learning in that area.
A follow-up 4 (year) X 2 (major) ANOVA was computed on students’ rating of how important interest in the area was as a reason for their selection of their major. It is interesting to note that there were no significant differences for students by year in college. First year students (M = 4.75, SD = .49) rated interest in the area as just as important to them in selecting their major as did sophomores (M = 4.49, SD = .70) , juniors (M = 4.58, SD = .58) , and seniors (M = 4.50, SD =.76). There was a significant main effect of major, F (1,288) = 11.25, p =.001, with education majors rating interest in the area as more important in the selection of their major than business majors did.
We began with the question: Are college students really interested in their major? The results of the present study suggest that the answer is “yes.” Not a single student indicated that he or she was totally disinterested in his major. Moreover, the most common response was the strongest alternative (i.e., “a lot of interest”). The mean responses for questions regarding interest in learning material in the chosen field were a little lower, but still quite high (ranging from 2.23 to 2.7 out of a possible 3). Moreover, students showed a consistent preference for learning vocabulary words in their major. Finally, when students rated possible reasons for selecting their major, both education and business majors included interest in the area as one of their top three ratings. Again, this suggests that personal interest is strong for a college student’s major.
The second question of interest was whether there are significant differences in self-reported interest as a function of year in college. Overall, the data were not supportive of a change in interest with increasing expertise. The questions regarding interest in learning business and education vocabulary did not show any relation to year in college. Moreover, at every year, students reported a marked preference for learning vocabulary in their major over learning vocabulary in the other field. The only exception to this pattern was for the general interest question on which we found that first year education majors did report a lower level of interest in their major than did sophomore, junior and senior education majors. However, a similar pattern did not emerge for the business majors. Finally, regardless of year in college, students consistently rated interest as an important reason for selecting their major.
These findings suggest that first year students who are taking courses in their major are likely to have greater personal interest in those courses than in required “core” courses outside of the major. We would expect this to result in students giving their major area of study more attention and effort. In contrast, students will require more situational interest to become successful in courses outside of their major. The implication is that the professors who teach these classes need to engage students’ attention and interest through what they do in the class or by providing materials that will capture their interest rather than assuming that students are self-motivated to learn.
Thus, the results of the present study demonstrate students’ interest in their college majors, even among first year students. It should be noted, however, that these results are generalizable only to a specific type of college environment. The study was conducted at a small liberal arts college where students were not required to declare a major until the end of their sophomore year. Consequently, students who had declared a major before that time might be unusual in not only their interest for the subject area but also in their maturity and their commitment to their education. Future longitudinal research is needed to assess potential changes in college students’ interest across the college years.
Mean (and Standard Deviation) Interest in Their Majors Reported by
Students Majoring in Education or Business by Year
Major in College
Year in College (n = 144) (n = 151) F p
Freshmen 3.62 (.50) A 3.83 (.38) C 2.45 NS
Sophomores 3.88 (.33) B 3.68 (.52) C 4.49 <.05
Juniors 3.90 (.30) B 3.82 (.39) C 1.05 NS
Seniors 3.97 (.17) B 3.68 (47) C 12.38 <.001
All Years Combined 3.86 (.35) 3.80 (.41) 3.25 NS
Note. Interest was reported using the following scale: 4 = “I have a
lot of interest in my major,” 3 = “I have some interest in my major,”
2 = “I have little interest in my major,” and I = “I am not interested
in my major.” No students checked “1” and no education majors and only
one business sophomore major checked “2.” The rest checked 3 or 4.
Means with the same letter within a column were not significantly
different from one another. All reported differences were p<.01.
(a) The results of analyses comparing education and business majors’
Reported interest in their major within each year.
(b) NS = non significant.
Mean (and Standard Deviation) Interest in Learning Vocabulary Reported
by Education or Business Majors by Year in College
Major/Year in School n Words Words F (a)
First Year 26 2.23 (.59) 1.62 (.64) 17.39
Sophomores 42 2.60 (.54) 1.36 (.62) 843.13
Juniors 40 2.50 (.55) 1.50 (.51) 111.43
Seniors 36 2.56 (.56) 1.58 (.60) 132.74
All Education Majors 144 2.49 (57) 1.50 (.59) 319.29
First Year 18 1.72 (.57) 2.67 (.49) 21.09
Sophomores 44 1.77 (.60) 2.70 (.46) 72.07
Juniors 45 1.58 (.58) 2.49 (.59) 83.67
Seniors 44 1.68 (.56) 2.45 (59) 63.73
All Business Majors 151 1.68 (58) 2.56 (55) 236.59
Note. Students were told to suppose that they were given a list of
education (or business) words to study. They were asked to indicate how
interested they would be in learning those words. They indicated
whether they were: 3 = “very interested,” 2 = “some interest,” and 1
= “not interested.” All ps < .001.
The Fs for the rows labeled “Education Majors” and “Business
Majors” compared students’ interest for learning a list of Education
words versus a list of Business words only for students within that
major. The Fs for the other rows did the same comparison within each
major and year in college. There were no significant differences
within either major between students having different years in college
for interest in learning words from education or business.
Mean Ratings Given for Selecting a Major by Education and
Major in College
Reason Education Business F (a) p (b)
Interested in the area 4.71 4.41 18.08 .000
Wanted a career in area 4.52 4.60 1.01 NS
Success in the classes 4.13 3.82 8.75 .003
One of my parents 3.02 2.59 8.90 .003
A lot of prestige 3.24 3.43 1.96 NS
High Salary 2.32 3.86 178.96 .000
To help others 4.78 3.22 272.40 .000
Interested in the classes 4.21 3.96 6.67 .010
Liked children 4.78 2.12 6122.69 .000
Known people 4.30 3.81 19.16 .000
Find a job easily 3.43 4.01 29.77 .000
Enjoyed learning 4.31 4.14 3.55 NS
Liked the professors 3.71 3.70 .038 NS
Liked the vacation time 3.50 2.90 21.98 .000
Note. Ratings were reported as follows: : 1 = definitely not important,
2 = probably not important, 3 = neither important nor unimportant,
4 = probably important, and 5 = definitely important.
(a) The results of analyses comparing education and business majors’
Ratings of reasons for majoring in their major at the college.
(b) NS = non significant
Alexander, P.A. (1997). Mapping the multidimensional nature of domain learning: The interplay of cognitive, motivational, and strategic forces. In M.L. Maehr & P.R. Pintrich (Eds.), Advances in motivation and achievement (Vol. 10, pp. 213-250). Greenwich, CT: JAI Press.
Alexander, P.A., Kulikowich, J.M., & Schulze, S.K. (1994). How subject-matter knowledge affects recall and interest. American Educational Research Journal, 31(2), 313-337.
Bergin, D.A. (1999). Influences on classroom interest. Educational Psychologist, 34(2), 8798.
Hidi, S. (1990). Interest and its contribution as a mental resource for learning. Review of Educational Research, 60(4), 549-571.
Hidi, S., & Anderson, V. (1992). Situational interest and its impact on reading and expository writing. In K.A. Renninger, S. Hidi, & A. Krapp (Eds.), The role of interest in learning and development (pp. 151-182), Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
DARLENE DEMARIE University of South Florida
PATRICIA A. ALOISE-YOUNG Colorado State University
Note. The data for this study were collected when Darlene DeMarie-Dreblow was an Associate Professor at Muskingum College. The authors thank the faculty from the education and business, economics, and accounting departments for their tremendous cooperation in making this research possible.
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