Traditional and non-traditional college students’ descriptions of the “ideal” professor and the “ideal” course and perceived strengths and limitations

Amy Strage

Results of a series of ANOVAs performed on self-report data from a large (N = 1310), diverse sample of Undergraduate students enrolled at an urban 4-year university are presented to address what different groups of students perceive as their ideal learning environment (course, professor) and motivational profile. Younger students, and students matriculating straight from high school seemed to want college to be an extension of high school. They described as their ideal courses and instructors that were fun/funny, engaging, less challenging, and employing active instructional strategies. Older students, and students transferring from community college described instructors and courses that were, by and large, more rigorous, more serious, and more readily applicable to the “real world”. They were also more likely to hold views of themselves as learners that were consistent with a mastery orientation. No significant differences emerged between students who came from a college-going community (family, friends) and those who were the first in their families or peer groups to attend college. These findings have implications for those interested in identifying and avoiding serious mismatches between student and faculty expectations, and for those interested in helping students make the most fruitful adjustment to the college environment.


In recent years, faculty and counselors at college campuses across the nation have stepped up their efforts to better understand the needs of the students they serve, in an attempt to improve retention and graduation rates for an increasingly diverse and non-traditional student body (Hoover, 1997).

The research presented here contributes to this effort and builds on previous research by the author and her colleagues examining relationships among college students’ personal backgrounds, their attitudes and beliefs about college work, their achievement motivational profiles, and their grades (Strage, 1999; Strage 2000; Strage & Brandt, 1999; Strage et al, 2002).

By the end of the 1980’s, researchers had compiled a fairly clear picture of the formula for success for “traditional” college students, that is 18-22 year old non-minority students from middle-class backgrounds whose parents had attended college.

This formula included the adequacy of students’ academic preparation, the appropriateness of their educational expectations and career goals, the “anticipatory socialization” (Weidman, 1989) they had received from parents, peers and others prior to entering college, and their assimilation into their new milieu upon matriculation. (See, for example, Astin, 1993, Pascarella & Terenzini, 1998, or Tinto, 1993.) Recently, however, frustrated by the relatively low rates of college entrance, retention and graduation among minority and non-traditional student populations, several scholars have called into question the universality of some of these patterns (Astin, 1998; Justiz, 1994; Kraemer, 1997; Pascarella & Terenzini, 1998; Rendon, 1994; Stage, 1993; Strage, 2000; Suzuki, 1994). Still, relatively little is known and much as assumed about differences in college students’ experience and success as a function of their age, the route they travel to arrive at the university, and their general experience with college.

Two questions that have received little attention address (1) what different groups of students perceive as their ideal learning environment (course, professor), and (2) how such perceptions relate to their perceptions of their chief strengths and limitations. In order to anticipate and avoid potentially problematic mismatches between what students bring to the table and what will be required of them to succeed, university personnel must know the assumptions and expectations of the many student sub-populations on campus (Hoover, 1997).


The findings presented here are part of a larger research project which surveyed a cross-section of students enrolled in a large metropolitan university. The focus here is on the analysis of participants’ responses to Likert-style and open-ended questions asking them to describe the ideal professor and their ideal course, as well as their perceptions of their academic strengths and limitations. Such profiles should provide a more detailed description of the current college-going populations, and should also better enable faculty and counselors to work with students, to maximize their opportunities for academic success.

Participants. The sample included 1310 undergraduate students matriculating at a western urban state university. Approximately half (51.2%) had come to the university straight from high school, and approximately half (48.8%) had transferred from a community college. Approximately one-third of the participants (31.8%) were Underclassmen and two-thirds were Upperclassmen (68.2%). They had declared a total of 42 academic majors. Approximately two-thirds (66.8%) were female. Nearly all (84.1%) were carrying a full-time course load (four courses per semester). The sample reflected the heterogeneity of our campus: A little over half (58.3%) were of traditional college age (18-22). Most of the rest (28.3%) were between the ages of 23 and 39. One-third (31.4%) indicated they were the first in their family to attend college. Over half (60.2%) indicated that “most or all” of their friends from high school had continued on to college. About a quarter (23.5%) indicated that “about half’ of their high school friends had continued on to college, and the remainder (16.3%) indicated the “none or very few” had. A third (34.2%%) marked their ethnicity as White/Anglo; a little over a quarter (28.7%) marked their’s as one of several Asian categories; approximately one fifth of respondents (18%) marked theirs as one of several Hispanic categories; a little less than one tenth (7%) indicated they were African-American; a little more than one tenth (12.1%) indicated their racial-ethnic background was something else or Mixed; and 1% of respondents declined to state their racial-ethnic background. This distribution is representative of our campus student population as a whole.

Procedure. Surveys were administered in class, within a two week period during the second half of the semester. Participation was voluntary. Approximately 90-95% of students present on the day the survey was administered completed it.

Instrument. The 96-item survey used in this study was designed by the author and her colleagues to yield the sort of information that would allow us to define carefully and understand our student subpopulations, and to assess and address their needs.

* The first section consisted of 21 multiple-choice questions about respondents’ family backgrounds and general situation. These items were included to provide a profile of the students and of their everyday lives. Students were also asked to report their GPA.

* The next section consisted of 69 five-point Likert-scale items about respondents’ study activities and attitudes about school work (1 = strongly disagree, 5 = strongly agree). It included items which indexed students’ confidence about, comfort level with and responses to the academic demands of college.

* The final section of the instrument consisted of open-ended questions, inviting respondents to describe the ideal professor and the ideal course, as well as how, if at all, they might want to change, to better succeed in college. A coding scheme was developed using the principles of Grounded Theory, and respondents’ answers were categorized into major- and sub-categories for each question.


Portrait of the Ideal Professor. Overall, the most frequently cited characteristics of an “ideal” professor were that they be: knowledgeable (46.8%), caring and concerned about their students (44.2%), and funny/entertaining (40.2%). A sizable proportion of respondents also indicated that their professors should be friendly (30.7%), engaging (27.7%), enthusiastic (22.7%), organized (17.6%), helpful (14.7%), clear and comprehensible (14.0%), fair (11.0%). approachable (10.8%), accessible (9.7%),and challenging (9.6%).

Portrait of the Ideal Course. Overall, the most frequently cited characteristics of an “ideal” course were that it be (53.6%), fun (27.1%), relevant to students’ interests (22.2%), informative (18.8%), and that the instructor employ a variety of active learning instructional methods (32.7%). And while a sizeable number indicated the ideal course be challenging (25.4%), many specified that it be easy (12.8%) or that the workload be realistic (10.3%).

With respect to these portraits, however, there were significant differences among sub-groups of respondents. More specifically, age and route to college made a difference: Older students differed from younger ones, and students matriculating straight from high school differed from those transferring from community college.

Older students more frequently described their “ideal” professor as someone who was organized (F = 6.590, p = .001), and flexible (F = 5.856, p = .003). They were also more likely to describe their “ideal” course as one that was well organized (F = 4.702, p = .009). In contrast, “traditional age” students were more likely to describe the ideal professor as funny (F = 4.112, p = .017) and enthusiastic (F = 4.067, p = .017). They were more likely to describe their “ideal” course as one that was engaging (F = 5.211, p = .006) and fun (F = 11.206, p = .000), and one where the instructor employed active instructional strategies (F = 9.139, p = .000).

Similarly, students who had transferred from community college were more likely to describe their “ideal” professor as organized (F = 7.175, p = .008), and fair (F = 5.551, p = .019), and their “ideal” course as one that was applicable to the real world and relevant to their career interests (F = 4.371, P = .0370. In contrast, students who came to college straight from high school were more likely to describe their “ideal” professor as funny (F = 7.175, p = .008) and an easy grader ( F = 9.361, p = .002). They were more likely to describe their “ideal” course as (F = 7.069, p = .008), fun (F = 27.750, p = .000), easy (F = 6.144, p = .013) and one where the instructor employed active instructional strategies (F = 12.343, p = .000).

The self-perceptions and attitudes of older students, and of those transferring from community college more closely matched the profile of a “mastery oriented” student (Dweck, 1985; Dweck & Leggett, 1988) than those of their younger counterparts, and of students coming to the University straight from high school. For example, older students and community college transfer students indicated that they felt more comfortable with their instructors (F=6.389, p=.002, and F=6.649, p=.010, respectively). They were more likely to think of their instructors as resources to help them learn (F=3.555, p=.029, and F= 5.577, p=.018, respectively). They reported that they would more readily ask them questions to clarify material (F=20.048, p=.000 and F=12.568, p=.000, respectively). Not surprisingly, their confidence in their ability to succeed at college increased more that that of their younger counterparts and of students coming straight from high school (F=12.705, p=.000, and F=3.923, p=.048, respectively).

General familiarity with college mattered less: Few significant or systematic differences emerged between students who were the first in their families to attend university and those who had family members who had already attended college, in terms of their descriptions of “ideal” professors or courses or in terms of their motivational profiles. Similarly, no differences emerged between students who reported that most of their high school friends had gone on to college, and those who reported that fewer of their friends had done so.


The data presented here are based on self report data, and while the sample was reasonably large, it was not truly random, and so caution should be exercised in interpreting the findings. These caveats notwithstanding, it was clear from our analyses that students have fairly well-delineated ideas of an ideal learning context, and of their own strengths and limitations. It was also clear that there is considerable variability among students will respect to these arenas.

* The “ideal professor” would appear to be something of a cross between a stand-up comic, a serious scholar, and a readily accessible, caring mentor, although which of these aspects is most critical clearly depends on the students one considers. The “ideal course” would appear to need to be replete with rigorous up to date and relevant content for some, fun and entertaining for others, and all of these for yet others.

* Traditional-age students, and those coming directly from high school appear to prefer a college environment that is essentially an extension of high school. Older and more experienced students appear to be more concerned about securing adequate preparation for career and life after college. While profiles describe by younger students, and by students matriculating straight from high school generally replicated those reported in the literature (Epting, Zinn, Buskist & Buskist, 2004; Feldman, 1988), the profiles described by older students and by students who had taken a more circuitous route to college would appear to more closely match those descriptions that college faculty provided themselves (Feldman, 1988). Furthermore, these profiles are consistent with studies examining traditional and non-traditional age college students’ goals and motivations (Carlan, 2001).

* Differences between students who were the first in their families and those who were not were less striking than one might have expected, given the ambient concern about at-risk students. It may be that what differentiates these two groups of students is their resiliency and their support structures rather than their pictures of an ideal college environment.

* And a surprisingly large proportion of students readily acknowledge their limitations in the realm of precisely those aspects of self-regulated learning (Schunk & Zimmerman, 1989; Wolf-Wendel & Ruel, 1999) that are critical for success in college.

The questions that remain are whether and how researchers, faculty and student service professionals can most fruitfully confirm, extend and make use of this information.

Note: The author would like to acknowledge her collaborators in this study, Drs. Yoko Baba, Steven Millner, Maureen Scharberg, Edith Walker, Rhea Williamson and Marran Yoder, as well as her research assistant, Ms. Vivien Lin.


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San Jose State University

COPYRIGHT 2008 Project Innovation (Alabama)

COPYRIGHT 2008 Gale, Cengage Learning

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