Does a double major learn more?

One of the arguments raised repeatedly throughout the calendar discussion was the importance we place on multiple majors.  While there were numerous rationales in support of double majors, one of them was that increased access to gaining a double major reflects our commitment to a fundamental principle of liberal arts education and the emphasis we place on becoming more well-rounded intellectually, culturally, and personally.

 

Although this argument sounds wonderful, I heard less data to support the core claim that a double major was somehow preferable to a single major or a major and a minor.  This might well be so in terms of employability and flexibility in an uncertain job market.  But do students who double major make larger gains on the educational outcomes of a liberal arts education than those who do not double major?  Does earning a double major somehow produce greater broad-based learning gains?

 

I examined the Wabash National Study data from the 2006 cohort.  Furthermore, I restricted my analysis to students at the eleven small liberal arts colleges in that cohort. I didn’t investigate whether certain combinations of majors were more advantageous than others primarily because I didn’t hear anyone seriously advocate for one combination over another, although there seems to be a second claim floating around that truly interdisciplinary double majors are somehow better than intra-disciplinary double majors – an assertion we can test if this first analysis holds much water.

 

The table below shows nine educational and developmental outcomes of a liberal arts education and whether being a double major correlates with a larger gain between the first year and the fourth year.

 

Double Major Status Had No Impact

Double Major Status Had An Impact

Critical Thinking

Intellectual Curiosity

Moral Reasoning

Intercultural Maturity

Attitude toward Literacy

Civic Engagement

Academic Motivation

Leadership

Psychological Well Being

Based on these findings, it initially appears that double majoring provides some educational benefit, impacting two of the nine outcomes.  However, the size of the effect on intellectual curiosity and intercultural maturity is actually quite small.  Furthermore, in the two cases where an initial significant finding appears, the impact of being a double major vanishes once I introduce student experience such as diverse interaction (in the test of intercultural maturity) and integrative learning experiences (in the test of intellectual curiosity) into the equations.

 

Based on this evidence, it’s hard to make the case that double majoring – by itself – is necessarily significantly beneficial in the context of learning outcomes.  Again, this doesn’t mean that it couldn’t be beneficial in the very important context of job acquisition.  But it appears that this cow’s sacred status may require a bit more scrutiny before we summarily celebrate our embrace of the double major.

 

Make it a good day!

 

Mark

2 thoughts on “Does a double major learn more?

  1. Thank you for the article; it’s an interesting topic and analysis. Do you think double-majors tend to be more intellectually curious and interculturally mature to begin with? That is, do those students who become double-majors already tend to “score higher” in those characteristics?

    • Those are good questions. I suspect that students who double major differ in a number of ways, although the way that one comes to be a double major can also differ depending upon the particular combination of majors and the institution’s curricular requirements. It seem to me that being a double major is a widely agreed upon marker of something good – I wonder to what degree that belief is a mythology and to what degree it might be backed up with evidence.

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