Carnegie Mellon University
January 02, 2020

Major Decisions

New research finds the time of day when a student takes a class can affect the major selected later in the academic career.

By Stacy Kish

Stacy Kish
  • Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences
  • 412-268-9309

A major can have a significant impact on a student’s future. One would think that this decision would warrant thoughtful deliberation, but for many students this decision may hinge on the time of day a class is taken. New research from Carnegie Mellon University shows that fatigue during an introductory class, either from time of day (7:30 a.m.) or back-to-back classes, can deter a student from pursing that subject as a major.

haggag.jpgKareem Haggag, assistant professor at CMU’s Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences, and his colleagues examined the role of attribution bias in the selection of a college major. Attribution bias describes how temporary states can influence future decisions.

“Your college major is a really important decision that can shape happiness in college, career potential, and future earning,” said Haggag. “We’re often working on very little to make that important decision. We might get exposure to a subject through a single class, and it can be difficult to separate how much we enjoyed a subject from other kinds of fleeting influences, like whether we were just tired because of when that class happened to be scheduled.”

Haggag discusses attribution bias and the results of this study on NPR’s Hidden Brain podcast.

The research team analyzed the academic records of the more than 18,000 students who attended the United States Military Academy, which offers 38 majors within basic science, engineering, humanities and social sciences, from 2001 to 2017. In the analysis, they focused on 14 classes that map directly to a major. During freshman year, USMA students are randomly assigned to four core classes.

The researchers found that being assigned to a core class early in the morning (7:30 a.m.) reduced the likelihood that the student would choose that class’s corresponding major by about 10 percent. In addition, they found that each back-to-back class (i.e. classes with no breaks in between) decreased the likelihood that a student would select the corresponding major by about 12 percent.

Haggag was unable to verify fatigue for each student; however, the random mix of students for the afternoon classes provides stronger support for the fatigue argument.

While these results are fascinating, more work is necessary to know whether the findings would be similar at other academic institutions.

Ana Maria Ulloa-Shields, assistant dean and director of Dietrich College’s Academic Advisory Center, said students have a lot to learn about being a college student as they move from a very structured environment in high school to one of choice. She finds more and more Dietrich students are waiting to declare a college major until their sophomore year.

“Students are often afraid of making a wrong decision,” Ulloa-Shields said. “They want to wait and take a few classes to ensure they will be successful in a major.”

While performance in a course can color a student’s perspective, Ulloa-Shields cautions it is only one of several data points. She stresses that one negative performance does not dictate future success in a major.

“Wellness is important,” Ulloa-Shields said.  “In the Academic Advisory Center, we are here to help students design their schedule in a way that allows them to see opportunities for breaks and meals to ensure they are engaged, alert and will do their best.”

Haggag was joined on this study by Nolan Pope at the University of Maryland and Richard Patterson and Aaron Feudo at the United States Military Academy.